After a series of pleasant master shots of the rolling and rural Pennsylvania countryside over which the opening credits are not too obtrusively printed, Night of the Living Dead’s first line of dialogue is one of the hoariest bitches since daylight savings time was implemented.

“They ought to make the day the time changes the first day of summer.”

So says Barbara (Judith O’ Dea) to her brother, Johnny (Russell Streiner). They have driven three hours to visit the grave of their father which they plan to adorn with a new ornament. Her observation about the time is met with scorn and a further gripe about their mother and then, for good measure, a sideswipe about how forgettable their father was. Then we get some crankiness about losing an hour of sleep followed up cynicism about the supposedly shameless capitalistic endeavors of the floral arrangement business which then naturally leads into a complaint about going to church. Remembering how scared Barbara was in the cemetery when they were children, Johnny then decides to go out of his way to create a spectacle of himself while trying to frighten her. A seemingly aimless and wandering man (Bill Hinzman), loudly pointed out by Johnny as an example of someone who’s “coming to get” her, mindlessly attacks Barbara when she gets close enough to apologize to him for her brother’s boorish behavior. Johnny quickly comes to her rescue but is just as quickly dispatched as the man throws Johnny down, causing his head to hit the corner of a headstone with an unmistakably lethal thud. A shocked Barbara runs and runs and runs and the man chases her. She eventually comes to a lone farmhouse in which she barricades herself as the man, still in shambling pursuit, knocks the telephone lines loose and cuts off all communication to the outside world.

Going over the granular plot details of the first five minutes of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is important not only to show just how hard the film hits the ground running, but to also note that the film starts on a complaint and absolutely nothing gets any better. Ever. For even when wayward truck driver, Ben (Duane Jones), appears and it’s further discovered that the house has already become the refuge for both the Coopers (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, and Kyra Schon) and teenage couple Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley), nothing positive happens. More and more creatures will surround the farmhouse and the situation will continue to devolve into further chaos until every single character is dead.

There is no levity here and no letting up. It’s just one unfolding nightmare after another; a wildfire that can’t be put out. And boy does it ever spread quickly. Random killings become more frequent. Nobody knows why things are happening. The President of the United States hastily convenes a meeting. First, it’s revealed that people are eating the people they murder. Then, it’s followed up by reports that dead people are coming back to life. And so on and so forth. It gets no better. The one time the folks who are taking refuge in the farmhouse organize a plan to get gas for the truck from a pump on the property so they can flee en masse, they manage to fuck it up at the worst possible place, at the worst possible time, and in the worst possible way.

The heart of Night of the Living Dead is the conflict between the calm yet commanding Ben and the reactive anxiousness of Harry Cooper. As co-written by Romero and John Russo, the opposite sides of the fence are pared down to their most minimal elements while being as metaphorically loaded as they can be. The casting of an African-American in the role of Ben may have just been coincidental but it’s all but impossible not to feel that extra layer of tension when he is pitted against the forever aggrieved Harry Cooper, a typical middle-management chud who hates his wife and every single idea that doesn’t come from his own head. With the character of Tom representing the nice-guy balance who sees the virtue in both sides but wants so desperately to be part of the solution, Romero gives the audience the audience a glimmer of hope before snatching it away. For Tom and Judy are the first to go and, in Romero’s cinematic world, that’s where idealism gets you. But by merely killing them off, Romero isn’t done by half as their entrails and disembodied appendages are fought over and feasted upon by the marauding ghouls and done so in a certain amount of graphic detail unseen until that time.

There can be no doubt the final thirty minutes of Night of the Living Dead are what gave the children the vapors who happened to be at the matinee Roger Ebert wrote about in his infamous review. For those minutes grow darker and more unsettling with each frame cut, finally collapsing into a final fifteen minutes that are relentlessly terrifying and grim. Brother and sister are ghoulishly reunited while little Karen Cooper embodies the Baby Boomer rebellion against their Silent Generation parents. The results, Karen hacking away at her mother with a garden trowel after gnawing off her father’s arm, was no doubt an adult dose that was as unexpected as it was audacious. Romero ratchets the tension up in a conventionally cinematic way, the film refuses to offer a cathartic release as its ending is an ironic bummer of the highest order. But without it, the film would have suffered.

Assisting in delivering his vision was Romero’s preternatural gift at capturing a very specific landscape of America that is situated between dying Main Street towns like Evans City (outside of which Night of the Living Dead was shot) and the crumbling townships of Pittsburgh like Braddock, home-base for Romero’s Martin. With economic changes and social upheaval, the Norman Rockwell portrait of this country was in serous decline in 1968 and Romero found a home for his horrors in the corrosiveness of that breakdown. And, almost clairvoyantly, Romero deems himself the official chronicler that downslope with the placement of his directing credit over a shot of an American Flag waving in the wind as it adorns a tombstone.

Say what one will about the brilliant insights, technical achievements, and the massively impressive resume of David Cronenberg, George Romero was probably the most ahead of his time of all of his genre peers. Does any film seem as prescient in our post-pandemic culture than Night of the Living Dead, a film that throws a pretty simple and solvable problem at America and watches as she completely gets overwhelmed and murdered in slow motion; the metaphor of the scorpion and the ants in The Wild Bunch writ large? Romero masterfully boils the central conflict down to a binary choice of staying on the ground floor of the house or going into the cellar and both sides argue with case with passion while becoming positively possessive of the things within their chosen territories. Night of the Living Dead lays bare the cynicism that can be mined from overbearing parents, church, the government, law enforcement, marriage, and, most pointedly, people’s inability to reach a consensus to save their own lives. Romero knew that virtually none of these things would eventually prove to be helpful if and when the chips went down.

On a technical level, Night of the Living Dead is almost flawlessly executed. Shot primarily by Romero himself with a wild 35mm Arriflex, the film has a perfect blend of the immediacy of cinéma vérité with tight, well-composed, and evocatively lit interiors replete with lots of well placed shadows and textures, all given life by canted angles and quick edits. The television broadcasts are ingeniously conceived and the film’s documentary-like reputation comes from not only the fluid camerawork in the main story but also from these specific sequences which do a great job elevating the film’s realism. Awkward and halting delivery commingled with stolen Washington D.C. exterior footage gives everything a real on-the-spot integrity. Serving also as his own editor, Romero finds a nice pace that tightens as the film marches to its conclusion but additionally does an amazing job both establishing the cinematic space and selling the illusion of the existence of the cellar which was not native to the house but, instead, shot in the basement of his production office in Pittsburgh.

The cast members all do very good work but special mention should go to both Duane Jones and Karl Hardman who embody their yin and yang roles with gravitas and authority. From their performances, you’d never know that Hardman especially loved Jones and had a deep admiration for his artistry. And more than passing mention should be afforded to Judith O’ Dea who generally gets overlooked due to the limitations of her character. But never once do you not believe that she is completely overtaken with stunned fear. It’s in her eyes, her quivering lips, her reaction shots, and in her incredibly delivered monologue to Jones where she recounts the day’s events before slipping into hysteria.

And discussing the character of Barbara brings up one of the film’s enduring complaints which criticizes her for being too passive (she more or less going into catatonic shock at the thirty minute mark only to come back alive in the final minutes in the film). People can have whatever druthers they wish but Barbara’s character feels very real to my eyes and, beyond that, all of the characters represent a good cross section of how 99% of people would act in this situation. Everyone likes to think they’d be the bravely heroic one in a time of crisis but certainly there is going to be someone who is overwhelmed and frozen. Why not the one who was attacked and saw a family member killed right in front of their eyes? That’s not something most people are programmed to experience in their day-to-day life, nor is it really anything one can prepare for. Barbara does what most of us would do which is to allow the fight-or-flight instinct to take over and move us to safety before eventually collapsing in stunned exhaustion.

But, let’s face it, there is no real safety in this situation. Even if Judith O’ Dea’s Barbara became more of a take-charge type as would be the case when Pat Tallman inhabited the role in Tom Savini’s 1990 remake, it wouldn’t make any difference. Ultimately, she won’t get away and neither will anyone else. They’re coming to get us, Barbara. And eventually they’ll catch us. Because instead of being vigilant, coming together, and solving real problems, our society would rather dwell on stupid shit like how springing forward an hour is an affront to our collective livelihoods.

(C) Copyright 2023, Patrick Crain

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