Night of the Living Dead (1968) Review
Written by: LoudLon
As I sat trying to come up with a fresh and original way to lay out this film's plot, it occurred to me that anyone reading it is already more than familiar with what happens to who and why, and I'd simply be retreading something which has already been written hundreds, if not thousands, of times before.
So instead, I'm approaching this review from the perspective of a history lesson. So without further delay, ever forward...
Nineteen sixty eight. George Romero, a successful commercial and documentary filmmaker, thought it would be a hoot to make a feature film.
A fan of the graphic EC comics of the fifties, he opted to make a horror film. Not a bad idea; after all, horror films almost always turn a profit -- even the bad ones -- and Romero was hoping perhaps he'd make enough from the film to pay back his investors.
With a budget of only around $115,000, he knew he couldn't afford extravagant sets, elaborate costumes, expensive make-up effects or name actors. So he came up with a simple concept: Seven strangers. A farmhouse. A horde of the undead. He'd bring in his friends to act and help behind the scenes and he'd shoot it in his hometown of Pittsburg, PA. He had no delusions of grandeur, and no aspirations other than to make a movie which might scare 'em a little and maybe make a few bucks playing the midnight circuit.
What he created, however, was the single most influential horror film of all time; a stirring, suspenseful, taboo-breaking allegory of one of the most turbulent decades in the modern history of the United States. A film which dragged the genre film from the grand, gothic castles and lush European country side it was typically set in and dropped it straight into our very American back yards. The monsters weren't pompous vampires or cursed lycanthropes or living jigsaws melded together by mad scientists with God complexes -- they were US, at our most base, our most primal, our most debauched, our most morbidly instinctive.
What's most interesting about the film, however, is that it's not about the monsters. Romero makes only a half-effort to explain their existence. Rather, it's about the seven individuals barricaded within that quaint farmhouse. Seven individuals, seven personalities, seven opposing reactions to the same outer threat which collide with one another, blinding each to rational thought and instead shifting their focus onto such trivialities as who is right and who is wrong. Who should be in charge and who shouldn't. Whose plan is smarter than the other's. They even argue over who the television keeping them updated on the zombie epidemic belongs to, at no point taking into consideration the house they've taken shelter in doesn't even belong to them.
Simply put, the zombies aren't the trespassers, THEY are. Tthe zombies aren't the bad guys, THEY are. And it's not the zombies who kill them, it's their own egos, their unwillingness to simply get along, put their heads together and do what's best for the whole, rather than its parts.
Romero has stated in numerous interviews the social commentary was, at most, only moderately intended. I find this difficult to believe, considering the film comments on so much of what was going on in American culture at the time. Being the first genre film to cast a black man as the lead during the height of racial and civil unrest? The haggard undead shuffling through the Pennsylvania countryside resembling combat-worn soldiers trudging through the jungles of Viet Nam? A hero assassinated by a fascist force echoing the assassination of the most beloved president in the history of our country? The allegories and imagery are far too powerful, the absurdity and humor of the situation far too subversive, the denouement far too bleak and representative of a nation stirred to unthinking, deadly action to have been anything but planned to the last detail.
Of course, it could just be that Romero is being modest, but that's neither here nor there. Intended or not, it's the films powerful effectiveness as horrific allegory that garnered it and Romero their reputations and told horror filmmakers it's okay to go deep.
Night of the Living Dead tells us that sometimes, the monster isn't the suave, undead Count sinking his fangs into your throat. Or a man who turns into a hairy, clawed beastie. Or a puzzle man created by a scientist with a runaway case of hubris. Sometimes, the monster is US.
And that ain't far from the truth.