Marilyn Eastman, Duane Jones, and Judith Ridley in Night of the Living Dead (1968)


(director: George A. Romero; screenwriters: John A. Russo/from the story by George A. Romero; cinematographer: George A. Romero; editor: George A. Romero; cast: Judith O’Dea (Barbara), Russ Streiner (Johnny), Duane Jones (Ben), Karl Hardman (Harry Cooper), Marilyn Eastman (Helen Cooper), Keith Wayne (Tom), Judith Ridley (Judy), Kyra Schon (Karen Cooper/ Upstairs body); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Karl Hardman/Russ Streiner; Silver Screen Video; 1968)

“A doozie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

George Romero’s (“Dawn of the Dead”-1978) first feature film is an assured debut work. It’s shot in grainy black-and-white that resembles a documentary. It was made during the height of the Vietnam War and for peanuts (supposedly for around $114,000, which eventually after its release turned in a gross of some $12 million); it was filmed in the surrounding confines of Pittsburgh by a cast of nonprofessionals, and is a doozie. It brings the war home to Middle America in an unexpected way, and vents on the nation’s unrest and uncertainties by using the zombie attack as a political and social metaphor. It revolutionized the way gory horror films are made and made it possible for the radical visions of directors like David Cronenberg to emerge. Viewed in modern times it, surprisingly, still retains its savage bite and visceral rawness. Its simple premise is that flesh-eating zombies have become activated by radiation from a space rocket. These silent ghouls, the unburied dead, still in human form, are ravaging the countryside as cannibals, who will remain dead only if cremated.

Brother and sister Johnny (Russ Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) venture some 200 miles from their Pittsburgh home to a cemetery where they place flowers on their father’s gravesite. Still in daylight, Barbara sees a tall stranger robotic-ally walking towards her which prompts her brother to act silly and put on a Boris Karloff monster impersonation to scare her; once in Barbara’s presence the man suddenly attacks her and when Johnny comes to her aid he’s fatally overcome by the monster. Barbara manages to flee to a nearby abandoned farmhouse where one survivor, a black man named Ben (Duane Jones), is trying to hold down the fort by smashing the skulls of the oncoming zombies. He will survive the ordeal only to be later killed by a redneck rescue party. The nightmarish night includes scenes of immolation and parricide for the small group of survivors (they include a married couple and their daughter, and a pair of young lovers) who join the original twosome. They barricade themselves in the house as it’s surrounded by the attacking zombies, and listen to the incredulous radio broadcasts that announce that the tragic epidemic is also happening in other parts of the country. After the opening scene, there’s no more cause for humor as everything turns chillingly serious. It ends not with the usual triumph of good over evil, but in a more bleak and sobering light. It left me slightly dazed and awed at how effectively it reached into my inner being.