The zombie movie that started them all, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) sparked countless sequels, remakes and parodies all presenting the various iterations of a ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. (Pardon the shouty capitals – it felt appropriate). These various spinoffs have ranged from great (28 Days Later) to hilarious (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland) to downright abysmal (the intriguingly titled Zombie Strippers). With the dead-people-eating-actual-people genre being milked for all it’s worth, it would be easy to write off Romero’s classic as just another gore-fest. Yet this film was not only ground-breaking in commercialising zombies, but offered a bleak critique of the social and political landscape of America in the sixties.
The film opens with a car making its lonely way across a winding country road, the music eerie and discordant. It passes a dilapidated sign reading ‘Cemetery Entrance’ and stops. Brother and sister, Johnny and Barbra, are visiting their father’s grave. Thunder and lightning crash overhead as a man wanders through the graves in the distance and Johnny gets the idea to frighten his sister – not a difficult thing to do as Barbra is the female equivalent of Bambi and, startled, immediately runs away. Johnny follows, teasing ‘They’re coming to get you, Barbra’. The man in the distance is now stumbling towards her and … you guessed it … he’s a zombie! After a brief tussle, Johnny gets knocked out/dies/we don’t really care and Barbra flees, pursued by the creature. She eventually makes her way to an isolated farmhouse and meets Ben, who barricades them in.
The majority of the film is set in the farmhouse, as the people inside try to defend themselves from the increasing number of zombies surrounding them. Their only link to the outside world is through the radio which provides updates on the mass murders sweeping the eastern United States. Much has been made about the casting of Duane Jones, an African-American, as Ben. Romero maintains that the fact he is black was incidental – he simply gave the best audition. Of course, Romero has to say this, and it must be at least partially true as Jones is very good in the role; yet it is hard to believe the filmmakers had no deeper motive in casting a black man as their hero amid the whirlwind of race riots and political upheaval taking over the country at that time. The final scene, in particular, is powerful in its social and political message and comments not just on the events of the sixties but how the new mass media presents them.
Night of the Living Dead is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It was made on a very small budget (the blood was chocolate syrup drizzled over the cast member’s bodies) with limited resources and experience. Yet Romero and his crew manage to create a truly unsettling film that is about much more than a zombie outbreak. And if you just want a schlocky horror with blood and gore, it has that too. In buckets.