Film Review: Night of The Living Dead (1968)

The end of days fervor over yesterday’s hurricane got me thinking of apocalypses and such, which then reminded me that I really needed to watch some old George Romero Zombie films. I’ve never seen any of them, and according to several people in my life I have no business calling myself a film buff if I haven’t seen them.

So, I spent the hurricane watching The Night Of The Living Dead. My intention was to watch more of his films, but I started too late in the day and got sleepy before I could watch more.

I spent the first twenty minutes or so being a total buzzkill, pointing out the distinct continuity errors between shots and rolling my eyes at Barbra’s weak stereotypically “feminine hysterics.” Once I turned off that side of my brain I was able to enjoy the film more for what it is: a genre defining indie classic done on a small, small budget. It was not the first zombie movie made, but it absolutely is one of the most influential ones made–echoes of it can be seen in hits like The Walking Dead still today.

If you watch the film you have to watch it with 1968 eyes, because otherwise it will feel too outdated. The editing and shot pace seems glacial compared to current day films, especially horror one. And the special effects can seem lacking–but for the time the zombies’ makeup and their devouring of some of the people was top notch innovation for an indie production. In fact, some film historians say this film is one of the ones that contributed to impetus to formalize the MPAA film rating system.

I don’t watch many horror films since my tolerance for gore and violence are about a 0.5 on a scale of 1-10, but for the few that I have seen one thing that really sticks out for me about the zombie sub genre is that they are really less about the undead and more about the living. The Night Of The Living Dead  is arguably more about the dynamics between the people trapped inside the house and how they choose to make decisions and work together (or not) for their welfare. It’s hard not to interpret this as a commentary on human behavior and how we chose to proceed in our caretaking for ourselves and “others” during times of danger and violence.

And of course, in the case of The Night Of The Living Dead  there’s been decades of speculation on the significance of casting a black actor (Duane Jones) as the lead character Ben along with an otherwise all white cast. I don’t like to give spoilers (for the few of you out there like me who haven’t seen it yet), but I will say that the ending is stark enough that it’s hard not to see it as clear racial commentary from Romero. The director, however, says that he cast Jones based only on his skill as an actor and it had nothing to do with creating a racialized commentary to the film.

Whether or not Romero’s claims are true are actually almost irrelevant, because a film’s interpretation and significance is never just about the director’s intention and is always a result of the social and political context in which it is released and viewed by audiences. I look forward to reading more film analysis geekery on this film and learning more about its significance and reception in the late 60’s.

If you appreciate corny horror films, classic cinema or watching films purely from a geek out historical perspective I recommend adding this DVD to your queue. If none of those are interests for you, you may have to pass on this one.

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