While technically, White Zombie is the first ever zombie horror film, the one most people remember is Night of the Living Dead. For many this was their first trek down zombie lane and it was a great voyage. The film, released in 1968 in picturesque black and white, tells the tale of a group of citizens suffering from a zombie apocalypse. From the genius mind of George Romero, horror legend, Night of the Living Dead is a flawless horror. It is frightening, graphic, ruthless and a perfect illustration of one of the scariest feelings of all - hopelessness.
Night of the Living Dead drops the viewer right into the action and skips the beginning story-building arc. I love that about this film. It sets the tone immediately - everyone is doomed. Everyone is screwed. Siblings Barbra and Johnny arrive at a cemetery to place flowers on their father’s grave. The two bicker throughout the process and it leads to Johnny remembering Barbra is afraid of cemeteries. And so the film truly begins with one of the most memorable quotes of all time, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” From that point on, all hell breaks loose. Zombies wreak havoc and a group of civilians hunker down in an abandoned house for safety.
This film is fantastic. The story is well-written, the dialogue chosen carefully, the acting is incredible. Even though films were in color then, Romero selected black and white for his work of art and it pays off. The entire film is creepy and frightening. And the zombies. Oh the zombies. In White Zombie, the villains are portrayed as mindless slaves. This version of zombies is nothing like that. Night of the Living Dead introduces the world to zombies as cannibals and suddenly this villain rises from the dead and becomes the truly terrifying creature he is meant to be. Cannibalism is disgusting and there are few things scarier than a “living” person chewing your face off. These zombies limp through the town and attempt to eat anyone they can. The film also touches on the zombie virus and how it spreads and affects other people.
The thing I love most about Night of the Living Dead is the type of fear it addresses. In horror, there is much to fear and there are so many things to scare audiences with. There’s the fear of chainsaw-wielding serial killers or the fear of things that go bump in the night or the fear of giant sharks or snakes. Viewers might respond to blood or gore or creepy music or found footage. Fear is complex; it isn’t measured solely by whether or not you jump out of your seat or have nightmares for weeks. Night of the Living Dead features something I am terrified of, and that’s the feeling of being doomed. Hopelessness. I mean, imagine being stuck in a situation where you feel hopeless or like nothing you do can change your future. That’s freaking terrifying. A lot of films exploit this feeling, and some even do a good job. This movie is great at it. From the very beginning, the situation seems hopeless and the viewer can feel this.
Night of the Living Dead is a horror classic and a film I’d definitely recommend to anyone looking to get into the genre or expose themselves to more zombies. A graphic, at times terrifying film, this movie brings zombies on horror island to a whole new level. And hey, even if you survive them, you still have to survive the townspeople.
If you liked Night of the Living Dead, you might also like Wake Wood, Psychomania and White Zombie.