George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is not standard horror. In fact, there are several minutes where this classic zombie film is just plain boring. There is brilliance, however, in the film’s static nature, like how one of the main characters, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), is in speechless shock for most of the film. And despite the horror fan’s craving for gore, suspense and active characters, “Living Dead” tantalizes its audience and then stuns it with unexpected turns of events instead of using the typical rise-and-fall horror structure.
“Living Dead” could be described as the king of the B horror movie. Its title, flesh-eating half-humans and cheesy violence keep the movie walking that fine line between horror and comedy. The difference is that the plot contains events that break horror conventions. Look past the use of Bosco chocolate syrup and black and white film in 1968 and you’ll notice the film is more about humans vs. humans than it is humans vs. zombies.
The story opens with a girl and her brother visiting their father’s grave when they’re attacked by a zombie. The brother gets knocked out while the girl runs and takes shelter in a nearby vacated home where she’s later discovered by Ben (Duane Jones), the take-charge type of horror movie character. They board up the house and light fires to keep the zombies away and soon they discover five other people were hiding in the cellar. Together, all seven of them argue about survival tactics and things get heated between Ben and Mr. Cooper (Karl Hardman).
“Living Dead” ends up being one of those films exposing how human nature rears its ugly head in these kinds of life-or-death situations. Padded by some probably unintentional racial tension between Ben and Cooper, as the arguing continues you are forced to wonder who the real savages are: the ones outside the house or the ones inside it. Culminating in an excellent and largely unpredictable ending sequence as the zombie threat becomes imminent in the house, “Living Dead” ends up becoming a surprise to everyone.
With sub-par acting, unnecessarily long scenes of the news playing out over the television and nothing that’s actually scary, it’s amazing how “Living Dead” manages to win over its viewers. There are literally just scenes where Ben is boarding up the windows listening to the radio and you wonder if the zombies are just chilling outside playing cards or something. But there’s great effectiveness when Ben keeps telling Barbra to stay calm and not be scared and she just won’t say anything, much to our dismay. “Living Dead” is more psychological than you’d ever expect from something with all these B-movie characteristics.
“Night of the Living Dead” (1968)
Directed by: George A. Romero
Written by: George A. Romero, John A. Russo
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman