“Big name” horror films are often the hardest to review since, well, what’s left for there to be said about them? George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead is everything everyone has ever described it as and it’s hard for me to conjure up anything unique to say about it, which naturally taxes my enthusiasm to do so.
Night of the Living Dead (Elite Entertainment)
But that pointless bit of whining aside, if you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead by now, then you are most likely homeless. Being in the public domain and all, that means that you already own it; and I don’t just mean a copy, but the actual rights to the film. It’s been a staple of movie theater midnight shows, late night public access creature features and video store bargain bins for decades, not to mention the fact that you can watch it for free online without having to steal it, too. It is quite possibly the most accessible film on the planet and the only way I can imagine a human being having not seen it by now is if they’ve been actively avoiding it. And if so, then shame on you. Night of the Living Dead is awesome.
Radiation from Venus has infected the recently deceased, causing the dead to rise and walk the earth, craving human flesh. Ben (Duane Jones) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) seek refuge in an isolated rural home as hordes of zombies encircle them. Trapped together with a pair of teenage oafs, a jackass and his wife and daughter, Ben and Barbara’s greatest challenge will be enduring their company more so than the flesh-eating monstrosities outside.
I’m not going to get all philosophical on you with some deep ramble about how Night of the Living Dead is a commentary on the Vietnam War, race relations or the decay of American values, because Lord knows there are enough reviews like that out there. When I pop in Night of the Living Dead, I’m more impressed with the atmosphere, the strong characters, the tension and the morbid visuals than any thinly veiled social commentary.
For a movie that redefined a long overlooked horror subgenre with its frighteningly modern and gruesome depiction of zombies, Night of the Living Dead is a film more defined by its human characters than the shambling undead. Though their threat is ever-present, the main suspense offered by the flick isn’t so much the zombies, but the fact that the people trapped by them absolutely, positively cannot work together to save their lives (a theme that resurfaces in all of Romero’s Dead films). Our protagonist, Ben, seems to be the only character in the movie that’s worth a damn, as Barbara is a catatonic wreck, the Coopers (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) are either consistently trying to sabotage him or doting do-nothings, and the teenagers (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley) are two brain-cells short of a fruit salad. You really feel for poor Ben, as he’s the only rationally thinking, competent individual in a house full of loons and imbeciles.
But while the character-fueled tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife, Romero finds opportunities to effectively and believably build the world the film is taking place in through radio and television broadcasts. While the stated reason for the zombies (Venus radiation) is goofy sci-fi schlock, the various news footage, story details and public reactions are all very authentic in their delivery, really selling the situation. I know that in this day and age, that sort of thing is old hat, but I struggle to think of a movie before Night of the Living Dead that accomplished it better.
I think one of the factors to the longevity of Night of the Living Dead, aside from the fact that it’s free to anyone who wants it, is that despite its age, it feels eternally modern. You can look at other horror films made in the ‘60s and even into the early ‘70s, and they tend to feel dated or even passable for something made fifteen years earlier. Romero brought a fresh take to the world of horror cinema, which was still getting out of its “Atomic Age” phase, creating a story and a situation that could occur in any generation.
The only thing really dating the film (aside from fashions and being in black and white), is the music. Most of the score is pulled from library music and feels very inappropriate. The whole thing actually sounds like it would be better suited to a gothic Universal Studios monster movie from the ‘40s. The only really outstanding instance of music I could notice came during the feasting scene; the music there sounding so incongruous with all the hammy stock orchestrations that came before and after it.
To get back to the fact that Night of the Living Dead is a public domain film; that works both positively and negatively for it. On the bright side, as I mentioned, anyone who wants it can see it for free with minimal effort. The downside is that anyone can do anything they want to the film. They can recolor it, rerelease it, reedit it, rescore it, remake it, and they’re well within their legal right to do so. This has created a rather tremendous glut of low-quality releases of the film on video, as well as many alternate versions crafted by film school rejects with too much free time on their hands.
You have a lot of options to choose from and should be careful when purchasing it on DVD, lest you end up with one of the awful colorized versions, John Russo’s heinous 30th Anniversary Edition with poorly conceived, newly shot footage spliced in, or even a cartoon version that recycles the soundtrack of the flick (I’ve heard this one isn’t half bad, for novelty’s sake). For my money’s worth, I’m pleased with my Millennium Edition DVD produced by Elite Entertainment. It’s the original, unaltered film with an approved THX transfer, tons of bonus features and even George A. Romero’s seal of approval on the back. If you’re looking for what version to get, I’d say you can’t go wrong with that one.
I guess, in the end, I did manage to think up some stuff to say about this film, and hopefully it isn’t all stuff you’ve read a million times before in a million other reviews. Night of the Living Dead is just one of those movies you really need to see, as it’s the genesis of the modern zombie film and a damn good movie in and of itself. Plus, you know, you own it, whether you realize you do or not.