…a zombie in a pear tree. My true love rocks! And for the first day of Zombiemas, I give you, my beloveds, the original Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Rock and cry, this movie is good. You will like it.
This movie is in the public domain due to the distributor failing to put a copyright indication on the prints. That is a pretty big “D’oh.” Did you know Night of the Living Dead is Internet Archive’s second most downloaded movie? This is on Wikipedia so you know it’s true. So you can get this movie pretty much anywhere in a variety of mediums for a variety of prices in a variety of qualities. Variety. I favor Legend Films 2004 release because it comes with a commentary track by MST3K‘s Mike Nelson. Also, the chapter listings are sassy.
I watched the colorized version just to shake things up a bit, but the Legend Films copy also offers a black and white option. The black and white version is gloomier and more intense but the color adds a sense of unreality to the events that’s similar to the blue Technicolor zombies of Dawn of the Dead.
The plot is pretty simple. Siblings Barbra and Johnny are going to visit their father’s grave.
Johnny’s kind of a dick and teases Barbra. Can I just say that I love Barbra’s hair? I have no clue how to make my hair do that. I don’t think that a Bumpit would do the trick. Anyway, they’re leaving and encounter the first zombie EVAR (Ed.’s Note: Not really, at all.)
I’ve decided to name him the Zombie of the Movie because he was the first. He will get a Burger King kid’s crown.
Johnny says the famous line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” the zombie attacks, and Johnny is swiftly hit on the head. Barbra tries to drive away but Johnny had the keys. Hey, look, that zombie’s using tools!
He’s moving pretty quickly, too.
Barbra makes her way to an isolated farmhouse. She finds a victim of the zombies upstairs and is out to lunch for the rest of the movie. The narrative then follows Ben and his struggles with epic douchebag Harry Cooper. Harry’s wife Helen, their sick daughter Karen, and the teen couple Tom and Judy are also there.
They fight each other as much as they fight the zombies.
The group is isolated from the rest of the world and this sense of isolation is compounded by the lack of information about what’s happening. The movie was released in 1968–there was no Twitter, no WikiLeaks, and no 24-hour news channels for information. Finding a working radio and t.v. is a big deal for the protagonists. In fact, this is so important that it drives Helen, Judy, and Tom to abandon the dubious safety of the basement (Ed.’s Note: I would bring all the food, tools, and weapons that I could carry upstairs, fill all the bath tubs and sinks there with water, and hack the staircase up. But that’s just e.) A nice touch, highlighting the isolation, is the occasional cricket noises replacing the score. The house is effectively surrounded by the walking dead and cut-off from the outside world.
So, do the survivors band together to defeat the ghouls? No, they panic, explode, and succumb to the zombies.
It’s a grim view of humanity that ends with the hero shot by those he was hoping would save him. My heart always breaks when Ben gets shot.
The movie holds up pretty well considering that it’s over 30-years-old. I’m not usually into colorizing movies but I think color suits this movie. There’s one scene I used to always have trouble with in black and white. It’s when Barbra finds the body upstairs and they do the very tight close-up of the gnawed head. I always thought that this shot looked too abstract in black and white. I mean, it was physically difficult to figure out what I was actually seeing. It was kind of like a Rorschach test.
In color it’s clearly a chewed-up head and no longer a herd of beautiful wild horses roaming free across the prairie.
Aside from the fact that the movie holds up well over time, it also establishes the Rules of the Series. Rule one is that the recently deceased are returning to life and eating their victims. Rule two is that the way to destroy them is to destroy the brain or separate the brain from the body. Rule three is that those who are bitten become zombies. Remember Karen Cooper. We should probably wear those little ribbons or something.
This entry in the series tries to establish a cause for the dead returning–radiation from a satellite that returned to earth from Venus but the cause becomes less important as the series continues. Instead, the effects become important. SEE WHAT I DID?
Aside from the chills, I think that this movie was groundbreaking for casting a black hero. I’ve seen and read multiple interviews with George Romero where he stated that he wasn’t trying to be revolutionary when he cast Duane Jones, that Jones just read the best for the part. I still think that this was a revolutionary action, to be willing to cast a black man as the hero.
Less groundbreaking is Barbra’s reaction to the crisis. I’ve heard Romero express regret at her portrayal and how quickly she fell apart. This can be contrasted with Savini’s Barbra in his remake of Night of the Living Dead. In the remake she becomes a Sarah Connor-like figure, which I think is as unrealistic as Barbra’s instant nervous breakdown. There has to be some place between the two poles for a portrayal of a realistic woman in an unrealistic crisis. However, I do have to give George Romero credit for using his other films to highlight strong women and people of color in an industry that isn’t always friendly to either.