One might expect that a film titled Night of the Living Dead ( and released in 1968) would not induce thrills and chills 37 years later. Nor would many of us expect it to spawn an innumerable amount of sequels and remakes, Dawn of the Dead (remake) being released in 2004 and Land of the Dead (sequel) in 2005. I did approach George A. Romero's 1968 production with low expectations, and walked away pleasantly surprised.
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For me, the heart of the film lies with the protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), who died young in 1988 and had hitherto acted in few films. He is a decisive figure, determined to save as many human beings he can while killing as many of the "zombies" which have taken over the surrounding area. He appears after Barbara (Judith O' Dea, whom only recently has decided to pick up on acting) shows up at a country house, escaping a "living dead" attacker (and mourning her brother's lapse into unconsciousness). O'Dea's performance isn't the worst, but I do find it often overdone. Thankfully, we have Ben's countering five-across-the-eyes to silence her.
Tom (Keith Wayne) occasionally annoys me with his Jimmy-Stewart-like Aw-shucks-ness, but (spoiler!) Romero kills him off too quickly for that to be a concern. Another strong performance comes from the petulant Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), a man swamped in an unmistakably grievable marriage (his wife even states something to the liking of, "I know we don't like each other"), appearing from the basement of the resorted country house where everyone has taken refuge. We can see right through the disposition of his character right from his appearance; he's cranky and admittedly refused to assist the first-floor occupants even after hearing their screams. Romero does a fantastic job of portraying his character's likenesses.
The use of radio and video, even with the involved silliness of the predicament, creates immense intensity. Announcers ramble on and on about "state authorities" and "what we know," the repetition becoming grating but strangely overwhelming. Romero's direction is at its best when viewing the zombies at the house's exterior- the barraging variety of characters provided successfully realizes the situation, and the "flesh barbecue" toward the end of the film is particularly horrific.
The ending is suitable, and the film brings about typical questions about human nature. If one of our relatives became a flesh-eating zombie, would we be less obliged to exterminate them? How would we react, being faced with such stale minds in such human forms? "Night of the Living Dead" is the prototype for a zombie film and efficaciously gave birth to a great genre for posterity.
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