“Night of the Living Dead” (1968) – Arkansas Online | Episode Movies

In a 2017 discussion of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” Chicago-based film critic Josh Larsen offered some food for thought: Can a young modern film buff see this revered horror classic for the first time and have anywhere near the same reaction as moviegoers did during the original one 1968 release? Could the film possibly have the same impact today as it did then? This was such an intriguing question for me for a number of reasons.

As contemporary film viewers, we have clearly defined the zombie subgenre for ourselves. We know what they are, how to kill them, and we know for sure not to get bitten. The very concept of a zombie no longer has any surprise or shock value. But imagine 1968. Sure, variations on the reanimated dead existed in films like Victor Halperin’s 1932 Precode White Zombie and 1966’s Hammer Films’ The Plague of the Zombies. But the concept of a zombie, as explored by horror legend George A. Romero in “Night of the Living Dead,” was fairly new and shocking. It also caused controversy and outrage, as Variety notoriously called it an “unrelieved orgy of sadism” and questioned the “moral sanity of the moviegoers” who chose to see it.

While I may not be old enough to have seen it when it was originally released, my own first experience of Night of the Living Dead left a similar mark. It was in the early 80’s during the first wave of VCR rentals. I guess I wasn’t older than 13 years. Back then, there was no established zombie subgenre. Zombies hadn’t become the pop culture staple they are today. They were a new experience for me – an absolutely frightening first encounter that I still remember today. Maybe that’s why Romero’s classic is still my personal favorite horror film.

Romero’s chilling vision becomes even more spectacular when you factor in his tiny budget. Made for around $114,000, the money constraints not only shaped the production but also the story itself. Romero and co. knew they couldn’t spread their shoot across multiple locations. Instead, his story brought the horror to one place — a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse. This serves as a central hub for the conflicts fought both inside and outside its walls; both of the flesh-eating dead and the small collection of human characters.

The group of people barricaded in the farmhouse have no idea what is happening. Much like his characters, Romero leaves the audience in the dark, only feeding tiny bits of information as the story progresses. Think of it through the eyes of a 1968 moviegoer with no preconceived ideas about zombies or their mythology. They can only guess along with the characters, who testify to what they saw with their own eyes and make ill-informed guesses as to the cause.

One of the most effective means of information (both for us and for the characters) comes from a TV located upstairs. The group of six watch closely as emergency newscasts sift through reports and presenters interview “experts” to relay information to audiences. While television is a vehicle for informing, there’s also an uncanny effectiveness in how Romero lets it play in the background, adding to the already tense atmosphere.

As the zombie menace gathers outside the home, the dynamic inside grows just as tense. Romero’s cast of compelling characters adds additional layers of drama to the story. It begins with the star Duane Jones playing Ben. He serves as the backbone, brain, and in many ways the moral compass of the film. But what is most significant is Romero’s casting of Jones, a black man, for such a heroic and assertive role. Its importance may not resonate as strongly today, but back then it was a bold decision that certainly left its mark.

Film historians and film critics have come up with all sorts of ways to interpret “Night of the Living Dead”. You’ve seen it as a portrayal of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, even a critique of capitalism. All of which are compelling reading. But for me it works just as well as a groundbreaking horror film that laid the groundwork for a subgenre that’s still being built on today. And each glorious 35mm black-and-white image represented a bold new step for the independent filmmaking that has thrived ever since. It’s still a standout horror film and a groundbreaking piece of filmmaking.

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