They’re coming to get you, Barbara…
It is possibly the most iconic line spoken in any zombie movie ever. Everyone knows what it’s from even if they’ve not seen Night of the Living Dead & those people are few & far between.
Night of the Living Dead is where the zombie king, George A. Romero began his famous Dead trilogy & what a start it was. Filmed in black & white & on a modest budget Night… has been deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Quite an achievement for a first-time director…
The movie opens as Barbara & Johnny make their annual pilgrimage to visit their father’s grave. Johnny teases Barbara who is uncomfortable in the graveyard; she is then attacked by a man. Johnny tries to help her & in his struggle with the man he is knocked out cold.
Barbara escapes in the car but almost immediately crashes it into a tree. Pursued by the man she makes her way to a farmhouse. After finding a corpse inside she panics & runs back out but sees more figures like the man from the graveyard.
Ben arrives in his van & takes her back inside where she descends into shock. The cellar already houses Harry & Helen Cooper, a married couple with anger issues & their daughter Karen who is ill having been bit by one of the zombies outside. The group is joined by the young couple, Tom & Judy & set about fortifying the house as it comes under attack from the dead outside.
The group attempt to survive under the onslaught not knowing what they are dealing with while an internal conflict between Ben & Harry grows stronger & Karen Cooper grows sicker.
Considering its age Night of the Living Dead still holds up extremely well. Being filmed in black & white means it has a much longer lasting appeal & really adds something to the ghoulish presence of the zombies. Not that the z word is actually used throughout the movie. The idea being that our group have no idea what is going on & while they recognise the threat from the monsters they have no idea just how wide-spread it is.
Compared to future entries in Romero’s dead series the zombies here have a more natural look. Less rotting corpses, more of a recently dead look & it works brilliantly alongside his future movies, actual proper zombie devolvement. The zombies of Night of the living Dead are a silent & brooding bunch but manage to be terrifying thanks to their unrelenting behaviour & their sheer numbers.
What really stands out in Night of the Living Dead is the calibre of acting; everyone from the smallest part (Johnny) to the lead, (Ben) is excellent. The conflict between Harry Cooper & Ben is enthralling stuff & made all the more uncomfortable by the knowledge of what is going to happen to his bitten daughter in the basement.
The Karen Cooper transformation & the effect on her family is easily the best moment in the film for me & comes during a gripping climax that leaves you feeling empty & cold inside. Not because it’s a bad ending, far from it, but rather because it’s not a happy one.
It’s worth mentioning some of the controversy that surrounded the release of the movie as it is fascinating. The age rating system didn’t exist during its release so children were free to see the movie. Parents thinking their kids were seeing the usual childish scares were shocked to see the terrifying scenes of Night & the grisly events that unfolded throughout.
The plaudits received for casting a black man in the hero lead role (bear in mind it was 1968) were negated by the criticism of the role of Barbara as being a helpless woman in a catatonic state for a lot of the movie. It seems that the only thing Night of the Living Dead didn’t divide its audience over was just how good of a film it was.
Ultimately Night of the living Dead has had a lasting influence on film & TV for the last 40+ years & still continues to inspire. While it isn’t my favourite zombie movie it is one I hold dear in my heart for the influence it has had. Without Night of the Living Dead we wouldn’t have Return of the Living Dead or any of the future ‘Dead’ films by George A. Romero.
Night Of The Living Dead