Recently I’ve decided to go on an old horror movie marathon. The first on this list was none other than the classic Night Of The Living Dead. The very movie that gave us the fantastic movie monster the zombie. I must say this film was not what I expected- well at least not entirely. The way zombies were portrayed was quite different than walking dead, moaning ‘brains’ I had come to expect from older zombie movies.
No these beings actually felt like the walking dead. Bodies all at different stages of decomposition, walking around looking for flesh. Not brains, no, these zombies never say anything at all let alone ‘brains’ and they’re never stated to eat them either. Instead they are stated to be cannibals. They don’t discriminate on their meat, they just eat. This also wasn’t something that suddenly happened for no reason, and it was not a virus. Instead it was radiation from space that apparently caused the dead to rise.
This movie hits every horror trope (both in good and bad ways) and then some. Which is to be expected in a film from the 60s. However I won’t lie, I did find myself incredibly frustrated at points over how useless the women were in this movie. I understand it was the 60s but really? Barbara the woman the film opens with is useful in the very beginning and that’s it. She spends the rest of the film comatose from fear and grief on the couch, then dragged away by the zombies. Killed both by the person she loved most, and the things she feared most. Which I can’t lie, despite my frustration with her characterization I think that was a wonderfully poetic and tragic moment.
The other women at least get to speak a bit more, but do little more than fuss. Aside from perhaps Karen Cooper who though acts much as a dutiful mother, at least has moments of genuine pushback. I was thrilled to learn the woman who played her not only had a massive role in the development of the movie, from doing hair and makeup, to playing some of the undead herself. She also was one of the heads of the production company that funded this movie. Which may have something to do with why her character felt the most realistic of the women.
But I digress, I am here to discuss the plot, not the behind the scenes magic.
I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the musical scoring of this film. It had moments where it was a bit loud, but I think it added to the anticipation horror thrives on. The anticipation of something horrible about to appear at any moment. There is also quite a bit more music than script, which I think serves horror well. Many movies for modern audiences are worried about filling every moment with script. The characters must constantly speak to keep the viewer intrigued. But in allowing the music to be the only sound at times, this allows the audiences imagination to do much of the work already. After all, our greatest asset, but also our greatest enemy can be our minds.
This was something horror writers like Lovecraft understood well. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this film is Lovecraftian by any means. Simply that modern horror could use a page or two from these books. Spelling out a danger or a fear ultimately often is like explaining a joke. Explain it enough and it is no longer scary. Allowing anticipation of something to build up can sometimes be all you need.
Stepping away from the music I’d also like to acknowledge how real this movie felt. The main character (I hesitate to call anyone in this film truly a protagonist or hero) Ben, shows real resourcefulness in this film. He finds any and everything he can to board up weak points. Even going so far as to take doors off other rooms to board up doors and windows. Taking apart furniture, tables, chairs, all to fortify this house. I personally loved this. It’s not uncommon to see a film like this have random lumber for them to grab to board up these weak points. Which simply isn’t realistic. They have to work and fight for every inch of their survival.
Unfortunately the realism of this movie also lends itself to being incredibly annoying at points as people do as people do best, and react poorly in moments of panic. There are several points throughout the movie where if someone had simply been more careful, or paid more attention, or LISTENED they could have survived. The easiest being if they had all gone to the cellar in the beginning as suggested by Harry Cooper. He ultimately turned out to be right. The cellar was the best place to be.
Or if they hadn’t set the car on fire, if Judy hadn’t run out to join her boyfriend. This could have prevented a lot of the calamity we see later. But perhaps the saddest and most frustrating being when Ben leaves the cellar when all is said and done, and is immediately shot by the very people trying to protect the rest of humanity from the zombies, as they assume he is one.
I have seen some claim Ben’s death is meant to be a commentary on racial profiling, and though I can see the comparison easily, I do not feel qualified to speak on the matter, especially since I can find no evidence of the director Romero having this intention. Regardless I do believe this to be a perfectly valid and obvious interpretation.
Regardless of the intent of this movie, it certainly is a fascinating ride from start to finish. I don’t know if I could say it’s a good time, unless you want to spend it laughing at the strange sound effects over screams, or the poorly shot and choreographed fight scenes that are so prevalent in the 60s. Or perhaps you would just like to see the ingenuity of man as they desperately try to find any way to survive.
I do believe Night Of The Living Dead to be a must see for any cinephile with a love for horror though. As you can easily trace many horror trope births in this movie. It’s undeniable this film had and still has a massive impact on horror media today.
This is Rev, signing off, and telling you be careful. They’re coming to get you Barbara.