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Night of the Living Dead

Posted: 18 Jun 2023
Released: 1968
Rating: ★★★★★

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Image: A car driving on a dirty road, with the title: Night of the Living Dead

This is a cult classic. Patient zero of modern zombie films. I love this film, the five stars are a dead give-away.

To understand the significance this film had on popular culture, let us quickly review the history of zombie lore. The undead have been written about as early as the 18th century, not as the brain-loving variants we know today.

When zombies entered cinema prominently with the film White Zombie (1932), the undead were no more than flesh puppets. People turned into brainless, unthinking marionettes by means of a voodoo tonic or concoction containing neurotoxins and possibly hallucinogenics. There was no hunger for flesh, nor did these zombies have to die to reach their new status. They were empty shells controlled by the whims of whomever poisoned them.

A new undead

The Night of the Living Dead built on the zombie legend in multiple, important ways:

  • First, anybody recently deceased will revive as undead. This introduced zombies en masse, and raised the bar of fear, because anybody can potentially become undead.
  • Second, zombies developed a hunger for flesh. Their biting and rending dealing enough damage to cause death, creating even more undead.
  • Third, to take a zombie down you have to aim for the head. Destroy the brain.

The detail to attention shines in this film. Interesting camera angles give the perspective of the chaos and disorder which the characters find themselves in; A steady stream of information is presented through radio and television broadcasts; The uncertainty of the characters' futures are reflected in the decisions they struggle to make, and peaks with the conflict that arises when they can't agree on what to do.

The new-breed zombies were unknown to audiences, the film doesn't assume that the viewer knows what these creatures are, thus feeding the audience with pertinent information is paramount. The radio and television is used to great effect in this regard. The information, masquerading as news reports, is subtle and natural, yet ever present.

Okay, that is enough nonsense! Time for the review ...

The radioactive probe

The explorer satellite, a space probe sent to visit our sister planet Venus, was on it's way back home to earth, when scientists detected a mysterious radiation accompanying the craft. This radiation reactivates the brains of the recently departed, stimulating them into revivification.

Image: Duane Jones wielding a crowbar

Image: Marilyn Eastman playing a mom sitting by her daughter's side

Finding shelter

The story begins in a cemetery, where siblings Barbra and Johnny are visiting dad. A stranger ambles toward them, they could be hobbled by a leg injury, or perhaps they are just drunk. We don't know yet, and Johnny teases his sister that the limping stranger is coming to get her. Barbra doesn't like his teasing. The stranger grabs Barbra, oh the horror! Her jerk brother wrestles the drunkard away from her, Barbra escapes the clamour, leaving Johnny to fend for himself.

Barbra runs to the car, and a panicked few minutes ensue as the zombie tries to break through the windows. She releases the handbrake and the car coasts down-hill, where it comes to a stop. She makes a run for a farmhouse nearby. We can only imagine what happened to poor jerk Johnny.

Image: Russell Streiner and Judith O'Dea as Johnny and Barbra
They're coming to get you, Barbra...

Barbra makes a gruesome discovery in the farmhouse, and her state of shock is compounded. All of a sudden, Ben rushes in through the front door, also seeking shelter. He starts boarding up the doors and windows, he tries to calm Barbra down, and instructs her to help find wood to board up the place. Barbra remains in a shocked stupor, but eventually she realises that Ben is fortifying the house, and she helps him out. However they are not alone... someone was already holed up in the basement!

Image: Duane Jones talking to Judith O'Dea
I saw these things flee from a burning truck, so I have an idea to start a large fire outside...

Image: Several zombies flee from a fire
Maaaarsh-Malloooows .... Grrrr Mallooooows....

Image: A two-frame animated gif of zombies moving in the distance

I don't want to spoil the remainder of the film for anyone who hasn't seen it. I covered the first twenty minutes of film, but there is plenty more to see!

Safety is opinion

The story explores what everyone do in monster-ridden life-threatening scenarios: they argue! A party of strangers are forced to cooperate, they have differing opinions on what they consider safe. Hide in the basement where there is only one exit to protect but nowhere to run? Leave the sanctuary of the house, hit the road to reach the nearest emergency assembly point, with promises of armed protection and doctors?

The rural location of the farmhouse, and lack of fuel in the truck, present some major challenges for the characters. But they try their best to overcome these problems!

Image: Everybody gathered around the television set
There is an emergency broadcast on the television!

Image: A television is propped up on two facing wooden chairs
The authorities advise everyone to stay indoors, not to go outside...

Image: A news reporter wearing thick-rimmed spectacles, sits in front of a wall of clocks for various timezones
... and to not feed the murderous walking corpses.

All law enforcement agencies, and the military, have organised to search out and destroy the marauding ghouls. Survival command centre at the pentagon, has disclosed that a ghoul can be killed by a shot in the head, or a heavy blow to the skull. Officials are quoted as explaining, that since the brain of the ghoul has been activated by the radiation, the plan is, kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul.

The End

This film is about placing normal people in an unpredictable and terrible situation, and watching how they react. The characters make decisions that never fall outside the realm of disbelief, nor do they take giant leaps of logic that leave us confused. They also decide to risk their lives to help others (or not).

This film may be old, but the story is very relevant, and the themes and character traits established in this film are used in every other zombie film since.

The film closes with a dramatic flair. An eerie three-note synth-instrument wails in the background. The sound of helicopters pass overhead. Voices shouting in the distance. These dissonant sounds are accompanied by photograph stills of men wielding meat hooks, who collect, pile and burn the dead.

Image: Reporters and gun-toting civilians
Anyone care to comment?

Image: A man interviewed on television
Ye they're dead. They're all messed up.

Reporter: Chief if I were surrounded by six or eight of these things, would I stand a chance with them?
McClelland: Well there's no problem, if you had a gun shoot 'em in the head. That's a sure way to kill 'em. If you don't, get yourself a club or a torch, beat 'em or burn 'em, they go up pretty easy.
Report: Well chief McClelland how long do you think it'll take you until you get the situation under control?
McClelland: Well pretty that's hard to say, we don't know how many of them there are. We know that when we find them we can kill 'em.
Reporter: Are they slow moving chief?
McClelland: Ye they're dead, they're all messed up.


Poster: They wont stay dead

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