Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Title: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Writer/s: George A. Romero and John Russo

This black and white film from the late and great George A. Romero made me fall completely in love with this series. I will be discussing the first three films because I believe those are the most important. Romero’s original trilogy used the notion of ‘the undead’ or the living dead, or the zombie, as a form of social commentary for each era that he made a film. In the late 1960’s racial tension was flaring up again in the United States, and so the decision to make the lead in this film an African American was controversial at best.

We begin with the introduction of a brother and sister traveling to a cemetery to put flowers on the grave of their deceased mother. This is something they do every year. Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) are arguing and Johnny teases Barbara about her fear of the cemetery. “They’re coming to get you Barbara” he taunts. Only, Johnny should not be taunting his sister. It will be a few more minutes and Johnny will be dead. Johnny will be attacked by a member of the undead, and when he falls to the ground hitting his head fatally on a tombstone, Barbara will have to run for her life. She reaches their car, drives away but manages to crash into a tree. The same undead man pursues her in his slow and unsteady gait. She discovers a house in the woods. This ramshackle farmhouse will be the location for the rest of this epic tale.

Once inside the house Barbara comes across a dead body. From here on out we pretty much give up on relying on dear Barbara. Her ability to remain calm and collected in a crisis doesn’t exist. In the 1990 remake of the film it is worth mentioning that the character of Barbara is made far more capable than O’Dea’s Barbara. The man to come crashing through the door next is Ben (Duane Jones). In my humble opinion Ben is the most capable and reliable character to EVER appear in a horror film. Bearing in mind that they have no idea what is causing the dead to rise. There are no preconceived ideas about what zombies might possibly be. All they have to go on is limited experience and the need to survive. In a world in chaos Ben is the voice of reason. Ben is the person you want to be stuck with during the zombie apocalypse. Ben is the one who single-handedly boards up the house and kills off the few undead that try to get in. Eventually his patience wears thin with the unhelpful Barbara who haunts the house like a ghost. She slaps him in a state of manic disappear, he slaps her back and she faints. He puts her on a couch to rest, and can finally get on with the job of saving their lives. Really Barbara, how annoying you are!

The radio broadcasters are just as confused as to what has caused this, and refer to the undead as being in “a trancelike state’, and that this is all a form of mass hysteria. However they eventually realize that it is not hysteria but may be the effects of radiation causing the mass murders. The radio continues to broadcast the different theories as Ben succeeds in securing the house. They are told to stay indoors and not to attempt to leave. In fact the entire first half of the film continues to the background sounds of the broadcasters over the radio discussing theories and ways of survival.

Next up we meet Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), a young couple, and Harry (Karl Hardman) and his wife and daughter, Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and Karen (Kyra Schon). They have all been hiding out in the house’s basement and heard the noise made by Ben and Barbara upstairs. Harry initially struggles to take Ben seriously and constantly clashes with his authority. They all hover around the television and a news reporter advises people to go to the nearest rescue stations that are being set up all over the county. Obtaining gas is their next plan of operation. In the meantime Harry and Helen’s daughter is lying on a table in the basement sick because she had previously been attacked and bitten by one of the undead.

Realizing they have to work together Harry throws homemade Molotov Cocktails out the top floor window of the house to scare away the zombies, whilst Tom, Judy and Ben attempt to get gas for Ben’s truck so that they can make their escape. When the truck accidentally catches alight Tom and Judy are killed and Ben just makes it back alive.

By now though the undead have started streaming towards the house, and are attempting to break through Ben’s barriers. In the chaos Ben drops his rifle and Harry pulls the gun on Ben. Ben is not having any of that, and wrestles the gun right out of Harry’s hand and shoots him. When Harry falls down the stairs into the basement it’s pretty much the end for him too. His daughter will die, come back to life and murder both her parents. Pretty gruesome indeed!

Finally we are left once again with the original Ben and Barbara. In the onslaught of zombies breaking through the house Barbara discovers that her brother Johnny has become one of ‘them’ and is killed. Ben is frantic and locks himself in the basement where he is also forced to shoot Harry and Helen. He is now completely alone in the house. The night ends.

In the light of the morning police officers descend upon the house not expecting to find any survivors. When Ben manages to break through the remaining zombies and reaches the front of the house he is mistaken for the undead and is unceremoniously shot by the police.

I will admit that by having no survivors it allows this film to be the ‘perfect’ horror. It’s devastating and frustrating because Ben really does deserve to live, but his memory will live on as the greatest horror movie hero of all time. In my opinion…  All hail Ben! All hail Duane Jones! All hail George A. Romero for this awesome film that can do no wrong (except maybe allowing Ben to die)!

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