They're coming to get you, Barbara!
More than thirty years have elapsed since George A. Romero's horror classic "Night of the Living Dead" first scared audiences, yet the influence of this shocking film can still be seen today. The image of chompin' zombies climbing in through windows to devour human flesh has become a pop culture icon, referenced in such disparate places as John Carpenter's seminal work "Assault on Precinct 13", the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller", and more recently, the best-selling Playstation game series "Resident Evil". I remember as a kid being scared silly after my father borrowed a movie projector from the local library along with the reels for "Night of the Living Dead". Though the damage done wasn't permanent (I think), the sight of the walking dead lunching on body parts (actually butcher scraps supplied by one of the film's investors) was difficult to erase from my young impressionable mind.
At the heart of "Night of the Living Dead" is your typical 'trapped in the foxhole' story. The claustrophobic setting in this case is a deserted house where several individuals have sought refuge after being attacked by the 'ghouls'. Among the unlucky refuge-seekers are the rational and commanding Ben (Duane Jones), the nervous wreck Barbara (Judith O'Dea), a young couple (Russell Streiner and Judith Ridley, who are married in real-life), the paranoid Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his caustic wife (Marilyn Eastman), and their gravely-injured daughter (Kyra Schon).
As the living dead gather around the house, drawn by the scent of human flesh, the impromptu occupants of the house gradually piece together the violent mayhem that is unraveling around them and throughout the eastern seaboard of the United States. Unfortunately, they are vastly outnumbered by the legions of undead awaiting outside, and their only hope for survival, cooperation, is as flimsy as the makeshift barricades that they have erected on the doors and windows.
Are they slow-moving chief?
Yeah, they're dead... they're all messed up.
Granted, there are the film's detractors who deride some of the film's more obvious 'special effects', the somewhat graphic violence, and some truly terrible acting, particularly the clunky scene between Streiner and Ridley, and O'Dea's foaming at the mouth. But despite these faults, "Night of the Living Dead" tells an engaging story at a smart pace, and it is easy to become caught up in the action as the film revs up into high gear.
Chief, if I were surrounded by say six or eight of these things, would I stand a chance?
Well, if you had a gun, shoot 'em in the head. If you didn't, get a torch and burn'em, they go up pretty easy. Beat 'em or burn 'em.
Romero was never able to top the work he did in "Night of the Living Dead". His follow-up efforts, "Dawn of the Dead" and "Day of the Dead", were never able to recapture the suspense or controversy generated by this first film. Part of the reason was that the script of "Night of the Living Dead" truly shocked the audience, not only with graphic gore (though pale by today's standards), but also with storytelling that defied your usual narrative conventions. Barbara, the film's heroine (or so it seems), goes into shock as a result of a run-in with a zombie, and though we expect her to 'snap out of it', she never does. An escape plan goes horribly wrong, killing two characters that the script had spent an inordinate time allowing the audience to sympathize with. Despite the immediate danger from the 'ghouls' outside, it is in fighting and paranoia among the human characters that eventually seal their fate. Finally, there is the film's bleak ending rife with racist imagery, which has been the subject of debate over the years. Was Romero making an acerbic commentary on the state of race relations at the time, or was he simply saying that humans in general were no better than mindless zombies?
Given the film's cult following, it is not surprising that "Night of the Living Dead" has been resurrected on numerous occasions. In 1990, it was unnecessarily remade with Tony Todd (seen recently in "Final Destination") and Patricia Tallman (Lyta Alexander on "Babylon 5") in the roles of Ben and Barbara. There have also been a number of anniversary editions, such as the one released in 1993, and a colorized edition. However, the best of the bunch came out in 1998, on the film's thirtieth anniversary. In honor of Romero's classic film, some of the film's original participants, with the exception of Romero himself, decided to improve and expand upon the cult horror flick. Led by Bill Hinzman (who played 'Zombie #1' in the film), the film was re-mastered, cleaning up the aging film stock's grainy image and the soundtrack was re-scored by Scott Vladimir Licina. In addition, they shot some new footage, based on Romero's original notes for scenes that he had lacked time and money to film, that provided the story with a prologue and an epilogue.
Kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul.
While the cleaned up picture and the new soundtrack are worth the price of the DVD, the value of the fifteen minutes of new footage is dubious at best, since Hinzman hacked out fifteen minutes of the original film to maintain the same 96 minute running time. Despite the use of the same film stock and cameras that Romero used on the original film, the new footage sticks out like a sore thumb. The new prologue, which establishes how Zombie #1 came to be and provides some set-up for Ben's conversation with Barbara later on, is unnecessary, and actually detracts from the film since it jettisons some of Barbara's opening dialogue. Hinzman clearly shows his age in his zombie get-up, and composer Licina ineffectively hams it up as a god-fearin' preacher. Likewise, the film's epilogue, which sets up the action in "Dawn of the Dead", is awkwardly inserted between the original film's closing scene and the end credits. The remaining new footage, which shows the aftermath of a car accident, is tolerable, mixing horror with pathos as the bodies of a family are re-animated and join a conga-line of the undead.
Thankfully, the DVD gives you a choice between the cleaned-up version of the original film (the '98 version') and the version with the new footage (the '30th Anniversary Edition'). This way, "Night of the Living Dead" purists, like myself, can gleefully enjoy Romero's original vision without having to put up with Hinzman's attempts at 'improving' on the original. Despite the faux pas of Hinzman, fans of "Night of the Living Dead" will definitely want to add this disc to their collection.
Among low-budget horror films, "Night of the Living Dead" is a classic. Using a simple setting, stock characters, some low-rent special effects, and a story about the dead coming back to life, the artistry of George A. Romero created an unforgettable movie-going experience that still remains powerful to this day. It's just a shame that Romero was never able to top it.