George A. Romero's zombie classic is often considered the point at which modern horror filmmaking began, where the classy period chillers of the sixties – Hammer, Corman, Bava – gave way to the rawer, scarier, socially-aware horror movies of the following decade. A debatable point perhaps, but whether they knew it or not, Romero and his team were right there on the cusp of a major shift in both the way genre films were made, and how they were received by critics and the public. Nearly 40 years later, Night of the Living Dead shows relatively few wrinkles and remains as potent a shocker as anything that has followed.
The film starts innocently enough – siblings Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O'Dea) arrives at a cemetery in the countryside to lay a wreath on their father's grave. But within minutes, Johnny has been attacked by a man shambling through the graveyard and Barbra is forced to flee in terror. She stumbles upon an old farmhouse, where she encounters a man called Ben (the late Duane Jones). As more and more blank-eyed ghouls surround the farmhouse, Ben barricades the doors and windows and discovers that they are not the only people taking refuge there. Hiding in the cellar are young couple Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley), plus middle-aged grouch Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and their sickly daughter Karen (Kyra Schon).
Much of what made Night of the Living Dead so revolutionary in 1968 remains incredibly effective today. There's virtually no build-up, scene-setting or establishing of characters – Johnny is dead before we've barely had a chance to remember his name, and the audience is as unsure of the situation as the unlucky strangers trapped in the farmhouse. Romero's photography is handheld and black-and-white – these were both budgetary concerns at the time, but they nevertheless evoke an unsettling documentary feel. The director pulls some surprisingly striking visual tricks – the lightening reflecting off Johnny's face as he hears a storm approaching, the skewed angles and eerie zooms as Ben sets about searching the farmhouse – and the soundtrack (copyright-free library music) is carefully chosen and suitably spooky.
As he did a decade later in Dawn of the Dead, Romero uses the media available to his isolated protagonists to examine the developing zombie plague and provide a sense of what is happening in the wider world. Ben finds a radio in farmhouse, and soon after, a television set. The director constructs a convincing series of news reports, as the disbelieving reporters read stories of corpses sitting up and chowing down on the living, and the local police are seen patrolling the countryside, shooting any suspected zombies straight through the head (cue the film's best loved line: "They're dead... they're all messed up.") These sections also include the Dead series' only reference to a potential cause of the epidemic, a space probe returning from Venus, carrying high levels of radiation.
Ben is the most obvious 'hero' here – he's a straight-talking no-nonsense type who sees no advantage in staying in the farmhouse any longer than he has to, believing that the group's best chance is to try to make it to one of the rescue stations they have heard about on TV. This sets up a conflict with the cowardly Harry, who is eager to barricade himself and his family in the cellar. The other characters are less well-defined – Barbra is catatonic by the time she reaches the farmhouse, while Judy is a simpering drip who'll do anything for nice-but-dim Tom. The acting is variable, but the slightly flat nature of the performances somehow suits the stark, raw atmosphere, and there are some believably antagonistic moments between Jones and Hardman.
Although Duane Jones was cast for his acting ability rather than his skin-colour, the choice of a black lead in a low-budget exploitation movie was quite radical at the time, and eagle-eyed critics were quick to pick up on Romero's politics as he and co-writer John Russo channelled their anger about Vietnam, civil rights and an oppressive right-wing establishment into their uncompromising film. But more importantly, Night of the Living Dead was scary in a way few films had been before. The claustrophobic atmosphere rises as increasing numbers of zombies surround the farmhouse, and the unexpected deaths of two major characters is even more shocking for being dealt with in such a matter-of-fact fashion. The climatic siege on the farmhouse is the scariest sequence in any of the four Dead movies, and the ironic final pay-off is both tragic and wryly funny. Obviously a classic, but unlike many groundbreaking movies, Night of the Living Dead remains a fresh and vital piece of cinema, still undead and kicking all these years later.
[Night of the Living Dead has long been out-of-copyright, so various versions of the film exist on DVD. The definitive edition – in terms of both picture quality, sound and extras – was released in the US by Elite Entertainment as a 'Millennium Edition' in the late nineties. In 2005, Contender released a 'Special Edition' in the UK, which while falling short of Elite's disc in terms of picture quality, contained many of the same extras (two superb commentaries, interviews) and was easily the best UK edition yet. At all costs avoid the '30th Anniversary Edition', an abomination cobbled together by John Russo and pals, replacing the music, inserting newly-shot footage and generally turning a horror masterpiece into a laughable mess.]
American writer/director and one of the most influential figures in modern horror cinema, whose ability to write strong scripts and characters match his penchant for gory chills. The Pittsburgh native began his career directing adverts before making Night of the Living Dead in 1968. This bleak, scary classic ushered in a new era of horror film-making, but Romero struggled initially to follow it up - There's Always Vanilla is a little-seen romantic drama, and Jack's Wife was butchered by its distributor. The Crazies was a flop but still an exciting slice of sci-fi horror, and while the dark vampire drama Martin again made little money but got Romero some of the best reviews of his career and remains the director's personal favourite.