George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead (or NOTLD) is the barometer by which all Zombies Attack films are measured. Is it because NOTLD is the best Zombies Attack film ever made? God, no. Actually, the film has trouble standing up to repeat viewing, and sophisticated filmgoers will notice an array of filmmaking errors, from continuity problems to glaring mistakes like bad sound foley (the “noises” in the movie) to actors and other objects wandering onscreen when they’re not supposed to.
So why is Romero’s 1968 NOTLD such a worthy film to look at? Well, it’s only worthy in the sense that if you love Zombies Attack films, this is where it all began, and where all the other filmmakers who would wander into the territory got their “ideas” from. It goes without saying that even Romero and co-writer John Russo got the idea from somewhere else, since no story idea has been original since the Ancient Greeks did it.
NOTLD opens with white suburbanite Barbra (Judith O’Dea) driving to a faraway country cemetery with her brother Johnny to visit a parent’s tombstone, something the pair do annually, much to Johnny’s consternation. Trouble immediate erupts when a zombie attacks, killing Johnny, and driving Barbra to a lone farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Ben (Duane Jones), a capable black man, appears in a truck, having fought his way through the zombies earlier. Ben plans on getting out of there, but the zombies have other ideas, and Ben is forced to barricade himself in the farmhouse with the terrified Barbra. The duo thinks they’re alone, surrounded by zombies on the outside but safe on the inside, but they’re wrong!
What most people forget about NOTLD is that it’s one of the earliest films with a black man as the male lead opposite a white woman. Consider that the lead female, Judith O’Dea, is as “white as a sheet” with her blonde curls, and Jones’ “blackness” is readily obvious. The casting of Jones is open to interpretation (did Romero want to make some sort of social commentary?), but either way Jones is perfect for the part.
NOTLD also does the one thing many contemporary Zombies Attack films make the mistake of not doing — and that’s getting to the action very early on. The zombies immediately attack and the fight for survival is on. A lot of modern Zombies Attack films seem preoccupied with setting up the film before letting the carnage start — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except the set up is sometimes too uninteresting, and many filmmakers make the mistake of thinking people who watch Zombies Attack films want something “more” than zombies, well, attacking.
Romero’s 1968 film is in black and white (shot on, most likely, black and white 35mm) with very natural, stark lightning. The lack of color actually adds to the film’s atmosphere, since shadows appear everywhere, and the “fuzzy” look of the mise-en-scene give the movie a dreamy and unreal vibe. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Romero intended the above to be the case, but whatever his intentions, NOTLD certainly benefited from the production’s lack of funds. Sometimes the music did become a bit much, but one has to remember that in 1968 loud, overcompensating music was the norm.
The production’s low budget also explains the lack of a named actor, as many, if not all, of the actors are unknowns. Duane Jones does a fine job as the tough Ben, although Judith O’Dea does get a little annoying as the waspy Barbra. And Karl Hardman, as one of the survivors, is appropriately unlikable.
Since the film is high on creativity but short on money, the action revolving around the zombies are mostly implied, with much of the “hard core” gore scenes shot slightly off-screen. (It seems that driving a tire iron through someone’s forehead wasn’t exactly an “every day stunt” back in 1968, as it seems to be now.) It’s widely known that many of the “zombies” were ordinary locals who were drafted into the production, so that means there aren’t a lot of professional stuntmen for the actors to “kill” in spectacular fashion, and as a result there is a shortage of kill scenes of the “cool” variety.
Despite its many shortcomings, NOTLD remains a watershed film for not only Zombies Attack movies, but also low-budget filmmaking in general. The movie understood its limitations and overcame it with a lot of sweat, all of which are obvious on the screen.
Although, that soundtrack did get on my nerves on more than one occasion…
George A. Romero (director) / George A. Romero, John A. Russo (screenplay)
CAST: Duane Jones …. Ben
Judith O’Dea …. Barbra
Karl Hardman …. Harry Cooper
Marilyn Eastman …. Helen Cooper
Keith Wayne …. Tom
Judith Ridley …. Judy
Kyra Schon …. Karen Cooper