The first film in what has become a legendary series, Night of the Living Dead stunned unsuspecting movie-goers when it debuted in 1968; its subtext and cheerless finale still retain the capacity to unsettle contemporary audiences as well. Night of the Living Dead offers a heaping helping of Romero's famous flesh-eating fare, along with a generous side order of dysfunctional human behavior. Critics disparaged the film as a "grainy little movie," yet its unflinching, no-holds-barred style broke new ground for aspiring independent filmmakers and paved the way for the realistic depiction of violence and gore in the horror films that would follow.
Ostensibly about flesh-eating ghouls (the "Z" word is never uttered in Night of the Living Dead), the film's real threat is posed by seven people who struggle to survive the onslaught of hungry ghouls, and each other.
A group of disparate strangers takes refuge from the reanimated dead in an isolated farmhouse. The dreary Pennsylvania countryside and dingy interiors evoke feelings of claustrophobia and hopelessness as the multitude of hungry ghouls advances toward the house. The group is composed of three women - one of them rendered catatonic by the death of her brother at the hands of a ghoul - three men and one injured little girl. Outside, the ghouls press on, searching for weaknesses in the hurriedly boarded windows and doors. Inside, two men - one white, one black - vie for the position of Alpha Male. Each aspires to lead the group in uncompromising fashion; neither will yield and this unresolved conflict ultimately leads to the downfall of all. There is no safe place in this movie: Not outside with the living dead, nor inside with the living. There can be no happy ending.
A gruesome matricide and shattering conclusion are among the most memorable elements of the film. The portrayals of the overbearing white male, the mute female, and the ultimately victimized black male are symbolic of the real struggles and societal upheavals with which America was grappling in the late 1960s. The authenticity of the characters coupled with grisly scenes of ghouls feeding on human entrails made this film difficult to dismiss as just another monster flick. For a time following its release it enjoyed a cult following at drive-ins and midnight shows. Night of the Living Dead has since attained legitimate "classic film" stature: A print resides in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1999 it was selected to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Not bad for a "grainy little movie."
Hungry for a really crisp copy of Night of the Living Dead? Click here to buy the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. It features the gorgeous 4K restoration and it's the best version of Night of the Living Dead available anywhere.
Board up your windows, grab your popcorn, sit back and watch...
For those of you who have been locked in the cellar since 1968, here's Stick Figure Theater's version of Night of the Living Dead!