ight Of The Living Dead (1968)
Occasionally within the art of cinema, a man comes along who can reinvent a venerable old genre. For thrillers, it was Steven Spielberg with ‘Jaws’ in 1975. Science fiction movies were changed forever in 1977 with George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars.’ For horror fans, the film that changed their world forever was in 1968 with the release of a little film by Gorge A. Romero called ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ Certainly, there was an atom of zombie flicks before ‘Night’ and all too many that followed, but this was one of the most original takes on the theme ever. Like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Jaws’ the people making it were unaware at the time that they were creating film history. Many even doubted that it would make the slightest bit of money. Considering it cost an estimated $114,000, mostly borrowed, it has taken in many millions to date and is still earning. It is little wonder that so many novice filmmakers use this as a template for their creations. Over the years there have been many different releases of this groundbreaking film on DVD. If you are any horror fan, you most likely own a few already. The natural question then is why to invest in yet another disc currently. The answer is simple; the new Blu-ray release by the Criterion Collection is the definitive release, unlikely to ever be out done. Unlike the, previous versions, this one is fully restored and re-mastered, so it looks and sounds better than you have ever experienced. It also contains extras overseen by none other than Mr. Romero himself.
This movie was also a landmark behind the scenes. It never really caught on as a feature film in most movie houses. Romero would drive a print of the film around trying to hawk it to theater owners with little success. It was not until it was shown as a midnight feature that it caught on with a young audience. It just happened to be around when midnight showing of cult flicks was catching on with the high school and college crowd and not only provided a shot in the arm for horror films it was a well-needed boost for the theater owners. The film, written by John Russo and George A. Romero, went through several incarnations before the script we all know and love came into existence. The story starts off innocently enough with a bunch of young people just out for a little fun but quickly turns into a horror film of unequaled proportions. The co-authors gladly accepted input from their actors especially the lead, Duane Jones. Some of the themes were inspired by the 1954 science fiction classic Richard Matheson's ‘I Am Legend’ but is credited as such. According to several interviews, much of the dialogue came from in the moment improvisation.
This was the first full-length film directed by Romero. He had done some television work before including, strangely enough, ‘Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.’ Among his trademark directorial styling developed in this movie included the use of his camera to help create the mood. The angles employed were designed to keep the audience off balance never knowing what will happen next. There were scenes of such a graphic nature that this film became the target of parental groups demanding some form of control over the content of the film. This also coincided with the growth of the MPAA and their first rating system that would come about later the year this film was released. Since the production of the movie utilized black and white, the effects required could be on the cheap side. Like Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Psycho’, the copious quantities of blood were Bosco Chocolate syrup, a Brooklyn favorite for Egg Cream sodas. Romero also demonstrated his mastery of lighting in this movie. Much of the action was in the shadow, caught between light and dark. This not only visually manifested the character’s dilemma being trapped by creatures trapped between life and death it made for one spooky flick. The story was one of utter despair and helplessness. Unlike the bulk of Hollywood movies, there would be no happy ending here. Like all of the films in Romero’s ‘Dead’ series this one contained commentary on several social issues. The most discussed is the allegorical use of cannibalism for how capitalism feeds upon the working class. Many have considered this anti-feminist since most of the female characters are shown as nearly catatonic when faced with the zombies. Having a lead character who was African American was also something that stirred more than a little controversy. Back in 1968, the civil rights movement was at its peak. Most films with African American leads were usually ‘black exploitation’ flicks popular back then. Duane Jones was a man who was resourceful and able to face up to the mounting horror. He just happened to be black. This was unheard of in 1968.
The film opens with a shot of a long, winding road. In the distance, a car continues to drive forward. Upon stopping, a young man and woman get out. Johnny (Russell Streiner) and his sister Barbara (Judith O’Dea) who realizes they are in a remote cemetery to place a wreath on the grave of their father. Johnny notices that Barbara is uneasy and teases here "They’re coming to get you, Barbara." She is not at all happy with the way he is treating her. As Barbara kneels in front of the grave to say a prayer, Johnny continues to complain a little ways off a man lumbers along. Johnny pretends the slowly walking man is coming for them and runs away. The man reaches out and attacks Barbara. Johnny comes back to help and grabs the man giving Barbara a chance to run. As the men grapple, Barbara looks on in terror. Johnny tossed to the side, is rendered unconscious after hitting his head. Barbara tries to hide in the car but soon makes a run for an old farmhouse. The strange man follows as she runs into the deserted house. As night falls, the strange man is joined by others lumbering towards the house intent on getting to Barbara. She tries to run away but is stopped by Ben (Duane Jones) who takes her back to the relative safety of the house. While exploring the house Ben and Barbara discover the owners, Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) and his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman). Also, in hiding in the seller is their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) and teenage couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) who are running away from whatever is out there. The radio finally comes back on and explains that some mass murder epidemic has been sweeping the east coast. The only way to stop the creatures is a gunshot directly to the head. As the people huddle together for safety the ghouls outside are relentlessly trying to get in.
Finally, this pivotal film has been afforded its place in the Criterion Collection. Zombies have become the de facto source of horror supplanting the supernatural serial killer with a distinct penchant for sharp objects. The unwieldly, undead antagonist have been utilized in a broad range of underlying means from indictments against uncontrolled consumerism to examine human reaction to the most primary fear, death. prior to Mr. Romero, the zombie was a niche monster, an adjunct to a primary villain, a practitioner of voodoo. Mr. Romero discovered the previously untapped potential of the variation of the undead. This movie was significant in jump starting the midnight movie, a means to experience cult classic films as a collective involvement. I find it regrettable the Millennials have move to the isolation made possible by streaming media, never experiencing the special thrill of watching a film surrounded by other cinephiles relishing the minute details of a favorite movie. As usual, this Criterion release eschews the typical mundane added content for actual material germane to a deeper understanding of the film.
Posted 05/17/08 Posted 02/16/2018