47 Years of Student Run Cinema
Student Film Society of the Year 2002, 2005, 2006
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The plot: Johnny and Barbara visit a cemetery, where they are attacked by a ghoul. Barbara escapes, but Johnny is killed. Barbara meets Ben, who has just witnessed another ghoul attack. It seems the living dead are everywhere. Ben and Barbara hole up in a seemingly deserted house. After a while they discover that there are others, hiding in the basement of the house. There are a couple of young lovers, and a family, the little girl of which has been bitten by one of the living dead. Meanwhile, the number of ghouls outside the house is increasing. The humans are on their own until help arrives...
Night of the Living Dead's effects are nothing special - just some animal parts being eaten, supplied by an investor who owned a chain of meat markets, and chocolate syrup for blood (lucky that it wasn't in colour!). The image is grainy, looking as though it's a 16mm blow up. The dialogue is often (allegedly intentionally) banal. The acting is amateurish - hardly surprising since, to save money, all roles except Barbara and Ben were played by the investors in the film.
But none of this really matters: Like any good horror film, NotLD is shocking. And in two ways. Firstly, shocks come from the way in which Romero repeatedly presents a clichéd situations in which we think we know what's going on, only for Romero to pull out the rug from underneath, thereby producing a greater shock: The (apparent) heroine goes into shock, but never recovers. Sudden frissons come from things which pose no threat, whereas the ghouls are slow and clumsy, their attacks obvious. Two young lovers appear and, just as we might be getting to like them, they are cooked and eaten. And so forth. NotLD certainly has its predecessors in this manipulation of audience expectation. Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) comes to mind. What Romero did with NotLD was push the Psycho approach to its logical extreme, undermining every certainty we might have had. Here the second shock arises. NotLD presents an unrelentingly bleak world view, tempered only by some black humour. By NotLD's conclusion your certainties should have been challenged. (If they haven't, and you aren't shocked, then this might be because you've been party to the influence which the film has exerted in its genre (and elsewhere) since 1968. Essentially, Romero demolished one set of clichés to produce what have, in time, become others.)
NotLD is also a history of American nightmares: The opening graveyard scene recalls Frankenstein (1930) and the Universal tradition. The story - dead bodies brought back to life by radiation from a space probe - recalls the EC horror comics and the sci-fi paranoia movies of the 1950s. Recent 1960s films which paved the way for NotLD - Psycho, making the locale for the horror contemporary America; The Birds (1963), providing a model for the NotLD situation; H.G. Lewis's Blood Feast (1963), the original splatter/gore movie; and Henk Hervey's Carnival of Souls (1962), providing a model for the ghoul make up - are alluded to.
Some critics have seen NotLD as a Vietnam war allegory. Others have interpreted it as commentary on USA race relations. Both interpretations gain strength from the year of the films release - in 1968 the Vietnam war was intensifying, Martin Luther King jr. was assassinated, and there were riots in several US cities. Romero and his co-scriptwriter downplay such readings, at least as being consciously intended. The ethnicity of Ben, for example, was not even specified in the script, and a black actor played the role simply because he was the best that could be found. It is undoubtedly true, however, that Romero's subsequent films are certainly socially aware, if at times heavy handed in their messages.
Romero deserves admiration for his stance against the USA's MPAA ratings system: He was told his sequel to NotLD, Dawn of the Dead (1978) would receive an X rating unless cuts were made to secure an R. This was the conventional thing to do. Scorsese, for example, had done so with Taxi Driver (1976), toning down the colour of blood from red to brown. An X rating, associated by this time in the American public's mind's with hard-core pornography, is generally the commercial kiss of death for a legitimate movie. Major studios will not distribute an X film, and advertising and bookings are difficult to get. (Some notable films initially rated X for their serious adult content - Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange - had later been re-rated R.) Romero refused to change his film, and released it independently, without a rating. This was a bold move considering that he would be the one to lose money if it failed commercially. As it turned out, the movie made a good profit. He did the same with the final part of the trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), but it failed to repeat its predecessors success.
Review by Keith Brown
Taken from EUFS Programme Note 1995-96