Night of the Living Dead (1968) ReviewJoe Shaffer
As a horror fan, I've become accustomed to people scoffing at the concept of shock factor. I can't blame them, as some budding directors seem to see shock factor as a road to instant infamy. However, there will always be directors who show us that there are clever ways to implement shock. George A. Romero and his film Night of the Living Dead, for instance, definitely fit that bill.
Night, like many other gruesome films, features plenty of nasty imagery and visceral horror. The movie revolves around a group of people trapped in a farm house at the outset of a zombie apocalypse. At one point in the flick, the characters form a plan to escape the farm house by refueling a pickup truck at a nearby private gas pump. Incidentally, the pump catches fire while a few of the characters attempt the refueling. prompting Ben--the film's unconventional hero--to flee for safety. Unfortunately, a snagged jacket prevents a young lady in the truck from escaping, and her husband remains in an attempt to free her. As you can imagine, the ignited fuel line causes the pickup to explode, cooking the couple. After the fire subsides, the undead gather around the burnt vehicle and tuck in to an exquisite barbecue feast. You might expect a black-and-white horror flick like this one to cut away from the gory display of zombies noshing on human flesh, but Night doesn't skimp on the details. We see shots of ghouls munching on severed arms, picking meat off disembodied bones, and even fighting over dripping intestines. Circa 1968, this sort of filmmaking was virtually unheard of outside of Herschell Gordon Lewis pictures.
Cannibalism, even in the form of zombies eating non-zombie flesh, was a taboo that few filmmakers were willing to approach at the time. However, Romero knew that such a standard had to be tested and that envelopes had to be pushed. Film eventually had to cross that boundary, and it was up to directors like Romero to be the ones to take those bold steps.
Although the film sports a fair amount of gore, Night's shock value is not purely measured in blood and guts. The film challenged contemporary social norms as well, especially with the protagonist Ben. One thing I failed to mention above is that Ben is black. In today's films, such a detail would be unimportant in a review like this. During 1968, though, you didn't see many African-American protagonists in widely marketed horror movies, and you certainly didn't see many (if any) quite like Ben. This dude has everything an effective horror film hero should have: a clear mind, fortitude, and a strong sense of leadership. In other words, he's the exact opposite of the caricatures seen throughout film prior to the Civil Rights Movement. While Ben's character is not all that shocking today, his levelheadedness and sense of initiative were not something you saw back in the late '60s.
I think you could have an entire lecture on the various commentary and statements that Romero was trying to make with this movie. For instance, film historian Robin Wood argued that the film was an allegory on capitalism, and that the zombies represented capitalists. He supported this claim by stating that cannibalism is the highest form of possession, and that such extreme capitalism would destroy the world in a manner similar to a zombie apocalypse. Others have made some fairly deep observations on the film, especially how each character represents a different facet of contemporary society; or how the actions of the characters and the ultimate outcome of the events are meant to predict a cold reality for the future of mankind.
However, if you're the kind of viewer who just wants to kick back and watch something creepy as hell, heedless of intellectual mumbo-jumbo, then Night can still facilitate just an end. The film's lack of color helps set a very brooding atmosphere. The first time I saw the film, I kept thinking that at any moment a zombie would appear from a shadowy part of the house, having secretly found a way in, and munch one of the main characters. Either that or I expected the undead to step up their efforts and overpower the house's barricades, leading to a heart-pounding fight between the two factions. I won't spoil much more of the movie for you, but let's just say it gets pretty tense, especially when you consider that there's a child in the farmhouse's basement with a festering zombie bite...
Whether you're in it for the scares or the intellectual narrative, Night of the Living Dead is a fantastic film. It's not only frightening and expertly directed, but moody and above all shocking. Thankfully, its shock factor is not merely driven by an opulence of grue and gore, as the movie stands out in horror history as a very important--and challenging--flick.
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