What a fantastic movie!
I don’t like horror and I don’t think zombies are interesting or cool.
But I didn’t need to. “Night of the Living Dead” is a masterfully crafted film – consistently entertaining, and suspenseful without being scary. It’s like Hitchcock, but better.
The story is simple and familiar. Slow-moving but relentless ghouls begin roaming the countryside. Seven people manage to board themselves up in a farm house. As the long night passes, the terrified survivors reckon with fear of death, and suspicion of each other.
Impending apocalyptic doom is the backdrop. But writer/director George Romero is mostly focused on the humanity and vulnerability of his characters. Heroic Ben leads the effort to board up the house while traumatized Barbara can barely get off the couch.
Much of the drama is based around Ben’s ongoing feud with know-it-all Harry. Ben wants to mount the defense against the ghouls from upstairs while Harry wants to hole up in the basement. In a subtle wink to Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” it turns out that jerk Harry was right all along.
George Romero does a perfect job of giving us information about the zombies through realistic sounding television reports.
If this movie were made today, there would be a stupid sequence set in the White House or the Pentagon where good-looking government nerds learn why the dead are being reanimated and how to stop them. Romero never gives us answers and that felt right. When something is terribly wrong, don’t look for answers from the news or from the government.
“Night of the Living Dead” was made during the most tumultuous year of the 20th Century, but George Romero was careful to leave politics out of his masterpiece.
Not that critics understood that. I’ve read that some people interpret “Living Dead” as an anti-Vietnam allegory. It isn’t. Some people interpret “Living Dead” as a civil rights message movie. It isn’t.
The lead character Ben is played by Duane Jones – a black actor. So what, though? My observation is that George Romero wrote the character Ben, who is partly based on Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” Romero held an audition and hired the most talented, charismatic actor available. Some things aren’t about race and aren’t political.
I don’t fault the critics. When a movie is this brilliant, it’s only natural to look for subtext and meaning that isn’t there.
But there is no subtext. “Night of the Living Dead” is simply a perfectly written, perfectly executed, and relentlessly entertaining little horror flick. It may be one of the top twenty films I’ve ever seen.