There’s quite a lot to love about revisiting films of an earlier generation. Viewers today benefit from the passing of time and a context with which to understand a film’s significance. The greats are cemented as the greats, and those with a telling take on the goings-on of the time are lauded as prescient. But there’s a dark side to seeking out films of yesteryear, too. Sometimes the more embedded a film is in a specific genre, the less likely that it’s aged well. Dialogue can become antiquated and clunky, and certain methods of acting can come off as hammy – which was exactly my fear going into indie, low-budget darling and horror titan Night of the Living Dead.
We live in an age where zombies have lost a bit of their bite. An oversaturation in the Z-market has led many to lament the living dead, and not for the right reasons. If Night were to amble along in 2015, it would be laughed away in a heartbeat. The acting is overdramatic, entire conversations fall flat and a number of the ghouls look like last-minute Halloween drab. But, really, you can’t blame George Romero for this. Completed on a $114,000, it opened to an $18 million international take, defying critics that bemoaned the gratuitous gore. This was the 60’s, after all. Hollywood was on the heels of the Golden Age, and white, middle class morality was the aim of the industry. Which makes it even more impressive that Romero chose Duane Jones to play Ben, the strong, African-American lead. Remember, the fight for Civil Rights was still fresh in the thoughts and minds of the American cinema goer, and there where still quite a few that didn’t like the idea of a minority lead – which makes the final five minutes all the more poignant, especially considering the news headlines in the last year or so. And though it would be several years before Romero would team up with yet-to-be award-winning makeup and FX artist Tom Savini, many of the kills still pack a shocking punch, non more so than the scenes taking place in the basement, which we now know as an obvious horror movie death trap.
It’s been 47 years since they came to get Barbra (and about 12 seconds since I’m wondering where Romero learned how to spell) and I can honestly say I was still thrilled straight through the film in its entirety. From the graveyard, to the initial car chase, to the farmhouse and its aforementioned basement, we get an intimate view of the initial stages of the apocalypse. We’re also introduced to the rules of the classic zombie we’ve come to know and love; namely, shoot for the head! Though the slow, shuffling stiffs have all but disappeared in favor of the more aggressive, running brand of the living dead, there’s still some holdouts such a AMC’s The Walking Dead, which owes quite a debt to Romero’s startling, black and white vision. Really, the entire subgenre is beholden to Night of the Living Dead.
It’s a raw and unflinching look at the end of the world, and how people handle it – and each other – is still essential viewing come October. It’s not without its faults – with the rise of powerful female leads in recent years, Barbra’s childlike helplessness is probably the most blatant offender – but there’s plenty here to help see past the imperfections.
For old-school thrills and a still-chilling 96 minutes of cinema, it’s hard to beat Night of the Living Dead. There’s a reason Romero’s baby has been so thoroughly regarded as a classic for so long, and in spite of a number of issues, and the moviemaking environment of the time, it still holds up today.