Folks, this was an old black and white movie that not only started my love affair with B cinema and zombies but also left me in terror from the time I was 8 until I was 17. George A. Romero’s most beloved and well known work has been a favorite of mine for years and a go to film on rainy days and lonely nights. Set in the era when it was filmed (1968) it follows the plight of an eclectic group of survivors taking refuge in a farmhouse in the Pennsylvania countryside one fall night. Barbara and her brother Johnny have made the long drive to the country to pay respect to their deceased father only to discover that something is rotten in the rural area near Monroeville. Quickly, Barbara finds herself on the run from bloodthirsty cadavers with a hankering for her flesh. Finding an empty farmhouse nearby she takes refuge where she soon encounters other survivors before entering a near catatonic state of shock. As the tiny farmhouse is besieged, tempers flare, a struggle for power and supremacy erupts between Ben and Harry and two young lovers unwitting become a barbecue for a horde of mindless zombies.
Before Romero’s film debuted, zombies were seen in films as either slaves and fools suffering from a trance whose bodies were used to some evil magician or hypnotist’s every whim, or they were a handful of cadavers resurrected by the aforementioned sorcerer to carry out his evil bidding in a remote, secluded location. Romero, gleaning inspiration from Richard Matheson’s 1950’s post apocalyptic tale I Am Legend in which a vampire virus brings civilization to it’s knees, turned a lack luster sub-genre of horror into a cultural revolution that is still being felt nearly 50 years later. More importantly, as many directors, writers and artists of the time did, he captured a bit of the Cold War hysteria and racial instability in America that caused more fear and panic than any pandemic of zombies could ever hope to achieve. He told a story, not about a biological phage that threatened to wipe out mankind, but one of how in times of crisis, men can often become their own worst enemies and far more dangerous or terrifying than any monster banging down our doors.
The zombies represented a complex organism, a new form of life in the form of a walking, ravenous virus that threatened to wipe out civilization. As later quoted from the sequel Dawn of the Dead (another epic zombie film) “When the dead walk, you must stop the killing, or lose the war.” A powerful thought to convey during the height of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement and the continued arms and space races being waged between America and the Soviet Union. The human reaction, the coming together and ripping apart showcased in the film spoke volumes of the troubled times in which the actors, director and author lived in.
Think twice before you discount Night of the Living Dead as some schlocky, b&w gore fest. There is more to depth and substance in that hour and a half of cinema than in anything produced in the last decade by my generation.