For many, it was Psycho that changed everything and from certain point of view, they were right. Hitchcock’s masterpiece of rug-pulls, twists and cross dressing serial killers has been cited as a major touchstone when it comes to modern genre storytelling, but eight years after Noman Bates promoted a rather extreme method of shower maintenance, a new title shambled into drive-ins to terrify the world and irrevocably change the face of horror with it’s suffocating nihilistic tone.
That film was George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead.
Johnny and Barbra, a bickering brother and sister, finish up their long drive to pay their annual pilgrimage to a Pennsylvanian cemetery to honor their deceased father. Johnny, noticing that his quiet, skittish sister is noticeably uncomfortable among these surroundings, does the first natural thing that comes into a siblings mind when they see a brother or sister upset and starts to tease the shit out of her (“They’re coming to get you Barbra!” is still one of the great iconic lines in horror) only for them to run smack bang into a pale crazy man who immediately attacks them.
As Johnny wrestles with the man he stumbles, bashing his skull on a headstone leaving a terror stricken Barbra to flee for her life. Coming across a deserted farmhouse that boasts a fetching porch, a spacious living room and a badly mutilated corpse on the landing, Barbra meets Ben, a stranger passing through town who protects her from more menacing attackers but not before she succumbs to shock and descends into catatonic stupor. As Ben tries to fortify the farmhouse against any more pasty face marauders, two facts come to light. One: the glassy eyed attackers are actually the recently dead come back to life who eat the flesh of the living and two: five more survivors reveal themselves who have been holed up in the farm house’s basement the whole time. Young, amiable couple Tom and Judy seem nice enough and eager to help but Harry, flanked by his long suffering wife and his wounded daughter, turns out to be an insufferable asshole who immediately butts heads with Ben about who exactly is in charge. As the two alpha males have probably the worst timed dick measuring contest in history, the dead are rapidly amassing outside and it soon becomes clear that hammering some boards over the windows, bluntly speaking, isn’t gonna do shit. Can everyone put their differences aside long enough to escape or will prejudices simmering barely under the surface threaten to tear them all apart before the zombies do?
Despite the fact that the average organ in a zombie’s chest is as about as lifeless as an orgy in a coma unit, there’s a fierce political heart that beats within the breast of NOTLD. A scathing attack on everything from damaging masculinity (if everyone had worked together maybe things might have turned out better) to the casual racism that bubbles under the surface of civilised society to this day. Romero stated that his casting of a black actor in the role of Ben was merely because Duane Jones was the best actor who came in to audition but it causes a supercharged sense of unease that is all powerful. The subject of race is never once actually uttered during the film and yet it’s everywhere, unspoken and eroding trust as both men gradually let their prejudices overtake their survival instinct.
Painfully relevant and defiantly down beat, NOTLD also hugely benefits from being creepy as Hell with it’s black and white slivers of light highlighting it’s cannibalistic antagonists effortlessly chilling you too the bone with suprisingly gruesome scenes of flesh chomping for it’s time. The trowel scene in the basement is legitimately upsetting and the the film as a whole carries an exhilarating feeling of crushing hopelessness which makes you feel for the characters even more.
As the character’s huddle around radios and TV sets, desperate to find out what in hell is actually going on, the movie hints at larger horrors going on outside the farmhouse (check Barbra’s realization about what must have happened to her brother when the news drops that the dead are flesh eaters), with deputized rednecks casually dealing out zombie killing advice along with occasional head shots (“beat ’em or burn ’em, they go up real easy.”) hinting that for some, a zombie apocalypse would actually be quite fun. It’s all worryingly feasible.
The film would be an undisputed five star masterpiece regardless, but it’s infamous ending, which impressively is a staggering slap in the face for anyone who requires a happy ending with a side order of justice, carries it above and beyond the perceived norm which goes a long way to establishing the “no-rules” ethos that all horror movies worth their salt should live by in this day and age.
Any issues the film may have can be explained away but the time period. Sure, it’s frustrating that Barbra virtually has nothing to add to the story the second Ben turns up due to being a gibberish wreck, but then EVERYONE in the film is hamstringed due to the fact they can’t think outside their narrow and limited gender roles that are defined by the confined times they live in. Johnny’s cruel teasing, Harry’s wife, Karren failing to act against her husband’s foolishness, Barbra’s “weakness”, everyone is stuck in their perceived roles and are lost. That’s the point.
A haunting work of art that proudly carries the legacy of the entire future of horror movies on it’s slouched shoulders while steadily refusing to comprise it’s bleak vision, Night Of The Living Dead is ground zero for the entire genre as we know it.
A genre that ironically doesn’t know how to lay down and die.