Monday, October 31, 2011

Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968) directed by George A. Romero

Having recently listened to a commentary on Shaun of the Dead, I realized I've only seen this first movie of the Romero zombie canon. I plan on watching one a month for coming months with a review at the end of the month. So if you want to watch beforehand, see Dawn of the Dead, i.e. the shopping mall one, before November 31, 2011.

MPAA rating


ZPAA rating

Adults only

Gore level

9 out of 10--If this movie had been in color, it'd be a ten. The zombies aren't so dessicated or terrible to look at, but when they start eating people's guts (you see a hand, a shoulder, and what looks like intestines), it's extremely gross and horrifying. There are several ineffective gunshot wounds inflicted on the zombies and some people are shot as well. Lots of mostly off-screen head blows; one particularly gruesome murder of a mother by her zombie child with a trowel.

Other offensive content

Lots of mild profanity with one blasphemy; bad attitudes; people slapping people or roughing up other people; lots of cigarette smoking; two naked female rear ends seen from a distance and not sexual (she's a zombie); one character exhibits callous disregard towards church going and praying (though that character is the first one to get it from a zombie; serves him right!).

How much zombie mythology/content

This movie seems to be the only instance of the dead rising because of radiation (leaked from a falling satellite). Unless you count Godzilla. I haven't seen the other Romero zombie movies, so I'm not sure that they all stick to the same explanation. The zombies are generally slow moving though they do exhibit some basic intelligence, like staying away from fire and using rocks to break windows.

How much fun

I didn't really laugh much while watching this. It is a very intense but enjoyable watch if you can make it through the gore. The characters are pretty well fleshed out (until they are eaten, of course!) and not entirely one-dimensional though some of the performances are a bit amateurish. A lot of interesting ideas are thrown around even if they aren't followed through.

Synopsis & Review

The story begins with a car driving along empty, rural roads. A brother and sister are on a Sunday drive to their father's grave to leave some flowers. The brother really isn't interested and complains a lot about the cost of the flowers, what happened to the display from last year, why can't Mom go on her own instead of sending us 200 miles into the country, etc. The sister finds this annoying. Even more annoying is when he taunts her for praying at the grave ("didn't you do that this morning at church, Barbara? Why do you need to do it here?") and for being afraid of hanging out in the cemetery. As they are leaving, she is attacked by a disheveled man who won't stop. Her brother comes to the rescue but cracks his skull on a tombstone. She flees from the man to her car. Realizing her brother has the keys, she locks the doors and releases the parking brake to coast away as the man pounds on her car. She inevitably crashes and races off to a house, where she and a slowly accumulating band of strangers try to hold off the ravenous, undead hordes that keep attacking the house.

The movie is an extremely effective horror movie in many ways. First, the plot and theme is more focused on how the people trapped in the house work together or against each other than on how they fight the undead. They try to make plans to escape or to hunker down and wait it out, but none of them work out. The drama (and the horror) is all about losing control. Barbara is scared out of her wits for most of the movie and can barely talk and is no help at all. Ben, the main male protagonist, has lots of ideas and plans but can hardly get anyone to help or see things from his point of view. Even when they do use his plan, things careen wildly out of control.

Second, information is dealt out at just the right pace to increase tension. The people find a radio which provides updates on what's going on over the eastern third of the United States. At first, the creatures are assumed to be mass murderers on a rampage. Eventually, more details are revealed, like how they eat their victims and how it all may have been caused by radiation from a satellite. The radio (and eventually a TV) provide diagetic voice over/exposition as we watch people nailing up boards or biting their fingernails to nubs or arguing the best plan of action.

One of the weaknesses is the "scientific" explanation of how the dead are rising. Radiation activating people's brains and making them into mindless cannibals seems a little ridiculous, though maybe I am looking at a 1960s idea with 2011 eyes. The explanation seems thrown in so as to point the finger at the military and the federal government for what's going wrong. Even the Feds don't have their story straight. On a television report, the military guy in DC tells the scientist, "That's not what we agreed to say," and they provide no effective plans. A local sheriff has a posse of ghoul-shooters who help to clean up the problem, though they too are indiscriminate in a shocking way at the end. Authorities seem to be useless or even counter-productive.

Civilization collapses on the large scale with the government being divided and ineffective. On the small scale, people turn on each other and treat each other as means to an end rather than as brothers in arms. Perhaps that's the greatest horror of all. You can't depend on other people to do the right thing when the going gets tough.

Movie Trailer

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