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Night of the Living Dead (George Romero) 1968


    George Romeroís horror classic Night of the Living Dead is so smart and effective a homegrown thriller that it inspires critics to attach all sort of political and societal overtones onto it, claiming that its depiction of a world gone askew is commentary on the strife that filled America in 1968. Even though the title card that shows Romeroís directorís credit shows an American flag flapping in the background and the end title sequence (which might be my favorite end title sequence ever) pretty explicitly recalls a lynching, itís tough for me to reduce a movie thatís such an effective and inescapably chilling portrait of terror to a mere political allegory. Whatever Romeroís intent might have intended, itís next to impossible to deny that first and foremost he intended to make a film that scares and disturbs its audience on a profoundly deep level, and I canít deny that it has that sort of effect on me no matter how many times I watch it.


    Romero opens the film with a trip to the cemetery, but it feels mundane and uneventful for a few minutes (this brief sequence is the only one that can be described that way). The idle chatter between Barbara (Judith OíDea) and her brother Johnny feels expository, so we expect their relationship to develop into something more as the movie goes on, but it shockingly doesnít. Once the movie brilliantly introduces the living dead, it starts a trip into an increasingly surreal world, and robs the audience of any sort of bearing for a long stretch of time. Within ten minutes it traps us in the farm house that the rest of the film uses as its set to minimalize its budget and maximize its isolated sense of fear. When the action finally seems to let up for a moment, Romero somehow manages to remind us that the zombies that are slowly gathering around the house are still out there even when not explicitly showing them to us. Somehow, on his tiny budget, he manages to create a convincing world where the things that lie off screen are still threatening. He warps our collective fear of the dark into a dread that what we canít see might be worse than we can imagine. Even though the houseís inhabitants are successful in beating back one wave of the undead, weíre left uneasy because we know that more will soon replace them.


    The effect that this sort of filmic structure has on an audience is actually quite similar to the distress that knowledge of the walking dead causes. The horrible thing about these monsters is that if they get you, and kill you, you join their ranks. Thereís no peace even in death, just as Night of the Living Dead offers the audience no peace in its quietest moments. The myriad zombie films that have followed Night have not diluted its horrific impact one bit, and you can only attribute that timelessness to Romeroís skill in crafting a white-knuckled fright fest that wonít let up. The relationships that form between the characters here are tenuous and desperate.  Even if the acting is less than stellar, there exists undeniable tension between the actors (perhaps because of the wildly varying styles of acting). In any case, itís tough to level such criticisms when a film disturbs you to this extent.


    The effortless way that Romero integrates radio and news reports into the story is commendable. They offer explanations for the events, but the audience, like the filmís characters, is still left uncomfortable after theories are proffered. Additionally, they serve to open up the scope of the movie without diffusing any of the concentrated intensity and intimate focus that seems to steadily build. The plot, simple as it is, is equally elegant. After quickly establishing a normal sense of reality, Romero quickly twists it on its head, and throws us into a chaotic episode that lasts for about a half an hour, until the protagonists are safe in the farmhouse. As soon as a moment of calm is reached, however, he introduces more characters, and creates more conflict. This is a clever trick that Romero later repeats to stunning effect when a news report suggests the zombie menace has been placed under control. He fools us again, and uses this supposedly good news as an ironic preface to what might be the most harrowing fifteen minutes of a horror film ever. My rational mind tells me that Night of the Living Dead is not a classic film. Its technical inadequacies are quite obvious and at times it is stupefyingly simple. Still, I canít underrate its intangible ability to bypass my rationale and lunge straight at my subconscious. When itís really cooking, itís the scariest film Iíve ever seen.


* * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman