Although George A. Romero’s influential cult classic must have been terrifying for it’s time, the years have rendered it rather mild and outdated. Still, “Night of the Living Dead,” which was filmed on a shoestring budget of $114,000, serves as an interesting study of peoples’ reactions to a crises and the necessity of action during a devastating event. Furthermore, it interestingly casts a black man in the leading male role, which was quite daring for it’s time.
Fragile Barbra (Judith Dea) makes a visit to her father’s grave with her perpetually complaining brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) when a strange man attacks them. Managing to escape alive (Johnny was not so lucky,) Barbra becomes holed up in a farmhouse, and soon renders herself obsolete due to suffering a complete mental breakdown.It is there that she meets Ben (Duane Jones,) a fellow survivor of what turns out to be a zombie attack.
The movie works best with just Barbra and Ben, who represent two opposite approaches to a crisis. Ben is a kind person but still a survivalist, and has no time for Barbra’s weakly grieving. Barbra is consumed by guilt for leaving her brother, and turns to Jell-O almost immediately, while Ben thinks on his feet and begins to barricade the windows and doors from the approaching ‘ghouls.’
However, when a group of fellow survivors come, this film becomes a bit boring. The most asinine of the survivors, played by Karl Hardman, overacts almost constantly, and listening to the group argue becomes tiresome. Meanwhile, a lot of the violence seems fake (when one character punches another, it sounds like a balloon popping.) The character dynamics are much more interesting when it’s just the two heroes.
You may find yourself laughing at certain scenes, which lack the intensity of “The Walking Dead” but also the tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of films like “Dead Alive” and “Shaun of the Dead.” Yes, in many ways it’s the film that started it all (though “White Zombie” starring Bela Legosi, unwatched by me, came first,) but it pales in comparison to many modern zombie stories. However, I liked how the zombies were not totally stupid and could use tools.
The acting overall wasn’t great (best from Duane Jones and Judith O’Dea, the leads) and the the special effects are dated (although it’s interesting to see how people improvised using practical effects before the era of CGI.) The movie was fun but not particularly disturbing or scary, except for the scene involcing the mother and her daughter (no spoilers.) I wonder how they got away with that.
I may have been shocked by the death of my favorite character at the end, but my psychiatrist had already spoiled it for me (damn you man!) For those who have not been informed of the ending, it will be unexpected and sad. This is an important film for all horror fans and zombie lovers to see, but it isn’t technically great in comparison to later horror flicks. I didn’t love it, but I’m glad I saw it.