1968 was a time of real social upheaval in the United States of America. Out of this turmoil was born a tale of people desperate to survive in a situation they cannot hope to make sense of.
George Romero and his friend John Russo put together a film that would challenge the norms of film-making in America. Horror monsters had always been distinct creatures. Vampires, werewolves and so on. But Night of the Living Dead introduced something different.
The concept of the zombie was not a new one. But Romero and Russo introduced a lot of what we consider standard zombie lore. Head shots to kill, undead and eaters of flesh. These monsters were scary not because of their personalty…but because they were our loved ones, but without soul…the dead are a horde without emotion and only seeking to devour.
We are introduced to Barbara and her brother Johnny. They have come to a remote cemetery to place flowers on their father’s grave. When they are attacked by a man, Barbara is forced to flee. She discovers a farmhouse and along with another stranger, Ben, start to try and hide from the attackers. Soon they discover they are not alone in the house and the small band of survivors work to try and survive and determine a way to escape.
The group finds itself strained by the tensions that develop as some desire to stay hidden, while others hope to get away from the farm. They are able to find news reports giving bits of information, but leaving them with few answers.
In some ways, Night of the Living Dead is ahead of the curve for films of that time. Ben (Duane Jones) is a black man who finds himself assuming the role of leader for many of the group. On the other hand, Barbara is pretty much comatose the entire film, paralyzed by her fears. Romero does not burden himself with to complex of a story, and although there are hints of a cause, the film is vague about it. There is talk of a satellite and radiation, but ultimately, there is no definitive answer.
Night of the Living Dead is an effective thriller that is, in the end, responsible for what we now know to be zombies. It’s significance cannot be overlooked, as it defined the zombie as a monster that still stands today.