Only two movies ever frightened me so much that I can still remember exactly where I first saw them. One is Psycho, which I first saw in 1967 for 50 cents at the Auditorium of the Quad of the University of Illinois on a Friday night. The other is Night of the Living Dead, which I saw for free at a special Halloween night movie marathon at West Georgia College in 1974.
After watching George Romero's masterpiece, I didn't stay to talk to anyone. After all, they could be one of them! I quickly made my way to my Toyota Corolla, jumped inside, locked the doors, double checked the doors to make sure none of them was around, sped home, and double locked the door so I could breathe normally again! I still felt a little paranoid the next few days, on the lookout for any humanoids who might be walking a little too slowly or swaggering a bit.
Since that horror fest, I've attempted to analyze why Night of the Living Dead freaked me out so much. I'd seen the undead before on the screen, but always in vampire form. I had used the word "zombie" and had a vague hypothetical idea what that meant, but to see actual flesh gorging specimens in the ultimate zombie flick was something else.
I hate to compare this classic film to the modern Blair Witch Project, which didn’t frighten me at all, but there are some similarities since both:
1. are low budget.
Night of the Living Dead starts innocently enough, though the background music is a bit creepy and Barbra and Johnny are visiting their father's grave. Since I know that this is a horror movie, I am expecting something dreadful to happen. It takes a while though, but early foreshadowing is present as Johnny taunts his sister, "They're coming to get you, Barbra."
2. use unknown "actors"
3. feel like "home movies" with some amateurish cinematography in spots
4. unravel slowly to make it seem that we are discovering horrors in "real time"
A solitary slow moving elderly man gets closer.
GACK! He grabs Barbra, then wrestles her brother in a persistent, deliberate, and forceful manner until he knocks him out. The old man never speaks, but now goes maniacally after Barbra. She is helpless, yet manages to get the car rolling downhill. The chase is on when she flees the car and heads to an abandoned farmhouse.
But is it abandoned? Who is this maniac chasing her? This silent man that seems so intent on killing for no reason. Barbra gets inside and attempts to call, but the phone is dead. Naturally, this is expected.
But what is going on? Exactly the same thing that Barbra asks Ben, who plays a sane individual that keeps his wits in the midst of chaos. The zombies seem to be increasing, as there are now three hanging around the house and there's a dead body upstairs that is dripping blood.
Ben discovers that he can stop the slow moving zombies with blows to the head and discovers that they don't like fire.
~ ~ ~ an epidemic of mass murder … ordinary looking people in a trance … seized the eastern states ~ ~ ~
Ben and Barbra are not alone in the house. There are some other regular people hiding in the cellar. There's a good hearted young couple named Tom and Judy, and there's the Cooper family of three -- a daughter who's sick from being bitten by a zombie, a mother who is frightened by the whole situation, and a father who may have authored a book entitled How to Avoid Friendships and Tick Off People.
~ ~ ~ murder victims … partially devoured ~ ~ ~
Like Hitchcock';s Lifeboat a collection of various humans are thrown together, and now they must survive. The zombies are gathering outside the farmhouse in greater numbers. They move slowly, but as a pack they are pretty overwhelming. Fortunately some heroic characters are inside the house, so there is hope.
The horror! The horror! My mind is now calculating. Imagining the possibilities and consequences of numerous dead people coming to life to kill the living, to partially eat them, and then see the same cycle repeated over and over and over again.
But it's just a movie. Yes I know that, and I knew that when I first saw it, but the feelings of dread were there.
Romero's black and white "home movie" with its occasional bad lighting and amateurish acting made it seem like a real event was unfolding. Adding to this is the radio broadcast that gradually updates us on the latest news, a not so subtle way of narrating over the script. The last broadcast confirming that dead people are literally coming back and seeking the living got to me. Romero has created a surreal Hell on Earth that haunted for days after first seeing Night of the Living Dead.
Although the acting is not top notch, the structure of the film works well. The choice of characters helps the audience relate to Romero's hellish world, as there is someone for nearly everyone to identify with—the heroic Ben, who acts like I would hope to act in a crisis; Barbra, who fights for survival but is completely freaked by the situation; Tom, a thoughtful guy who is willing to do the right thing; or Judy, who loyally backs up her man. Writers Romero and John Russo also throw the Cooper family into the mix, adding sympathy for the sick daughter and showing the natural conflict people feel between helping others and self preservation.
Night of the Living Dead more effectively creates suspense than nearly all the horror movies that follow this original classic. We don't see mass carnage with buckets of blood being spilt, nor do we get to see a lot of special effects--the blood and guts comes courtesy of the butcher who put up an initial $300 investment in the movie. It's the anticipation of horrible scenarios that makes the film work so well.
Romero delivers enough jolts to startle. Hands bust through walls unexpectedly, silence torments, and then there's the "Bar-B-Que" scene, lasting only a few seconds, but long enough to cause nightmares for the rest of your life.
This is Romero's first zombie picture, and in many ways his best. Dawn of the Dead is very enjoyable and filled with humor, and Day of the Dead grossly inferior. Neither of these latter Romero flicks scare like the original. Night of the Living Dead may not hold up as well for modern audiences as Dawn of the Dead, but the 1968 black and white film is a historical icon that deserves watching.
When compared to the recent cult horror flick The Blair Witch Project, Romero's original film wins out big time. How can you get scared of sticks and rocks and by watching some young people who can't even follow a stream to safety. On the other hand, relentless flesh-seeking zombies are an entirely different matter.