By Nicholas Barham
While 1932s White Zombie may have been the very first zombie movie, it is inarguable that George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead kick-started cinemas obsession with the shuffling undead. Night of the Living Dead is a bona-fide classic that tells the simple tale of a group of survivors trying to live through the night while being stalked by the flesh-eating undead.
Night of the Living Dead wastes no time, almost immediately the atmosphere is unsettling and dark. If you’re worried that this will be a slow-burn horror where nothing happens for ages, fret not. The shuffling zombie hiding in the background of the first scene, the musical crescendo as Barbra flees for her life; all these components blend together and help set the tone.
The film largely takes place inside a house that Barbra and a group of survivors hole up in for the night. Our survivors are believable in their characterization and provide a good mix of personality types that helps to facilitate conflict and tension. As in many zombie films, it is not simply the undead that survivors need to guard themselves against, but also other survivors. This in-group tension helps to create drama and keeps you gripped during the lulls between zombie attacks and gruesome deaths.
Night of the Living Dead is also historic and that it has an African American as the main star and heroic protagonist. This was a notable choice during a time in which race relations in America were strained and segregation was only just falling to the wayside of history. I won’t ruin anything for you, but given how the film ends, this choice in casting was definitely a political statement against the racism that plagued America during the 60s.
The zombie genre has seen many innovative depictions of zombies. From the rage-filled zombies of 28 Days Later, to the scientifically engineered zombies of Overlord, and let’s not forget the demonically possessed undead in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy.
I am somewhat of a connoisseur of the zombie genre, and horror in general, so let me just warn you… if you are looking for similar innovation then look elsewhere! The zombies of Night of the Living Dead are cliched by modern standards: They are slow-moving shufflers that slowly stalk their victims. They eat human flesh, hunt in groups, and can only be killed by a shot to the head.
Pretty much the only thing about them I found unique was their aversion to fire, an important weakness that our survivors use in their favor. But if you enjoy the classics like I do, the cliched nature of the zombies can be easily overlooked.
Night of the Living Dead is an excellent classic, and if you happen to be a movie buff like myself then it is a must-have for your movie collection. But being an older movie, it also has some drawbacks compared to its modern counterparts. In a sense Night of the Living Dead is the Shakespeare of zombie movies, a classic masterpiece of cinema with excellent storytelling and camera work. It features a spinetingling musical score and sound work, a creepy atmosphere, and believable characters. But it’s also noticeably dated, with very little in the way of special effects, and very cliched depictions of zombies that are rather dull and anachronistic by modern standards. Being an earlier film the gore and bloody violence we have come to expect from the zombie genre is very much downplayed here; if you’re expecting buckets of blood and guts, be prepared to be disappointed. But if you can appreciate the classics and the vital role they play in the evolution of modern cinema, and can look past the cobwebs to the gleaming gold below, then Night of the Living Dead is for you.