December 29, 2011

Night of the Living Dead

When I was a kid, I became obsessed with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and its sequels. While other kids were watching Star Wars, I was watching zombie movies with relish. I'm not sure what attracted me to the horror genre, and to zombies in particular, except for the normal morbid curiosities we all possess, especially as children. 

Night of the Living Dead is a genuinely creepy movie, shot in black-in-white, about a sudden epidemic in which the dead start coming back to life. A handful of people trapped inside an abandoned farmhouse attempt to stave off an increasing army of the walking dead, but internal conflicts (which seem more than a bit arbitrary) prevent them from cooperating with each other.

George Romero, a child of the 50s, may have been taking his cues from some of those cheesy (but worthwhile) alien-invasion chillers like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing From Another World. Romero and his team of filmmaking friends make clever use of news broadcasts (both radio and television), which provide a level of production value otherwise unavailable to this movie. You feel the apocalyptic urgency of the zombie crisis even though the setting is focused at the microscopic level.

Using those mostly non-threatening B monster flicks to lure us into a false sense of security, Night of the Living Dead turns the whole things-will-be-resolved-at-the-end promise on its head, and because of its gritty realism, it became the quintessential modern horror film, despite its shoestring budget and its flaws. It has the quality of a vividly remembered nightmare come to life: The ghouls surrounding the house, lurking in the shadows, are indeed the stuff of our most terrifying dreams. And the hammy acting and contrived conflicts between the living characters somehow elevate the material into another realm of B movie horror. 

With Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Keith Wayne, and Marilyn Eastman. 96 min.

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