Night of the Living Dead
directed by George Romero
(Good Times/New Line, 1968)

If you want to learn the art of making a horror movie, just watch George Romero's macabre masterpiece Night of the Living Dead. So many times, when it comes to horror, simpler is better, and this is actually a pretty simple film. It manages to create an atmosphere of rising fear while, at the same time, serving as a veritable study in the psychology of terror. It also has the perfect amount of humor that makes horror all the more enjoyable to me, and the truly classic ending of the film ranks among my favorite endings of all time. This ain't Abbot & Costello Meet the Mummy; this is gritty, atmospheric, gutsy horror at its best. It no longer offers the actual fright that was its bread and butter when it was released in 1968, but it's still nightmarish enough to make many a person squirm in anticipatory dread if nothing else.

Who can forget the opening scene of this masterpiece? A brother and sister drive 200 miles to lay a wreath on their father's grave, with their banter culminating in dear old Johnny's teasing his sister by moaning the words, "They're coming to get you, Barbra." Much to his surprise, "they" are coming to get her, and him, and untold numbers of innocent people all throughout the eastern half of the United States.

Barbra (Judith O'Dea) flees to a farmhouse, where she commences to wig out in a quiet, childlike sort of way. She is soon joined by a young black man named Ben (Duane Jones), who becomes the driving force of the movie. He begins boarding up the house, getting little help from his near-comatose compatriot, but it turns out that there are also five people already holed up in the cellar. The meeting of all these minds leads to a bickering marathon, with Ben claiming authority and the mealy-mouthed Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) resisting every step of the way. Trapped inside the house, the band of survivors does have access to radio and television, whereby they learn the extent of the unbelievable epidemic of mass murder and, later, get the news that the killers are recently deceased bodies (who have come to life in a hokey way I'll refrain from mentioning) who share a common passion for cannibalism. The group's struggle to survive is one of increasing intensity, making for a completely absorbing movie. Those of a psychological turn of mind can enjoy studying the widely varying reactions of each individual to what is essentially unimaginable terror. And the ending, as I've said, is just a wondrous thing to behold.

You just don't need a huge budget to make a genuinely scary, classic film. Just get a bunch of people, throw some pale makeup on them and tell them to walk funny and slow, then hole up a gang of strangers in a house surrounded by your zombies, and you've got the basic ingredients for your very own Night of the Living Dead. Of course, only a director as talented as George Romero can turn such a film into a masterpiece, which is accomplished in no small degree by his brilliant use of black-and-white rather than color film. Night of the Living Dead may well be the most famous zombie film of all time; it is without question one of the best. If you don't have a copy of this film in your video library, then your true horror movie addict credentials are suspect. If you see only one zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead should be the one.

by Daniel Jolley
29 October 2005

It all started here.

I was 19 years old when Night of the Living Dead first came out, and I was fortunate to see it in a downtown Baltimore theater with a packed audience that didn't know what to expect. When it ended, several people in the audience leaped out of their seats and shouted at the screen in outrage. Everyone else just sat there stunned, me included. I think most everyone there realized they had just seen something historic.

They had.

Growing up in the 1960s, I liked horror movies. Horror movies back then usually starred Vincent Price or Peter Cushing. They were set in castles. Girls in low-cut nightgowns fled down hallways. Outside, there were always thunderstorms. There was a secret passage to be found. Etc., etc.

That style of horror was almost instantly bankrupt when George Romero's Night of the Living Dead came out ... just as John Wayne-type westerns became obsolete when A Fistful of Dollars arrived.

I think the moment in the movie when I realized -- and I think everyone in the audience realized it then, too -- that a line was being crossed was when the fate of Karen Cooper, the little girl in the basement played by Kyra Schon, was revealed. To this day, I think that sequence is the single most horrifying moment in all of film history.

I've seen the movie many times since then, and most of the sequels, too. Romero owes a small debt to Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls from 1962 -- Romero readily admits it was a big influence on his work -- but most of this new template is his.

This is ground-breaking American art.

by Dave Sturm
22 May 2010

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