I admit that I was not looking forward to rewatching The Night of the Living Dead. I last saw this movie a number of years ago, and can recall being glad that I wouldn’t have to watch it again. So I came prepared, opening my iPhone to Pokemon Go and preparing for ninety-five minutes of zombies and culling unwanted Pokemon.
The Pokemon cull did not go as planned. To make a long story short, I really enjoyed this movie. Yes, I know what I said about zombies in my review of World War Z, but The Night of the Living Dead subverts expectations. When I started watching, this movie’s look and music lulled me into thinking it might be just another B-horror film. It isn’t.
The plot: Barbara and her brother Johnny drive to their father’s grave. Contrary to expectations, neither of them is the protagonist. Johnny dies in the first ten minutes, slain by a zombie. The fact that these zombies don’t eat brains is another interesting twist; they are cannibals in the traditional sense, feasting on the flesh of the living.
Barbara ends up in a seemingly abandoned house, where we meet the movie’s hero. Ben boards up the doors and windows as more zombies arrive. We learn that the newly dead are reanimating. A space shuttle to Venus and high levels of radiation – both staples of 1950’s science fiction – are mentioned as possible causes. It’s another trick. The authorities have no clue why the dead are rising, and the movie never tells us.
Ben and Barbara eventually meet the people hiding in the house’s basement. Tom and Judy are a nice young couple. Harry Cooper isn’t so nice. He has a wife, who doesn’t seem to like him much, and a sick child. More zombies arrive. Instead of working together the survivors bicker, another subversion of expectations and a reminder of the unofficial motto of The Walking Dead (see image above).
Our heroes try to escape. If this was a conventional horror movie, they might succeed. Instead they fail miserably. The remaining survivors are more interested in killing each other than the zombies. The violence is graphic; our heroes die horribly. Harry’s child reanimates and kills her mother. A few of the zombies are naked, and we see them feasting on viscera and intestines. Ben hides in the basement. When the rescue team arrives in the morning they mistakenly shoot him in the head, which is the movie’s final twist. The end.
The Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking movie. Duane Jones, the man who plays Ben, was the first African American actor to be cast as the lead in a mainstream American horror movie (according to IMDB). The ‘rescue’ party at the end comes complete with barking dogs, and would be a familiar sight to television news watchers of the 1960’s; all that’s missing are the fire hoses.
This movie is also an interesting case study on how people react under stress. The answer is, not too well. Barbara goes into shock, which is realistic. Harry Cooper is scared shitless, which makes him do stupid things. It doesn’t matter, because the people who keep their heads die also.
I liked The Night of the Living Dead a lot more than I expected. The acting is good, the screenplay is tight and there’s plenty of action. The film’s visceral subject matter was shocking for the 1960’s, and a few of the scenes still pack a punch today. Overall, this movie deserves every bit of praise it gets as a horror classic.