Sometimes a horror movie is more than just a horror movie. Behind the gore and the scares, the director delivers deeper terrors of humanity and society, and in the bargain influences decades of movies to come. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a classic example of how horror can go beyond its trappings.
NOTLD starts off with a seemingly mundane event: Johnny and Barbara visiting their father’s grave. Johnny starts to tease and scare his sister, invoking the ever famous line "They’re coming to get you, Barbara!" He sees a fellow grave goer and draws him into the harmless game. But when the grave goer turns out to be a Cemetery Ghoul and attacks Barbara, the world turns upside down not only for Barbara and Johnny, but for everyone.
The majority of NOTLD takes place in a farm house, where several people are trapped by the undead. Ben, the film’s protagonist, has the clearest head, and takes charge of the catatonic Barbara. Unbeknownst to him, there are several other people in the basement: the Cooper family, with loud mouthed Harry as the father figure; his wife Helen, with whom he constantly bickers, and their daughter Karen, who has been bitten by one of the zombies. With them are a young couple, Judy and Tom, who seem to side more with Ben. As zombies threaten to besiege not only the house, but the planet, this group struggle not only to survive the ghouls, but their own differences.
NOTLD is not so much a straight horror movie, but an attack on the social order. The family unit has fallen apart, evident not only because Karen Cooper is on the verge of death and the Coopers hate each other, but from the very moment that Barbara and Johnny show up at the cemetery. Society is under attack, as the zombies attack the farmhouse, the very institution of the home. And though Romero has said many times, including on his commentary track on this disc, that Ben is only black because Duane Jones was the best actor available, he also frequently mentions that he and writer John Russo drove the film cans to New York the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated. Race relations cannot help but come to the forefront at the film’s shocking conclusion. Upheaval has come to family, race and society. Even death is under attack; for if the dead come back to life, is death really final?
Though several versions of NOTLD have appeared on disc before and since, the Millennium Edition is the way to go. The two commentaries alone make the disc worth a purchase. Romero and Russo are joined by Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, who not only starred as the Coopers, but ran the production company responsible for the film. On the other track, most of the cast appears to discuss the making and memories of the film. The two biggest problems with these commentaries are that the memories are sometimes inconsistent because of the lapse of nearly 40 years between the film’s production and the commentaries; and as is common to commentaries with multiple participants, not everyone has an equal say. There’s a dated interview with Judith Ridley, in which she explains the art of food modeling in commercials. Also, there’s an audio interview with Duane Jones, who was obviously embarrassed that he was best known for being in a horror movie. His story of a butterfly on the set shows just how sensitive a man he was. There’s also a scene from one of Romero’s "lost" films, There’s Always Vanilla, but that film is available on disc now, and not really worth seeing. My favorite extras on the discs, though, are several of Romero’s commercials. He directed these as his "day" job while working on Night. His Calgon commercial is an instant classic. Several scrapbooks, Russo’s shooting script and some photo galleries appear to round out the disc.
Night of the Living Dead is a classic not just because it’s a great horror movie, but because it’s a great movie. Romero and Russo crafted a film that makes us question society, race and the family. It’s these questions that keep the film relevant almost 40 years later, and keep horror fans coming back to it.
Oh, and it also forever changed the concept of the zombie on film in the process. But that’s another story.
EDITORS NOTE: This review is the first for Icons of Fright’s newest staff reviewer Phil Fasso! Give it up for Phil!