Night of the Living Dead

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Night of the Living Dead

Horror, Drama | 96 min | Released: 1968
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon
Our Rating: 8
Black & White

Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny Blair (Russell Streiner) drive to rural Pennsylvania for an annual visit to their father’s grave, at their mother’s request. Noticing Barbra’s discomfort, Johnny teases, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra”, before she is attacked by a strange man (Bill Hinzman). Johnny tries to rescue his sister, but hits his head on a gravestone, killing himself. Barbra flees by car but crashes into a tree. With the stranger in pursuit, she escapes on foot, and later arrives at a farmhouse where she discovers a woman’s mangled corpse. Running out of the house, she is confronted by strange menacing figures like the man in the graveyard. Ben (Duane Jones) takes her into the house, where Barbra slowly descends into shock and insanity as Ben drives the monsters from the house and seals the doors and windows.

Ben and Barbra are unaware that the farmhouse has a cellar, housing an angry married couple Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman) and their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who sought refuge after a group of zombies overturned their car; and teenage couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), who arrived after hearing an emergency broadcast about a series of brutal murders. Karen has fallen seriously ill after being bitten by one of the zombies. They venture upstairs when Ben turns on a radio, while Barbra awakens from a stupor. Harry demands that everyone hide in the cellar, but Ben deems it a “deathtrap” and continues, upstairs, to barricade the house, with Tom’s help.

Radio reports explain that a state of mass murder is sweeping across the eastern United States. Ben finds a television, the emergency broadcaster reports that the recently deceased have become reanimated and are consuming the flesh of the living. Experts, scientists, and the United States military fail to discover the cause, though one scientist suspects radioactive contamination from a space probe returning from Venus, which was deliberately exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere when the radiation was detected.

When the reports list local rescue centers offering refuge and safety, Ben plans to obtain medical care for Karen. Ben and Tom therefore refuel Ben’s truck, while Harry hurls Molotov cocktails from an upper window at the “undead.” Fearing for Tom’s safety, Judy follows him. At the pump, Tom accidentally spills gasoline on the truck, setting it ablaze. Tom and Judy try to drive the truck away from the pump, but Judy is unable to free herself from its door, and the truck explodes, instantly killing Tom and Judy.

Ben returns to the house, but is locked out by Harry, and forces entry. Angered by Harry’s cowardice, Ben beats him, while the undead feed on the remains of Tom and Judy. In the house, a news report reveals that, aside from setting the “reactivated bodies” on fire, only a gunshot or heavy blow to the head can stop them, and that posses of armed men are patrolling the countryside to restore order.

Moments later, the lights go out and the living dead break through the barricades. Harry grabs Ben’s rifle and threatens to shoot him, but Ben wrestles the gun away and fires. Mortally wounded, Harry stumbles into the cellar and collapses next to Karen, who has also died from her illness. The undead try to pull Helen and Barbra through the windows, but Helen frees herself and goes down into the cellar, to find a reanimated Karen eating Harry. Helen, paralyzed by shock, falls as Karen stabs her to death with a masonry trowel. Barbra, seeing Johnny among the living dead, is carried away by the horde and devoured. The undead overrun the house, and Ben seals himself inside the cellar (ironically, the course of action he originally argued against), where he finds Harry and Helen starting to reanimate and shoots them.

The next morning, Ben is awakened by the gunshots of sheriff’s deputies killing all the zombies they find. Venturing upstairs, he is killed by a member of the posse. The film ends with a series of still shots as Ben is placed onto a burning pyre, along with other dead bodies.

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Movie Notes:

Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 American independent zombie film directed by George A. Romero, starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea and Karl Hardman. It premiered on October 1, 1968, and was completed on a US$114,000 budget. The film became a financial success, grossing $12 million domestically and $18 million internationally. It has been a cult favorite ever since.

“The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying… It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.”

Response from Variety after the initial release reflects the outrage generated by Romero’s film: “Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence, Night of the Living Dead will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example. In [a] mere 90 minutes this horror film (pun intended) casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distributor Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and [exhibitors] who book [the picture], as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of film goers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism…”

One commentator asserts that the film garnered little attention from critics, “except to provoke argument about censoring its grisly scenes.”