I wanted to like George Romero’s 1968 classic zombie movie more than I did. I’m the first to admit that I’m not into movies in the broader horror genre, with few exceptions (Shaun of the Dead comes to mind as my favorite horror film); as such, this film really wasn’t ever going to be for me.
With that said, it’s easy to see the many many ways in which Night of the Living Dead has influenced not just zombie films, not just horror filmmaking, but pop culture in general. For a 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead is transgressive in ways that even some movies from our current era aren’t – the idea of a genre film with female and black leads is still, to this day, something that is worth commenting on, so the idea of a film like this coming out 40 years ago. is a statement in of itself. In watching this film, I felt over and over the weight of the many tropes established by this film, all the things that I’ve seen a million times before both in and out of the genre, all entirely new here.
Romero’s abilities are on clear display here as he does great work establishing so much of the genre conventions, giving us a clear sense of claustrophobia within the house, helping to direct great, memorable performances from actors who I was shocked to find out were amateurs, not professionals. Duane Jones, the lead actor, in particular stands out – here’s a man with a commanding presence and an interesting face, able to deliver clunky dialogue and emote appropriately for the situation.
This is a shockingly confident debut film, clear and coherent and effective and tight in its running time of an hour, thirty-five minutes. Romero pulls no punches, not even in delivering a darkly comedic ending that at best can be described as bleak. The film starts out feeling like a setting of almost anonymous violence, but over the course of the film things become more and more personal, until the violence culminates with a daughter attacking her parent, the violence coming inside the house, in a place meant to be safe. The way the violence develops helps to enhance the claustrophobic feeling created by the movie, such that by the end, you don’t even feel comfortable in your own skin. That’s effective film-making.
Though I will probably not revisit this film, given my distaste for this genre, the late George Romero is clearly a filmmaker worth spending some time with, so I plan to visit some of his future films at a later date. I may never be completely able to stomach the genre, but I look forward to appreciating his progression and development as a filmmaker.