Thursday, March 27, 2008

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The Action Mutant…
smells a barbecue going on around here!

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

review by Joe Burrows

I remember watching the original Night of the Living Dead about eight years ago, on Halloween night no less! I didn’t think that adage about having the lights off and watching a film alone would apply to me. Ninety plus minutes later and this teenager was spooked and astonished at what would become my favorite horror film of all time (though it’s probably equal with Halloween, which I also first saw on that blessed holiday). There have been remakes, rehashes, rip-offs and homage…but this was the first.

The Plot, as it was:
Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russ Streiner) visit their father’s grave at the cemetery, only to be attacked by undead zombies. Barbara gets away and meets Ben (Duane Jones), as the two barricade themselves inside an abandoned house. Tensions begin to mount as they discover others in the basement, made up of a stubborn white collar named Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), his wife and sick kid (Marilyn Eastman and Kyra Schon) and a young couple (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). Will they make it out of the house alive? What is causing the dead to rise? Why is Harry such an asshole?

Don’t shoot me…I’m only the reviewer!:
Other Horror opuses may have more thrills or gore or are just better made but that does not discount Night of the Living Dead in the least. The B&W film and cinema verite style brings a great sense of atmosphere and authenticity, as well as the “news report” footage that goes along with the story. While the technique may be crude due to the low budget, it makes perfect sense to do things that way. The story is all about surviving and taking on a minimalist nature in fighting an unknown enemy. Everything is kept credible and the acting is capable enough in the hands of a mainly amateur cast. O’Dea does well with the material given, which honestly isn’t much. Her characterization was altered in the 1990 remake and although I thought the latter, Patricia Tallman version was more entertaining, I admit the “catatonic” Barbara is more likely. Jones has great presence as the male lead and it’s fascinating to know that no racial undercurrent was planned to be included in the film. Writers John A. Russo and George A. Romero (also the director) merely cast him as the best actor to audition but the fact that he was African American added resonance to a film (and mainly, its ending) made in a turbulent time in history. Everyone else is adequate, though Hardman does score points as the main prick of the bunch. While there are things that obviously date the film, it is still a great achievement and the zeitgeist of what would become the “Zombie” subgenre. Oh, and if you have friends over…keep the lights off for fun.

Body Count/Violence: 21 (8 mortal deaths and 13 on-screen zombie kills). Though not very bloody by today’s standards, it was pretty heady stuff for 1968 and the envelope gets pushed within those standards. Zombies are taken out via shotgun blasts, tire irons to the head and being lit on fire. Death also occurs via explosion, stabbing by garden trowel, clubbing, etc. And the flesh feasting by the zombies still packs a wallop after all of these years! It was Unrated upon its initial release and is likely a light PG-13 today.

Sexuality/Nudity: There are two nude female zombies, though they are only shown from the back and the side.

Language/Dialogue: I caught one “God Dammit” and that was about it.

How bad was it?:
Night of the Living Dead is pretty well universally praised by both Horror and mainstream fans alike. Though scorned back in the day, Ebert gave it ***1/2 then and you won’t likely find a bad word about it in any other review today. Critics seem to appreciate more what the film was able to accomplish on such low funds.

Did it make the studio’s day?:
Shot in the summer and fall of 1967 by Romero for an amazing $114,000, Night of the Living Dead was released on 10/1/68 through Walter Reade Organization and Continental Motion Pictures. As of the present day, the film has grossed an estimated $30 million worldwide (despite it being in the public domain since 1989). Be careful which DVD release you get however, as you want to stay away from the 30th Anniversary edition (with 15 minutes of new footage replacing 15 minutes of original footage) and the 90 minute version. Check IMDB for that info, as there are tons of companies distributing it on DVD.

Film: ****/*****
Entertainment value: *****/*****

Copyright 2007 The Action Mutant.

No comments: