October Horrorshow: Night of the Living Dead

October has arrived. The leaves are changing, the air is cool and crisp after a brutal summer, and blood is in the air. October is the best time of the year to watch horror films, for obvious reasons. With that in mind, it is time, once again, for the October Horrorshow, when Missile Test devotes the entire month to watching and reviewing horror films. The good, the bad, the putrid, it doesn’t matter. Missile Test never met a movie it wouldn’t watch, for at least fifteen minutes, anyway. But that’s not a problem today, for today’s review is of the horror classic Night of the Living Dead, from iconic filmmaker George Romero.

Before watching for this review, I hadn’t seen Night of the Living Dead since I was a teenager, possibly even as long as twenty years ago. It didn’t scare me then, and it doesn’t scare me now, but that doesn’t mean Night of the Living Dead is a bland horror film. It just means that it came from a different era. It is only after being long inured to anything less than mercilessly graphic horror that old horror films lose some punch. Luckily for the viewer, Night of the Living Dead isn’t all scares. It’s a well-crafted film, still very taut throughout, and well worth the watch.

I was surprised to learn that Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968. There are few clues in much of the film that would let a viewer know it was made in the late ’60s. In fact, one of the striking things about Romero’s direction is that it feels very much as if the film were made in the ’50s rather than the ’60s. The stark black and white of the shots, the musical score, etc., all scream ’50s. Only the maturity of the film belies its true location in the timeline of cinema.

The story opens with a classic sequence filmed in a cemetery. What could have been ground down into cliché early on is instead handled well by Romero, in a fine and suspenseful sequence to get the plot moving. Little time is wasted, as only minutes after the credit sequence, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) is running for her life, trying to escape a lumbering and violent assailant. After taking shelter in a local farmhouse, Barbra is joined over the course of the first and second acts by the other members of the small ensemble cast, most notably Ben, played by Duane Jones. It is only after a significant interval, and a fair amount of violence, that we learn that the unburied dead have come back to life and are preying on the living. Of course, a viewer would have to be pretty dense not to have figured that out beforehand, but Night of the Living Dead was able to get away with it because it defined the zombie subgenre of horror films.

There were zombie films before Night of the Living Dead. In fact, there were quite a number. But Night of the Living Dead is the source material that every subsequent zombie flick seems to draw on. Its cultural significance in this area cannot be overstated, and its significance in film as a whole is also profound. Because of this, it has been preserved in the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, alongside such cinematic masterpieces as Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane. That’s not too shabby for a low-budget horror film.

So how did Romero, and co-screenwriter John A. Russo, for that matter, strike cinematic gold? After all, nothing either of them has done since ever came close to this effort, in either execution or recognition. I wrote above that Night of the Living Dead isn’t scary. Once again, it isn’t all that scary now, not for any viewer who has spent a significant amount of time watching modern horror. One thing the film has never lost is its charged and disturbing atmosphere. Romero wasn’t working in color, and he wasn’t working with great special effects. He instead focused on tension and keeping the violence grounded. He didn’t overload the viewer with visual information. When the undead kill in this film, it feels like bloody murder. When the living defend themselves, they look truly afraid for their lives. Add to that the hostility between the cast when they are not fighting off the hordes, and there isn’t a minute throughout that lets the viewer relax. Romero succeeded so well in the storytelling aspects of this film that its low budget shortcomings, which are many, mean nothing to its overall quality.

Finally, the ending of the film, which I won’t spoil here, doesn’t just end the tale of the survivors’ struggle against the undead. It also concludes a biting bit of social commentary that Romero had been brewing throughout the film. Over forty years after its release, it is this ending that remains the most penetrating aspect of Night of the Living Dead, and contributes the most to it being a great film.