Wednesday 27 February 2013

Movie Review: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

A low-budget horror film, Night Of The Living Dead introduces the world to flesh-eating zombies and the commercial appeal of outright gore. Director George A. Romero, working with effectively no budget and a cast of novices, also pulls together a masterly exploration of ordinary people under sudden, extreme stress.

In rural Pennsylvania, brother and sister Johnny and Barbara (Russell Streiner and Judith O'Dea) visit a secluded cemetery to place flowers on their father's grave with dusk fast approaching. Before they can leave, they are inexplicably attacked by a wandering zombie and Johnny is killed. Barbara escapes and takes shelter in a nearby farmhouse, where she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a resourceful black man who fortifies the house in anticipation of a siege. After discovering a rotting corpse inside the house, Barbara goes into shock.

Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) and another couple emerge from the cellar of the house, where they had barricaded themselves. Harry and Ben immediately clash, Harry believing that all of them should retreat to the cellar while Ben insisting that they should stay on the main level of the house where there are plenty of escape routes. With the house besieged by an increasing number of ravenous zombies, news filters through on the radio and television that the entire state is witnessing mass killings perpetrated by re-animated dead people. The human survivors at the farmhouse have to decide whether to stay and fight or try and flee.

Romero keeps the goriest scenes of flesh munching fairly brief, but that does not reduce their impact. The ghouls greedily biting into human flesh and bones latch on to the memory and stay entrenched, the rudimentary production values simply enhancing the documentary, surreptitious feel of horrific events being captured on film.

The stark black and white photography, capturing every detail with acute clarity despite the deep darkness of night, and the confinement of most of the film to a single set, add to the sense of sharing the horror of the barricaded survivors as they stumble onto the worst horror imaginable.

With a running time of less than 100 minutes and little time to dedicate to characters, Romero's script (co-written by John A. Russo) efficiently draws distinctions between the three leads. Ben is the natural leader, taking charge, giving orders, thinking ahead, and taking on the responsibility of planning an out. Barbara collapses under the weight of events, and after the death of her brother and the shock of seeing other mutilated bodies, she enters a state of heavy stupor, a burden to others and of no use in the survival battle. Harry is everything that Ben isn't, angry, self-centred, fearful rather than courageous, and blatantly placing his selfish interests ahead of all others.

The tension between the characters never settles down, and Night Of The Living Dead taps into the crackling energy of survivors who should be working together instead weakening their cause with continuous aggressive internal conflict.

Placing a black man as the natural leader within a cast of otherwise white characters is remarkable for the era. Romero claimed that Duane Jones was simply the best actor for the role of Ben, but the casting choice provides a progressive edge. All the cast is entertaining in a generally theatrical milieu, the cramped surroundings of the farmhouse providing the equivalent of a stage set and a suitable environment for slightly exaggerated performances.

Night Of The Living Dead pushes into bloodier, more extreme cinematic directions, armies of zombies now freed from their graves and ready to march into a gorier on-screen future.

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