I chose the original 1968 version of this movie for two reasons – the original is almost always the best version, and it was free on “On Demand.”
A lot has been written about this movie since its release. It’s been called the “first-ever subversive horror movie”; critiquing American society, the military, racism and our involvement in Vietnam (Wikipedia). And although it never used the word “zombie,” it launched the entire zombie media franchise that followed, continuing even up to the present. Adults were appalled by the gore and utter nihilism of the film. Teenagers loved it for those very same reasons.
There were a number of things I liked about “Night of the Living Dead”. The monsters were mysterious in makeup and origin – what the hell were they, really? And where did they come from? The radio newscaster kept babbling, “They look like ordinary people. They look like us.” Which is apparently scarier than monsters that just look like, well, monsters. There was some vague attempt at explaining the reason behind what was happening – something about a radioactive space probe returning from Venus that was deliberately exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere once the radiation was detected. So, stray Venusian radiation gently wafting down to Earth causes zombie-ism. Who knew?
I also liked how the hero of this movie just happened to be a black man. Duane Jones, a former university professor, played Ben as a calm, resourceful and intelligent survivor. The actor refused to play the role as it was originally written – Ben was supposed to be a simple, uneducated truck driver — so he re-wrote it. Talk about subversive!
I liked the zombies, which were called ghouls in the movie. They were not the full-fledged, foot-dragging, “Braiiiinnns”-moaning zombies we’ve all come to know and love, but the seeds are there. To me, Romero’s zombies looked more like stunned survivors of a nasty hit on the head than re-animated corpses, but they were chillingly relentless. Once they knew what you were (alive and tasty), and where you were (hiding in some silly, old car, or in an abandoned farmhouse), there was practically no stopping them. That was good and creepy.
However, I am sad to say all that monster-y goodness pales in comparison to the sexist depiction of Barbra. She was okay in the very beginning when she and her brother, Johnny, arrive at the cemetery for their annual visit to their father’s grave. Even when Johnny teases her with the iconic line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” she is sympathetic. After all, anyone can have their one thing that makes them just wimp out. That’s fine. Totally understandable. But why, oh why, does Barbra appear to lose her mind once Ben shows up? I didn’t time it exactly, but I estimate that, once he appears at the farmhouse (chased by zombies) and starts to barricade them both inside, Barbra spends the next twenty or so minutes silently falling apart. She can’t talk and she can’t help with anything useful. From then on, she’s just scared. And useless. And ridiculous. I hated her. I wanted to grab her and shake her until that stupid blonde wig fell off her head. The other women were almost as bad. The mom in the basement, Helen, was a cypher. The sick- daughter-turned-zombie, Karen, actually does something – she eats her father’s corpse, which is all kinds of crazy-Freudian.
Yes, I know it was only the Sixties – way too soon for kick-ass female characters to be appearing in movies – but honestly, George, while you were being all “subversive,” and hiring a black, male lead to head your otherwise all-white cast, would it have killed you to maybe think outside the box just a little bit more, and not make Barbra such a fucking dishrag?
Night of the Living Dead, from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_Living_Dead. Accessed 5 October 2016.