Retro review: Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead is a film noir which George A. Romero directed and produced as one of the first zombie movies. Some aspects still, however, reflect the modern show The Walking Dead since it is all about humans who work together and survive despite the terror that builds around them.

Romero establishes the setting by expanding a long shot of the cemetery where the main character, Barbara, and her brother, Johnny, visit to place a wreath on their father’s grave. Johnny teases her about the time when they were kids in the same spot and he had surprised her by jumping out at her while saying, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” It is that scene that the audience gets their first impression of who Barbara is since she does not return his joke but takes him as seriously as she did when she was younger. In a few minutes, a zombie attacks Barbara but Johnny saves her by positioning himself between the two and fighting back. Ultimately, despite a last ditch, successful effort to defeat the zombie, the zombie ends up biting and killing Johnny, Romero’s use of irony.

What is most impressive about Romero is his usage of lighting in who he chooses he will give it to in his film. Throughout the movie, no matter where she is in the scene, Romero shoots Barbara where shadows reach for her and touch her, especially when she first entered the house she escaped into the cemetery. The lack of light reflects her despairing state of mind, although she survived. At the house, taxidermy animals traumatize her with their stilled eyes, stunning her and and causing her to overreact and scream as loud as she had when she first saw the zombie. She also made several attempts to call for help, including the classic scene when she picks up a phone to dial but all she hears on the other end is a twangy, sizzling sound. From there, she falls into a comatose-like state where she acts like she has no sense of what is occurring around her. When a vehicle shines light into the house, it resembles that same zombified appearance that terrorized her but she discovers help has arrived in the form of a man named Ben.

Ben changes the game and takes actions into his own hands, giving the film a promise of hope for human survivors. In contrast to Barbara, Romero provides Ben with more light to indicate his burning desire to survive and to help all the other characters do the same. While he admits he is scared, he wastes no time in boarding up the windows and doors where the zombies outside the house may have a chance of breaking into. He also asks Barbara if she will go find more nails or boards while he works, but she gives no indication that she heard him. She takes the longest time to gather the materials, and even when she returns, her anxious appearance and her stiff movements resemble how much she believes all is already lost.

At some point, zombies do break in and she releases the most bloodcurdling scream yet, calling upstairs more characters neither Barbara nor Ben knew about. Ben demanded if the additional characters heard the severe pounding of him putting up the boards, why they did not offer their help. One character gives the excuse that he didn’t know it was not the zombies. Ben reacts with disgust like he had with Barbara. Though he does not come out and say it, the audience knows he is a fighter and rejects any response of fear.

Later in the film, zombies cannot be kept out. They force the doors down and intrude, leaving everyone to fend for themselves. Will Ben’s mental strength and his determination prove to be enough to keep everyone alive or will the others have to fend for themselves?

If you are curious enough to discover the answer, check the movie out from the campus library.

Film noir is a genre that captures a reality of human emotions and tends to trap the audience in suspense from the first five minutes to the last second where the viewer is left breathless.

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