1968’s Night of the Living Dead didn’t just write the rules for zombie films, but for zombies as the world knows them in popular culture today. Thanks to director George A. Romero, this was the first time the creatures were portrayed in this particular style, and we haven’t really gone back on that image since.
In this movie the characters and the rest of the country are learning about zombies for the first time–things we’re all well familiar with by now. Beginning with adult brother and sister, Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O’Dea), visiting their father’s grave, the two of them are unaware of a zombie outbreak going on throughout the country. They are approached by a strange man (a zombie), who ends up killing Johnny. But Barbra escapes to an abandoned house. Eventually joined by several other non-zombies, her shock renders her incapacitated and hysterical. In fact, it’s the worst part of the movie–the first 20 minutes or so of her acting ridiculous.
Even despite others trying to talk with her and help her, she just remains frustratingly paralyzed and literally incapable of doing anything whatsoever.
But about the third of the way through, as more people show up and dilute Barbra from necessity, the film gets good. The group of strangers are trapped inside the house as zombies surround them outside and try to get in.
Throughout much of the movie, the zombie scenes are the weakest parts. Some of the anticipation drags on for too long and we lose interest. Maybe that’s because we’ve grown so accustomed to zombie behavior nowadays. But back then this was all being realized for the very first time. Though the creatures are definitely creepy, it’s the brilliantly piercing musical score that may be the biggest cause of all the jumpiness.
The film is actually strongest when the zombies aren’t shown attacking. When the scenes are rooted in dialogue and character development, focusing on the people inside the house and their paranoias, rather than the zombies outside the house.
The story is founded in good, sound logic, and this shows in the well thought-out dialogue. For better or worse, Night of the Living Dead wears its budget on its sleeves at times. But this just allows the script to shine through better.
There’s no doubt what this over 50-year-old film did for the horror genre as a whole. Watching it now, the influence is glaringly obvious–whether directly or indirectly. Often times seminal pieces like this show their age easily–especially when the budget is small. But Night of the Living Dead still achieves a certain greatness even without having the privilege of our unjaded viewership.