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Thursday 5 October 2023

Burl reviews Night of the Living Dead! (1968)


Ha ha, they’re coming to get you Burlbra! Yes, it’s Burl here, reviewing an influential classic of independent horror cinema! Before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, before Halloween, along came the cheap little horror movie that could, and did, give the world a new idea about where smash-hit movies might come from and what they might be like! So, in glorious black and white, here comes that all-timer Night of the Living Dead!

It’s a movie I’ve seen many times, but I showed it to my son the other day as a part of his general horror education, and was very pleased myself to watch it again! It’s a really solid piece of work, being as it is a low-budget first feature from a little Pittsburgh gang of twentysomethings whose usual line of country was commercials and industrial pictures! They went out into the rural areas on weekends, or into their jerry-built Pittsburgh studio, and made a movie that resembled almost nothing that had come before it! It was gruesome and boundary-pushing and eerie and dark, and entirely of a piece with the times into which it was released: the tail end of a decade of war, assassination, racial unrest, and riot!

Of course the lead beard on the picture (ha ha, before he even had a beard) was George Romero, “creator of the living dead,” as the mall PA system tells us in Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home! Romero later brought us pictures like Creepshow, and of course many further zombie stomps, including Land of the Dead! There’d been zombie pictures before, naturally, but so far as the whole modern walking dead cycle goes, ha ha, this is the wellspring!

We all know the situation and the characters! Barbara and her jerky hip-nerd brother Johnny have driven out to a remote graveyard to visit their father, and Johnny’s complaining and joking around is interrupted by a zombie man, with the net result being Johnny’s head klonked on a tombstone! Well, Barbara is immediately reduced to a shocked jelly, but, shrieking and falling down the whole way, she makes it to a nearby farmhouse, where she sees scary things and meets up with capable Ben, played by Duane Jones! They start boarding up the windows against the gathering ghouls outside - well, Ben mostly, with a little help from the near-catatonic Barbara - and after a lot of banging and nailing it transpires that there are people hiding in the basement: angry, frightened slaphead Cooper, his wife and injured daughter; and a young hayseed couple, Tom and Judy!

There’s a lot of arguing about whether they should stay upstairs or go hide in the basement, and then, during an attempt to gas up a pickup truck as a prelude to fleeing the scene, everything starts to go terribly wrong! Frankly, nobody comes out of the situation in very good shape, and the final, cruel irony of the finale feels monumentally unfair, but also consistent with the mood of both the film and the era! It’s still a real gutpunch, however, and reading Roger Ebert’s account of the weeping and crying children at the 1968 screening he attended – children who’d been dropped off by their parents on the assumption this was another silly childish horror movie – one wonders if it was the flesh-munching and other shocks that so upset them, or the atmosphere and downer ending!

As you’ve surely gleaned, I admire this movie greatly! It’s not perfect: there’s not much respect given to the character of Barbara, who’s just dead weight to the other characters and to the film itself, really! The characterizations in general can’t be called nuanced or profound, although I found the acting to be of a very high quality! Duane Jones in particular is good, and it’s interesting, given the times, that he’s black: this easily could have been a purposeful thing, a political statement from the progressive Romero, but in fact he says that Jones was simply the best actor they knew! This is borne up by his performance, and everyone else is pretty good too, or at least acceptable! This goes a long mile in a low-budget production!

It's rough in spots (which I don’t personally regard as a debit), and the characters occasionally do dumb things, and it probably all seems quaint and silly and overly familiar to today’s zombie-soaked audiences! But it still works for me, and I have every respect for its place in horror history, so I give Night of the Living Dead three and a half keys to the gas pump!

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