Night of the Living Dead is the movie which led to the rise of zombie movies as we know them today. Whether or not you think that’s a good thing you have to respect a film which has that kind of creative impact. While I respect the cinematic legacy of this film it is by no means perfect.
Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) drive across the country to visit their father’s grave. They arrive in rural Pennsylvania and make their way to the grave. They lay the wreath and remember their childhood. As Johnny is teasing Barbra a man wanders along in the background as he gets closer something seems wrong. The man attacks Barbara and Johnny wrestles him away, saving her. The man and Johnny fall to the ground and Barbara flees. After crashing the car she flees on foot and eventually comes to a farmhouse. Ben (Duane Jones) save her from more strange people like the man in the graveyard. He then starts sealing the doors and windows of the house. It transpires that there are more people are hiding in the basement from whatever is going on outside. Throughout the night there are arguments, news broadcasts revealing information about the creatures, and escape plans. With each new occurrence the dynamic in the house changes as the group try to survive the night.
The message of the movie and the zombies were very separate. The focus inside the house was who the leader was, who had the power, the interactions between the characters. The zombies felt fairly incidental. Yes they were what was trapping the group inside but the zombies could have just as easily been replaced with a hurricane or some other natural disaster. Don’t get me wrong all of the interactions inside the house were interesting as were the fights with the zombies. However it felt like it was switching back and forth between two different movies.
As a horror movie Night of the Living Dead doesn’t hold up. It may have been terrifying in 1968 but it’s not as scary now. The closest the movie came to scary were moments which made me slightly queasy. It’s not even the kind of scary which I’m fine with in the daytime but come nightfall I’m terrified. Unfortunately it’s just plain not scary.
As a movie the film is still good. Having an outside threat cause conflict amongst a trapped and desperate group is fascinating. This works especially well with the zombies as a representation of other humans as the enemy. It breeds paranoia and mistrust among the group and leads to a mentality of self-interest and self-preservation. It brings to mind the red scare, McCarthyism, and fascist regimes where the government encourage citizens to spy on each other. Situations where paranoia is widespread still exist in the world today such as in North Korea. As long as the characters behaviour in the film rings true to human behaviour in the real world Night of the Living Dead will endure as a representation of that.
The idea of zombies is great but they didn’t really use them very well. I liked that they were a metaphor for an enemy within which meshed well with the goings on inside the farmhouse. But the ghoulish creatures weren’t enough of an enemy for a horror film. They were a constant presence but when they did take action it felt very calculated which for me detracted from the scare factor.
This film has strong symbolism, metaphors, and ideas but it seemed as though these were expected to do all of the work. In any other genre this would’ve been okay but in horror if I’m not frightened then something isn’t working. You can say that the enemy are all around us and even that they are us. If they then stand around doing nothing then it doesn’t matter how good the metaphor is, I’m bored.
Music can make or break horror and in this case it was detrimental to the film. There was little subtlety to the music. It was decidedly in your face and obnoxiously announced what was happening on the screen. Ideally for most of a film you wouldn’t even consciously notice the music. I have no objection to utilising music to enhance moments in a film but this was just distracting.
I don’t think the film is scary I’ll admit that that’s in part due to my being a jaded millennial. However Halloween (1978) scared the bejesus out of me so it’s not all about the film’s age. I prefer this overly cerebral version of horror to just blood and guts but in a perfect world a horror movie could be both smart and scary. The symbolism of the film is great and are what has let it stay relevant for so long. Night of the Living Dead is an undeniable part of cinematic history but if you want to be scared then look… oh my god behind you!