Night of The Living Dead
George “The King” Romero, 1968
Maybe it’s because I grew up close to the cemetery used in the movie, or because I got to meet George Romero when he came to my college for a panel discussion of horror in literature and the movies, but this will always be one of my favorite movies of all time. I think it was probably the first horror movie I saw and I still remember some of the nightmares it provoked.
This movie really was the grandfather of zombie horror (interestingly, they are never called zombies, they are called ghouls) and for a movie made with $114,000, it truly is a masterpiece. When you consider the small town locality, the budget, and the relative unknown actors, the fact that it became as successful as it did says something important that I think we, as new writers, should remember. It’s the writing, the story itself that is effective in making the audience feel trapped and claustrophobic right along with the poor souls inside the farmhouse.
Because I love this movie, I’ll start with all the things it got right and end with the very few things that bugged me. I’ll start with the setting. A small town, rural, “local” and a farm house with lots of empty space around it and windows galore. Putting seven survivors (and one dead body) in the house provide the sense of being trapped–that claustrophobia of tight spaces, but the windows work to add vulnerability, and instigate the fight between Ben and Harry over where in the house is the safest. Ben wants to stay upstairs with the windows; where he can both keep track of the ghouls and have multiple exit strategies. Harry (who is quite the hotheaded bully) wants everyone in the basement.
Now, thanks to the bickering both inside and outside the house are dangerous environments. No place is safe and no one can be trusted. The story keeps ratcheting up the risk along with the tension. Backstory of the situation is effectively presented via the radio broadcasts. Because until then, we too are helpless, ignorant survivors hiding out in the farmhouse along with Ben, Barbara, Harry, Helen, Tom, Judy and of course the poor injured Karen. So rather than feel like the radio is an “info dump” you, the viewer are also leaning forward listening intently to the report, trying to determine what happened here and how best to survive this “wave of mass murder” sweeping the country.
The use of unknown actors, cheap film (adding the sketchy look to the piece) and local town names just added to the realism of the story. And maybe it was just me, but the view of Barbara walking up the stairs, the mummified look of the dead woman, and Karen’s mindless murder of her mother were all reminiscent of Hitchcock’s psycho. Coupling these familiar horror images with the constant crickets chirping in the background helped to maintain a constant unease throughout the film.
The crickets. Oh the crickets. I thought I was on to something when I noticed that the sounds of the crickets stopped right after Ben knocked Barbara out. I stopped it, went back, and watched again. I said to my husband “There must be something to this!” and sat like a freshman on her first day of school, ready to take notes on how the crickets symbolize something about madness or danger. But then they randomly started up again and continued off and on throughout the movie with no rhyme or reason. I tried googling it, so sure I had discovered some deep inner mystery, but what I discovered was just that it was due to some guy going out and recording crickets for the soundtrack and then playing it on a loop throughout the film. So much for my cinematic genius.
Now, for some things I found bothersome which for the sake of laziness, I shall list.
- In the cemetery, why wouldn’t the zombie (who we assume is acting purely on instinct) stop and eat Johnny, instead of just leaving him dead and go after Barbara.
- The dead lady in the farmhouse: why was she not turned into a zombie? She was the unburied dead, right?
- The zombies were not consistent: Are they smart? They used tools to get at their victims, then later they were all like “aarrgghh, uuuggghhh” and just blindly reaching around the windows and such. Sometimes they walked all stiff like Frankenstein’s monster and the next minute they are trying to pull the boards off the windows.
- Remember in the beginning of the movie, how cold Barbara looked in the cemetery? Yet everyone is sweating in the house. I get it, trying to show the close, airless feel of being trapped, but then it needs to be summer.
- Lastly, if they are just the “recent dead” and their brains have been brought back via radiation, won’t they eventually just rot away? Could it be waited out? Just wondering.
But even with all that, I thought it was an effective story, even the science seemed reasonable for the time and I liked that the reporters treated it more realistically calling it “mass murder.”
Maybe that’s what I liked best about it, it was believable. People acted exactly as you would expect. Survivors couldn’t get along to save their lives (literally—only Barbara and Helen were actually killed by the ghouls), the posse shot first and asked questions later, the science was reasonable (especially for the time period), and they called the dead “ghouls” for lack of a better word (because I think we would be hesitant to call something like that a zombie—a fictional monster). This was, for me, the most reasonable of all the monster novels/movies we’ve seen thus far. And as a horror movie, one of the scariest on the shelves, even today.
**Bonus Trivia: After Tom and Judy are blown to smithereens in the truck, there is a scene of the ghouls feasting on pieces of their roasted corpses. The expressions on the faces of these ghouls are that of disgust. Those expressions are true, not acting. They were actually eating roasted pork with chocolate syrup (which looks a lot like blood in black and white).