"Night of the Living Dead" (George A. Romero, 1968) Johnny and Barbara (Russell Streiner and Judith O'Dea) are two dutiful kids who schlep all the way up to a high hill-top cemetery outside of Pittsburgh to put a rememberance on their father's grave. It's a big deal to Barbara, but not to Johnny (who hasn't been to church lately) and, according to his grandfather, is "goink to Hale!" It's the Summer Solstice, 8 pm at night but still light out, and there's a thunderstorm a-brewing.
There's not a soul around at the cemetery, but that doesn't mean there's no activity. There's that tall unsteady guy in the dark suit over there (S. William Hinzman), looking a little pale. In fact, it looks like he hasn't had a bite in days! But Johnny, still the same disrespectful cut-up he was when he and Barb were kids, can't help making fun: "They're coming to GET you, Barbara..." he dramatically intones, not realizing that he may be right for once in his miserable life. Before he knows it, that tall pale guy is attacking Barbara, and when Johnny steps in, the thing attacks him, trying to bite his neck. Before long, Johnny is taking a dirt-nap with a tombstone for a pillow, and "Gary Shambling" is chasing Barbara out of the bone-yard.
Then, it's all down-hill from there.
Within ten minutes she's trapped in a farm-house surrounded by flesh-eating zombies trying to get in—good thing they seem unable to open doors! And it's a good thing that Ben (Duane Jones) has happened to run out of gas nearby. The reason? Barbara is probably the last human being alive you want to be trapped with during a zombie attack (that is described by a newscaster as "wholesale murder"—life being cheap, I guess) Hysterical and useless, she seems incapable of doing anything except the exact-opposite of what should be done in a crisis, and is at her best when she's numb with shock.* Ben, on the other hand, is smart, competent, logical and efficient, well aware that this is no "Sunday School Picnic," and a fast study, figuring out that perforating zombie brain-pans with anything from bullets to tire-irons is the only way to stop them.
Ben may be the greatest hero in all of horror films; that he is African-American, the only black face in a crowd of white—and whiter—is just one of the sign-posts that "Night of the Living Dead" may be doing something more than target practice. Director George Romero protests up and down that Jones was hired because he was the best audition (and, indeed, he gives the best performance of the non-grunting, teeth-gnashing roles), but the fact that his Ben is so unquestionably in charge and handling the situation, despite his dithering neighbors in the buffet—and nothing is made of it—speaks volumes for a film made in 1968.
But you can read all sorts of social messages into "Night of the Living Dead," if that's what it takes to keep peeking at it through your fingers. It could be a treatise on race relations, sure. It could be a cautionary tale, as most of the victims are killed due to the actions of someone they loved. It could be a political statement of using unity against an implacable foe (like soulless communists), whether attacking from within or without. It could be a warning against the Tyranny of Science (radiation is the cause of it all, but that's as useful as being in a control group). Or it could be a protest against neighbors who drop by at odd hours to chew the fat. Maybe it's promoting vegetarianism. Whatever the reason, "Night of the Living Dead" sinks its teeth into more dynamic issues than "Is it better to be upstairs, or in the basement?" (Answer: Outside with "The Gun-Club").
Inspired by Herke Hervey's low-budget "Carnival of the Souls," Romero, who also made industrial films—and filmed shorts for "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood"—drew style-points from Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend," (and it's first screen adapation "The Last Man on Earth"), but amped up the dynamics with quickly cut hand-held shots and frequent close-ups of angry antagonists squaring off in low-light conditions. Romero also made a more grisly movie than folks were used to, although the gore was decidedly low-tech: for blood the crew poured Bosco over the victims (probably just made them more delectable for the zombies!).
"Night of the Living Dead" is a boiler-maker of a movie, determined to keep activities at a feverish pitch, and has none of the care of yesterday's "Carnival of the Souls." But, the sheer adrenaline that courses through the film makes it a dynamic film-going experience—upsetting, nihilistic, and cynical. In the public domain, it was made part of the National Film Registry in 1999. It has spawned more remakes and sequels (with more on the way) than just about any movie ever made.
Have a Safe and Sane Hallowe'en. Remember, no candy for zombies!
* That being the case, the first thing Ben should have told her was: "Barbara! Stay inside the house and whatever you do, don't go out there with those zombies!" It's a "win" either way!