Friday, November 18, 2011

Yeah, they're dead...they're all messed up...

Night of the Living Dead  (Image Ten, 1968)

Before the Camera:

Duane Jones ... Ben
Judith O'Dea ... Barbara
Karl Hardman ... Harry
Marilyn Eastman ... Helen
Keith Wayne ... Tom
Judith Ridley ... Judy
Kyra Schon ... Karen Cooper
William Hinzman ... Cemetery Zombie
George Kosana ... Sheriff McClelland
Bill 'Chilly Billy' Cardille
as the Field Reporter

Behind the Camera:

Directed by George Romero

Produced by Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner

Written by John Russo and George Romero

Of course, there had been movie zombies before George Romero and company produced their low budget shocker in 1968. But the previous movie zombies had been closer to cinematic representations of “textbook” zombies – slow moving, sluggish slave labor sometimes used as humanoid weapons against the living. They also usually come off as though they could be living people deep under the influence of weird drugs even though movies like White Zombie and I Eat Your Skin were showing them to be reanimated corpses. But then along comes the crew at Image Ten and they bring us the first of what would turn out to be an extremely popular and durable paragon of filmic fear – the so-called Romero zombie - still a slow moving and somewhat sluggish thing, but now a full-on monster out for one thing and one thing only: a constant search for living people to kill and eat. Singly they are weak and completely defeatable, but their strength lies in their numbers, and as you’re fending off one or two, that becomes three, then seven, then nine, and finally….AIEEEE!
    The movie begins with brother and sister Johnny and Barbara delivering a wreath to their father’s grave one Sunday evening 200 miles from home. Johnny seems to be a bit of an asshat with his nonstop litany of complaints and his leather driving gloves. Barbara dutifully multitasks, putting the wreath on the grave while putting up with Johnny; until her brother remembers her childhood fear of the cemetery where their father is interred.

Putting on a creepy voice, Johnny discovers she’s still scared as he claims “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” As she hightails it back towards the car – Johnny points out a lone fellow shambling rather strangely across the graveyard a short distance away. “Look! There comes one of them now!” Johnny exclaims. Only – it turns out he’s right, and the guy is out to get Barbara! And Johnny!

    Soon, a handful of survivors barricade themselves in an abandoned farmhouse nearby. While the people inside argue over what course of action to take – should they move down to the basement with its single, easily defended door; stay upstairs and keep watch in case some kind of help comes by outside; or try to get to a working car and flee - outside, more and more of the zombies gather, surrounding the place by the dozens. Who will survive, and what will be left of them?

Interestingly, by the way, the movie totally avoids the word zombie. The few times they are referred to in dialogue, “thing” or “ghoul” is usually the appellation of choice. This was a scarepic that managed to avoid me for about 18 years – it never played on any of my local Creature Feature shows, and even after home video had premiered, it wasn’t released for a long while – more on that in a minute. I finally managed to see it for the first time at my senior prom, of all places (!), as it was the movie shown between our dance and the breakfast that served as the prom’s finale. So, although it took a while, at least my first viewing was projected on a screen! I thoroughly enjoyed the movie that night, and some choice audience comments made the movie all the more fun. When the big “eating setpiece” popped up and had been running on for a few minutes, my old pal Tracey called out “Man, they’re running that eating s—t into the ground!” A few other such exclamations kept me chuckling when I wasn’t creeped out that night.

    Not long after that viewing, someone decided the movie was in the public domain, and it started to pop up on cheap VHS editions all over the place. I had a pretty good one, a little washed out and murky but in relatively good shape. When VHS gave way to DVD of course the movie started to pop up on cheapo discs as well. I had a spare copy on DVD given to me, but I don’t think I ever even watched it. Finally the film started to appear in special editions as the various factions that had split off from the original Image Ten group tried another attempt to make some money off the movie, since the original distributor ripped them off and they made nothing from all those public domain releases. I now have the movie on four separate DVD sets – two special editions with different commentaries and making of documentaries and two different discs hosted by Elvira! The two with the Mistress of the Dark look okay, but the most recent special edition is a revelation – a completely remastered picture that looks like the movie was made yesterday. I don’t normally make much of a fuss over the disc presentation – but this is startling after seeing the movie in all those grimy VHS dubs from 16mm prints for all those years.

    Watching it now – 43 years after it was made, and 25+ since I first saw it - the movie holds up completely. It is quite simply a classic. Though the scads of movies inspired by it may have gone bigger with the kills and the gore, and sometimes feature more polished performances – this is another Gold Standard horror movie. It is stark and grim, and comes down to a powerful ending that is chilling in its matter of fact horror. There are almost no attempts at humor - though a sheriff describing the ghouls by saying the title of this post usually provokes a laugh. Romero and all of his colleagues knock this one out of the park. It is a trim and lean movie too - no long boring parts, or "waiting to get to the good parts." It starts off quickly and hums along with no dead spots right through the last frame. If you’ve watched dozens (hundreds?) of zombie movies inspired by it; if you’ve watched all the sequels and split off sequels; if you’ve made your own zombie movie or dressed as a Romero zombie for Halloween; but somehow you’ve never watched this one – you owe it to yourself. See it.

Let's Get Out of Here ?
At around 1:11:55, Keith Wayne notices the truck is on fire.

Eye Candy ?

Judith Ridley! Welcome to the list!


Buddha Man's Capsule Review

Buddha Man says "Night of the Living Dead is one Movie
Classic that still completely deserves that title!"

Absolutely spot on, my golden headed friend. And until next time, you Can Poke Me With A Fork, Cause I Am Outta Here!


  1. I love this movie. It is and always will be a favorite of mine. I first saw it in 1989 when Video King got one of those VHS copies. Then it aired on Son of Svengoolie, a local creature feature. For a while we watched this every single year at the ol' Fright Fest. We even acted out some scenes. I played Barbara in the cemetery, my friend Rick played Johnny and Mike was the ghoul.

  2. Count DeV - Yeah, it was a night to remember. Then I wrecked the car. *sigh*

    MB - I'm always glad to find another fan of this flick - I love the idea of you guys acting it out - I don't suppose any of those performances were ever caught on video?