Night of the Living Dead (1968) Director: George A. Romero
“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
Loosely based on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and directed by the legendary “Father of the Zombie Film,” George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a groundbreaking cult horror classic. It inspired a string of zombie apocalypse movies including: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009). Mr. Romero sadly died in 2017, but a new film in the series is still in production as of 2022, the first to not be directed by Romero. A remake of Night of the Living Dead was also made in 1990 (written by Romero).
The 1968 original installment in the series was impressively completed on a shoestring budget, featuring all local and amateur actors. It follows Barbra (Judith O’Dea) as she visits her father’s grave with her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) in a Pennsylvania cemetery. However, they are quickly accosted by a strange man who stumbles toward them and kills Johnny. Barbra flees to a rural farmhouse where she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones) as they attempt to survive what is revealed to be a zombie uprising of bestial bloodthirsty cannibals. Barbra and Ben are soon joined by a group of other survivors who have been hiding in the cellar. Television and radio broadcasts declare that this crisis was caused by an exploding space probe returning from Venus which unleashed in the atmosphere. A plan to fill up the truck’s gas tank fails and the group are slowly killed off by the ghouls –Barbra is dragged away by the reanimated corpse of her brother Johnny, and Ben survives alone until a rescue squad arrives and accidentally kills him, mistaking him for a zombie. The film ends in a series of still photographs as Ben’s corpse is carelessly tossed onto a pyre of zombies.
Civilizational collapse has long been an anxiety lurking beneath public discourse. Perhaps this was even more acute in 1960s Cold War America which was plagued by racial tensions, a revolutionary youthful spirit, and the ongoing Vietnam War. What is most discomforting about Night of the Living Dead is the unsettling notion that hordes of mindless murdering zombies are on the loose, and not even death brings relief. The flesh-eating zombie motif continues to be a powerful example of true horror moviemaking.