Christopher Machell Criterion

DVD Review: Night of the Living Dead

★★★★★

After languishing for decades with sub-par public domain versions, George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead is finally granted the release it deserves, with a lovingly restored print. For the first time, the craft and artistry involved in the first modern zombie film is fully visible.

Few filmmakers can lay claim to have single-handedly invented an entire sub-genre. Yet without a doubt without Romero there would be no Walking Dead, no 28 Days Later, no Train to Busan, no Resident Evil, no Shaun of the Dead. Prior to Night, zombies were of the Bela Lugosi, voodoo variety, yet in the first entry to his zombie series Romero established virtually all of the tropes for modern cinema’s most prolific monster: shoot them in the head, don’t get bitten, don’t get surrounded, and most importantly, don’t trust the idiots you’re holed up with.

This last mantra is the most important for Night of the Living Dead, which sees seven terrified strangers hide out in a country house while the marauding undead (never referred to as ‘zombies’, naturally) try to bust their way in. Ben (Duane Jones) finds himself the unlikely hero, a terrified everyman who happens to the most level-headed among a catatonic Barbra (Judith O’Dea), two young lovebirds and a family headed by the selfish Cooper (Karl Hardman).

After the initial attack that sees Barbra’s obnoxious brother get his head caved in by a recently deceased ghoul, the tension inside the house is so high it matters nothing that the middle portion of the film involves very little action. Instead, the genius of the film is to drip feed its characters and audience information through TV and radio news reports, interspersed with the relayed experiences of each of the house’s occupants. The satirical sensibility that would dominate the later entries in Romero’s series is on full display here, with information filtered through a biased media, and the rural vigilantism of the yokels hunting for zombies only just this side of implicit.

Combined with Romero’s political commentary is a cinematic aesthetic that arguably outstrips its sequels in both craft and effectiveness. The cinematography adopts a documentary realism that is both complicated by the film’s own suspicion of mediated imagery, which is juxtaposed with the story’s fantastical horror elements. Indeed, in some shots one could be forgiven for mistaking the 1968 film for a horror film from the 1930s, with key lighting and Dutch angles using the aesthetics of classic expressionist cinema to create a new American gothic aesthetic. The mixture shouldn’t work, but it does.

Night of the Living Dead has sometimes been unfairly sidelined in favour of its bigger, showier sequels, but if some of the edges are a little rough, they just give us better access to the filmmaking process. This definitive version of Romero’s masterpiece re-establishes its singular brilliance not just as the first modern zombie film, but as one of the most important independent films ever made.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell