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Reviews from the Edge: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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Greetings from the Edge!

This week on the Edge, we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary and upcoming deluxe Criterion Collection release of  George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead, the film that kicked off the modern zombie renaissance ( although the term zombie is never used in the film and Romero always referred to his walking dead as ghouls ) and that the Readers Digest warned would inspire a wave of cannibalism ( Seriously? And I thought Reefer Madness was hyperbolic! ). Does the original still hold up after fifty years, or has the modern zombie film surpassed the plucky Pittsburgh independent that started it all?

Starring Duane Jones as Ben, the prototype for every zombie movie protagonist for the last half century, Judith O’Dea as Barbra, the if not original Load then a strong contender for that title ( I kid, O’Dea does a great job as a shell shocked survivor ), Karl Hardman as Harry Cooper, family man and professional jerk, and Marilyn Eastman as Helen Cooper, who is having some pretty major discipline problems with her daughter Karen Cooper, played by Kyra Schon, who could really use some Neosporin for that nasty bite she has.

Seeing that I’ve watched Night of the Living Dead before ( probably too often if you ask my friends ), I’ll be looking at the colorized version as well just for a little variety and to see if it can stand up against the beautifully stark and sombre tone of the black and white original presentation.

Opening on a desolate tract of country road in rural Pennsylvania, a brother and sister are on a car trip to lay a wreath on the grave of their deceased father. Soon after their arrival at the cemetery, Barbara is attacked and Johnny is killed defending her. Barbara attempts to flee in Johnny’s car but, after an accident, she is left stumbling through the countryside pursued by the ghoul who murdered her brother.

Barbara finds her way to an isolated farmhouse and is soon joined by Ben, a motley assortment of fellow refugees, and an ever increasing horde of undead monsters. Can the little band of survivors work together and see the dawn, or will it turn out that fear and ignorance will be a greater threat than the dead?

The face of undead menace… or that of a man who has eaten an entire bag of Taco Bell and just realized he is miles away from the nearest toilet! (image courtesy of Image Ten)

Ah, special effects. Well obviously, trying to compare the original Night of the Living Dead’s special effects against modern creature and visual effects isn’t exactly fair. In fact, considering how much Night inspired later films who specifically set out to top it in gore and makeup ( heck just look at the next Dead film, Dawn of the Dead. It ratcheted the gore up to ten and Day topped that! ), I’ll be looking for how effectively they are used and how well they hold up fifty ( geez, 50! ) years later.

Mostly I’d say they do. The scares are still effective and watching the ghouls mindlessly tear into our heroes’ flesh is still pretty disturbing ( even more so when you learn that the “Meat” is actually roast ham covered with chocolate sauce.. erk! ). The real “Special Effect” of Night of the Living Dead is the sense of isolation and how quickly civilization dies and humanity becomes its own greatest threat when confronted with the unknown, and that still holds as true today as it did in 1968.

Duane Jones and Karl Hardman having a difference of opinion on locking someone out of the shelter during a zombie apocalypse. Can’t we all just get along? (image courtesy of Image Ten)

Night of the Living Dead became something of a counter-cultural touchstone for my generation, and in those pre-internet days, the fandom was just an fanatical if not as well connected. My childhood self would have gone absolutely bonkers to have seen how zombies have so pervaded popular culture ( and to learn that we’d get so many more “Dead” movies from Romero. )

To think, it all started with a little independent film by one of the cinematographers from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a house that was going to be torn down in rural Pennsylvania, and a fateful decision that zombies would be the cheapest monsters to pull off for a horror film.

And I think its success is because, at the end of the day, Night of the Living Dead has something deeply subversive to say about humanity in general and does it while telling a good story without beating the audience over the head with its “Message.” Something that a lot of modern horror just can’t seem to pull off.

Barbara, played by Judith O’Dea, seen here describing how big the sandwich she’s going to eat is if she makes it out of this alive! (image courtesy of Image Ten)

Well, if you’ve read the rest of my review, I’m pretty sure you can guess what my opinion is going to be, and you’d be right. So yes, Night of the Living Dead gets the Edge’s highest recommendation. Night of the Living Dead is one of those bucket list films that I think everyone should see, even if only to see what all the fuss is about. I can guarantee that I’ll be in line to see the restored edition with the lost ten minutes that were cut out at the distributor’s insistence and thought lost for decades in a flood that destroyed the original film elements.

Even after fifty years, I think Night of the Living Dead still more than stands up to its modern imitators. In fact, in my mind its only real competition is the 1990 Tom Savini headed remake of Night of the Living Dead, which tells the same story in a very different light. If you do enjoy Night of the Living Dead, give the Savini remake a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

My thoughts on the colorized versus the original black and white: I’d have to say that the colorized version was better done than most colorized films I’ve watched and had less of the overall pastel haze I’ve come to expect from them. However, it really lost a lot of the stark contrasts and almost violent use of shadows that personified the original presentation. I’d say that, unless you just refuse to watch black and white movies ( and I’ve know a few people who won’t ), stick with the original. It’s true what they say: black and white is just scarier!

Nerdy Speculation Corner: Warning, may contain both spoilers and dangerous amounts of geekery!

When I was growing up, one of the things I shared with my middle brother Neal was a love of zombie movies, especially the George Romero “Dead” trilogy. While he loved the schlocky Italian exploitation zombie films, and I preferred Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series, we still spent countless hours watching and discussing zombie movies. Were the Return of the Living Dead films a worthy successor to the  Romero “Dead” series? How best could you save someone from a ghoul bite? What’s the best anti-zombie fortress ( mine was a cruise ship ), and of course, the perennial favorite, “What’s the Best Anti-Zombie Weapon?” It’s a mace, warhammer, or hilted crowbar, in my opinion. Swords are nifty and all, but when your fighting something that doesn’t bleed and is still a danger even when decapitated, stick with a bludgeon, my friends.

Just as an aside, the first RPG I ever wrote as a kid was a zombie survival horror game called, “The World of the Walking Dead” ( Man do I wish I’d copyrighted that name now! ) that I ran for my brother and friends. It was inspired by, but not in the same universe as, Romero’s Dead series ( A trilogy at the time ) and had all kinds of wacky things like playable intelligent zombies, human psychics, and intelligent zombie masters that directed hordes of the unliving against the enclaves of humanity.

I’ve always loved that we never find out what causes the dead to rise in the Romero films. Sure, we get some hints that it might be a crashed Venus probe, but that is so in the background and rarely mentioned along with other wild theories that it’s more of a guess than anything else.

The influence of Richard Matheson’s seminal novel, “I Am Legend” really shows through in this first movie. The Dead seem to think a bit more and make more use of tools than in the next couple of films ( Bud notwithstanding. ) The fear of fire that seems to lessen as the series goes on is still in place and Ben always seemed to invoke a lot of the same notes I got from Matheson’s Neville. I’d say that if you’re a fan of the Dead series or zombie movies in general, I’d give “I Am Legend”  ( The novel, not any of the three failed movie adaptations ) a try.

Next week, we’ll be looking at a fifth anniversary instead of a fiftieth when I’ll be reviewing the 2013 film, Dark Skies. From zombies to aliens or samurai, you never know what to expect on the Edge!

About Author

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Justin T. Williams hails from the Great state of Texas. His life has been a series of strange adventures that makes for intriguing writing but difficult laundry. Justin is known to his friends as a lifetime fan of comics, movies, and classic pulps. He lurks far from the sun, indulging in his favorite pastimes of writing and hoarding random bits of interesting but useless knowledge.