‘From the film archives’ column
Reporter Andrew Akers will conduct a monthly review of classic and iconic films he has never seen for The Times to provide readers a new perspective on archived films. Email suggestions to email@example.com.
From AMC’s “The Walking Dead” to “World War Z,” zombies have inundated popular media during the past few years. In honor of zombies and Halloween, I returned to the birth of the modern zombie flick: the 1968 independent film “Night of the Living Dead.”
In 1967, George A. Romero began his career as a horror film director with a ragtag group of Pittsburgh residents — most of whom had no previous experience in filmmaking — and a budget of a little more than $100,000.
The result was “Night of the Living Dead,” which became one of the most successful horror films of its time and spawned the billion-dollar zombie film industry that continues to this day.
This black-and-white film chronicles the story of a group of survivors who barricade themselves inside a rural house when “ghouls,” or reanimated corpses, begin rising from their graves and attacking the living.
The story begins with siblings Johnnie and Barbara, who are visiting a relative’s gravesite when the zombies begin to attack. Johnnie is quickly killed and Barbara flees to a nearby house, where she meets Ben and the rest of the survivors.
Later in the film, a radio newscaster aptly summarizes the situation:
“Eyewitness accounts described the assassins as ordinary-looking people, misshapen monsters, people who look like they’re in a trance and creatures that look like people but behave like animals. Some tell of seeing victims that looked as if they had been torn apart. This whole ghastly story began developing two days ago, and from that point on, these terrible events kept on snowballing in a reign of terror that has not abated.”
All of the usual conflicts one expects in a modern horror film are present in “Night.” But occasionally it takes unexpected turns, always leaving me glued to the edge of my seat.
The acting is surprisingly good for a low-budget film with a relatively inexperienced crew. Ben is impressive and Barbara is endearing, though a little useless. While some supporting characters are bland and boring, none of them detract from the story and a feeling of loss accompanies nearly every death.
“Night of the Living Dead” is clearly a product of its era. The movie suggests the cause of the pandemic is a rare form of radiation brought back to Earth from Venus on a NASA probe. Considering the race to space and the nuclear armanent programs between the United States and the former Soviet Union, it seems plausible. In addition, local police and citizen militias begin hunting the zombies in a haphazard search-and-destroy capacity, reminiscent of the Vietnam War, which leads to one of the tragic climaxes of the movie.
“Night” breaks several culturally significant barriers during its 90-minute runtime.
The main character Ben is played by Duane Jones, who is the first African-American to perform the starring role in a horror film.
Because of its gruesome scenes of cannibalism, murder and family violence, the film caused a lot controversy and received heavy backlash from critics. To make matters worse, it was released a month before the Motion Picture Association of America began its rating system, which allowed anyone, including children, to see the movie in theaters.
“The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence,” movie critic Roger Ebert said in his 1967 reaction to the film. “The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through and had become unexpectedly terrifying.
“There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe 9 years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.”
Much of the criticism of the film centered around the fact that kids were allowed to see this film in theaters. But compared to modern horror movies, the violent scenes are not extremely gory.
The most significant aspect of “Night,” is the fact that it created the modern concept of the zombie without ever using the word. Zombie movies existed before in movies like “White Zombie” or “I Walked with a Zombie,” but they were not the moaning and flesh-eating horde that Romero invented and used to much-terrifying effect.
Cultural significance aside, “Night of the Living Dead” is scary and thoroughly entertaining. If you have ever enjoyed a zombie film, do yourself a favor and watch this one.
Andrew Akers is a part-time reporter for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.