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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 04/23/04 03:02:41

"Brains, anyone?"
5 stars (Awesome)

With the remake of 'Dawn of the Dead', the horror spoof 'Shaun of the Dead' and the recent '28 Days Later', all highlighting the current vogue for all things zombie, it's easy to forget the impact that Romero's original flick had. Before this zombies were traditionally seen as unfeeling, but essentially docile creatures. Always under the control of an evil owner, but not evil within themselves. It took Romero to transform them into slow but terrifying flesh-eaters, in a film that still resonates now. For this, George - we salute you.

It's the story we're all familiar with now (think of how may times it's been re-used: Alien, The Thing, Dog Soldiers etc). Radiation has caused the newly-dead to start walking and to start chewing on any human being who is handily near-by, with the result of growing nationwide panic. This leads to a small group of desperate and conflicted humans barricading themselves into a farmhouse whilst desperately waiting for help. There's young couple Tom and Judy, the Cooper family with the aggressive father and young daughter who's ill after being bitten, and last but not least Barbara who has just witnessed her brother getting a particularly nasty lovebite from a passing zombie; and our hero Ben. It's Ben who seems the most focused and the most together of the group. If someone's going to get out of this alive, it's gotta to be Ben.

Well over 30 years on and Romero's classic hasn't dated a jot. It's well known that the scarcity of money meant everything had to be done on the cheap, but that helps to give the film the power it has. The black and white photography looks grimy, but damn it's effective, coating everything in an unnerving sense of realism and shrouding the corners of the film in darkness to hide lurking zombies. The make-up effects for the zombies may be cheap, but it stops them from being gruesomely over the top, and so when thrust into extreme black and white close-up it makes it all the more shocking and real.

Romero also shows real skill in using space and composing his scenes. The first time we see a zombie he's wandering around in the background, almost unnoticed, again giving it a creepy sense of realism. Romero never jump-cuts to the zombies or makes a big deal of showing them, he just presents them closing in on the house in a deadly matter-of-fact fashion, and just expects the audience and characters to deal with it and believe. It's this respect for the audience that ensures we do believe and do get terrified. This terrifying sense of believability is helped along by the tv news reports of the growing zombie plague. A slightly cheesy plot device now, it still works to creep you out as you realise the magnitude of the situation.

The actors too, give committed performances. They may be slightly awkward and come across amateurish, but they work. Particularly Duane Jones as Ben, who comes across as resourceful, smart and brave. When arguing with Cooper over the best place to hide, it's Ben we want to win just because he seems our best chance of survival. And make no mistake, it's our survival here. The tension is superbly ramped up, so that we're there in the house, our sphincters quivering along with everyone elses. No statement is ever made over the fact that Ben is black (a very brave move for the 60's) and it's a shame that Johnson never became a bigger star.

But if you look up the word 'relentless' in a dictionary, you should simply see the description for this film. It's horror at its purest; no wise-cracks to relieve the tension, no bravado heroics, no subtext; 'Night of the Living Dead' has one aim only: to scare the crap out of you. And it does this remorselessly, with the ever growing zombie horde rattling at the windows and the doors until the house is practically falling over. Tension wouldn't be as masterfully handled until John Carpenter handled The Thing. And even that was a slow-burner. This just never stops. Any decent horror film would count itself lucky to have one genuinely terrifying sequence. 'Night...' has at least 3 or 4. The opening cemetery visit, the daughter in the cellar, Barbara's family re-union...all terrifying moments building up to perhaps the scariest of all, the final few minutes. I love bleak endings and 'Night...' has the bleakest, baddest of them all.



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Critic's Note

If you're going to watch 'Night of the Living Dead' beware of two things:

a) don't watch the colour version. It looks god-awful in colour, and loses all the black and white richness.

b) avoid like a plague of zombies the 30th anniversary version. It has a dreadful out of place new modern score, but even worse they've re-edited it. A lot of suspense is taken out, and even worse still they've shot new scenes and tried to blend them in. Unfortunately they stick out like an infected thumb. Did they really think the new scenes would fit simply because they're in black and white? Cos every black and white film looks the same doesn't it? Just like every colour film looks the same, the fucking schmucks.

And the new scenes are so painfully obvious at odds with the rest of the 30 year old film. While Ben and Barbara are running around with 60's clothes, we have new scenes of an over the top priest with a very neat and tidy 90's goatee. It's an atrocious decision to include this new footage (at least other re-edited films use stuff shot at the time. Ignore this monstrous travesty and just seek out the thankfully easy to get hold of original.

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Even considering that Romero came up with a very fine sequel and the recent zombie films have done nothing to disgrace the genre, this is still the daddy of them all. A challenge to all fledgling horror-makers to make something anywhere near as effective and plain terrifying as this, it also stands as a beacon to independent film-makers. For less than a million dollars, Romero crafted something that is still slavishly copied and captures new fans with every passing decade. That's something to look up to, and that my friends, is the sign of genius.

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