Night of the Living Dead (1968)
I thought I'd end these Halloween classics with a real bang, and bring in not just a super positive review, but a moment of story time, in memory of George A. Romero. It all starts with an invite from one of my readers to a horror expo in our hometown, back in 2016. Director George A. Romero was gonna be there to sign autographs and meet with his fans, so I jumped on the opportunity. Plus a horror expo is just a great place to get awesome, rare horror memorabilia.
As we're browsing around, I turn my head and spot Romero, sitting at his table, seemingly waiting for something to happen. I paused, confused as all hell, wondering how in God's name the Godfather of zombie horror had not one person at his table. I decided to go for it. I said "hello", told him how much of a fan I was without gushing too hard, and straight up asked him if he was signing autographs yet. He was all smiles, told me he'd be happy to sign what I had (in this case, a 'Night of the Living Dead' DVD), and we got into a short convo about how much I appreciated him for making zombies what they were today. He signed my DVD, I thanked him, and turned to walk away.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Romero goes "Hey wait a minute, do you want a picture?" and needless to say, I was shocked. I mean, I was under the impression I needed to pay for such things. Anyway, long story short, we now have one of my favorite photos that not only shows me with a horror movie legend, holding his "baby", but Romero, himself, with a big smile on his face. Every time I look at it, I'm reminded of how humble and kind he was, proving that even the biggest celebrity names are still regular people, just with glamorous jobs. This pic can be found at the bottom of the review. Speaking of which, it's about that time.
Everything starts with siblings Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) visiting their father's grave. On their way out, Johnny is suddenly attacked and killed by some strange man (a zombie). Barbara runs, and seeks shelter in a farmhouse, but the weirdo from the cemetery and more zombies start to close in on the house before our hero Ben (Duane Jones) comes along to secure the house with them inside. Ben soon learns things like fire can fend them off as well as a trusty rifle.
They are soon joined by survivors Harry and Helen Cooper who come out of the cellar (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, respectively) and their daughter, Karen, who is left in the cellar after an "injury" (we all know what that means). A teenage couple, Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley, respectively) also joins them, seeking shelter after a radio broadcast tells them they need to be indoors after several brutal killings. Together, they must team up and set aside whatever differences they may have (Harry's the big opposing asshole here - every zombie film needs one) to try to survive the night from a horde of flesh-eaters.
When looking at the plot, one might consider it something they've seen time and time again. But it's important to remember that most zombie tropes that exist today come directly from 'Night of the Living Dead' and its follow-up, 'Dawn of the Dead'. Zombie movies existed before this, but not quite of this caliber that was literally the birthplace of the modern zombie (at least, until they started bringing in fast zombies). Ideas like shooting them in the head to kill them, using fire against them, barricading yourself inside a house with zombies raiding it, and I believe even the idea of the zombie bite turning you (although I might be wrong) all came from this.
Perhaps the most notable thing for fans in this film, especially considering the fight for equal rights and how strong it is nowadays, is the idea of a black lead in a 1968 film. That wasn't really a thing at that time. The cool thing about it is that Romero simply suggests that color didn't enter into it. Duane Jones simply read the lines right, and delivered a good audition, so was given the role. According to Romero, this wasn't meant to be any sort of risk or gamble, it was just a casting choice based on talent - good on him!
Throughout the years, the film has inspired several sequels, remakes, further films, comic books, TV series, video games, books, Halloween costumes, the list is endless. Before 1968, there wasn't much of an attempt at an all out zombie horde movie. We'd see them more as individual characters, not quite on the same level as Dracula, the Mummy, or even Igor. One could easily argue that Frankenstein's monster was a kind of zombie, but back then, that wasn't really what a zombie was yet. What Romero made here helped shape a specific subgenre of horror enough that the zombie, in general, is now one of the great Hollywood monsters that lives among some of the classic greats.
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