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Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Directed by: George A. Romero

Premise: A group of strangers take refuge in a farmhouse while a growing hoard of flesh eating zombies gathers outside.

What Works: The New Hollywood era, which began in about 1968 and ended around 1980, is generally considered to be the peak of American moviemaking. While much of the conversation about that era centers around prestigious films like The Graduate, The Godfather, The French Connection, and Star Wars there was an equally impressive parallel to the New Hollywood movement that occurred in the horror genre. Films such as Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist redefined the American horror film and closed the door on the Victorian fairytales of earlier decades. 1968’s Night of the Living Dead was one of the first titles in this wave of new horror cinema and it remains one of the most accomplished and influential films in the genre and in American cinema as a whole. There is a lot to say about Night of the Living Dead as an artifact of its era. The movie is a time capsule of the late 1960s and nearly every social issue of the day from racial conflict to fears of communism to the space race can be found in the film in some way. That’s all worthy of discussion but the reason why Night of the Living Dead is so powerful and still draws an audience half a century after its release is rooted in the filmmaking craft. This is a very well made movie. The black and white cinematography may have been an economic choice by the filmmakers but it works. The imagery is stark and possesses a rawness and reality that color cinematography would probably not have achieved. The music of Night of the Living Dead consists of library tracks, some of which had previously appeared in other movies. The music is well placed and supports the action and builds the ambiance. At the time of its release, Night of the Living Dead was controversial for its violence; that’s lost on a contemporary audience who can see gorier imagery on an episode of The Walking Dead. But more often than not, the limited effects in Night of the Living Dead are more impactful than the copious viscera of later zombie pictures and the filmmakers strike effectively to give each effect an impact. Night of the Living Dead also continues to play because of its storytelling. The tension builds extremely well within individual scenes and across the narrative. Set pieces build gradually with effects and scares piling upon one another and each wave of attack on the farmhouse is gradually more chaotic with the filmmakers loosening the camera and using unusual angles. The cinematic style parallels the disintegrating relationships among the survivors inside the house. For as much as Night of the Living Dead is a product of 1968, its central themes are still applicable and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Instead of working together for the survival of the group, the people in the farmhouse establish fiefdoms and undermine each other, trying to assert dominion over the resources of the house while the hoard of zombies rips it down. The conflict between Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) drives the tension even more than the zombies and the men’s bickering escalates in tandem with the threat from outside, building toward a perfect storm in the climax. The ending of this film is one of the ways in which Night of the Living Dead led the way in the new wave of horror. The filmmakers weren’t content to just scare us or threaten the social order and then restore it in the end the way other horror pictures had. The conclusion of Night of the Living Dead is devastating on visceral, ideological, and emotional levels. The cumulative effect of the film’s intensity, its filmmaking craft, its intelligence, and its uncompromising worldview has made it a classic that stands with the best of American cinema.

What Doesn’t: Although Night of the Living Dead has aged well, it is now shocking on narrative and ideological levels rather than visceral ones. Night of the Living Dead is not nearly as gory as recent zombie pictures, nor is it paced as quickly as contemporary films like the remake of Dawn of the Dead. This film also established many of the conventions and clichés of the zombie genre. What was innovative in 1968 has become familiar and audiences who have seen Night of the Living Dead’s imitators may not be so surprised by this film. It is well documented that Night of the Living Dead was made under frugal conditions; the filmmakers were primarily shooting commercials and making a feature film on the side. While they turned most of the limitations into advantages, one problem area for Night of the Living Dead is its many continuity errors. Some of this is in the coverage of individual scenes and at one point there is a glaring jump cut where extra dialogue was removed. A few other sequences don’t make sense in the overall story, namely the television news reports that obviously take place during the day. It is never enough to ruin the movie but these errors exist nevertheless.

DVD extras: There have been many DVD releases of the original Night of the Living Dead and there are several different versions. The original film is black and white but there are also several colorized editions. The 30th anniversary edition by Anchor Bay includes new scenes shot without George A. Romero’s involvement and a new film score. The Criterion Collection edition includes a 4K restoration of the original film, two commentary tracks, featurettes, dailies, interviews, trailers, TV and radio spots, and a work print version of the film.  

Bottom Line: Night of the Living Dead is one of the essential American films. It captured its era, created a subgenre, and helped redefine American horror cinema. It’s also an outstanding piece of work that still thrills and entertains and even manages to shock in some unexpected ways. The zombie film has been done bigger and bloodier, it hasn’t been done better than Romero’s original version.

Episode: #210 (October 26, 2008); Revised #720 (October 14, 2018)