Release: 26th February 2018
Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner star in this classic horror by George A. Romero. When brother and sister Johnny and Barbra (Streiner and O’Dea) go to visit their father’s grave, Barbra is terrified for her life when Johnny is killed by a flesh-eating zombie. As she escapes to a nearby farmhouse Barbra discovers other desperate individuals who are preparing to do battle with the undead.
When it comes to the brain munching undead, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is often cited as a touchstone of cinema. This 1968 classic helped to not only establish what are now considered genre laws, but it is believed to be a fitting social commentary. Oh yeah, and it is bleak AF. One thing has always bugged me though, as a film, Night of the Living Dead is actual pretty rubbish.
Yes, I dared to go there. Say what you want about the importance of the film’s place in history, but as a stand alone piece of moviemaking it is choppy, sluggish, poorly written and badly acted. In fact, if it wasn’t for the brief moments of genius, shocking imagery and good faith of being a ‘first’ for its time, here is a film one Tommy Wiseau away from being laughable. Here is a glorified student film, a gold plated B-movie. But somehow, Romero lucked out with a film worth much more than the sum of its parts.
So why is Night of the Walking Dead such an integral film? The answers mostly rest with the inciting incident and act three. As a open, you don’t get more understated and shocking than William Hinzman listlessly turning from background actor to face chomping walker. The way Romero turns seemingly innocuous sibling bickering in to a life altering race for survival is utterly brilliant. In terms of opening scenes, this is up there with Joe Pesci stabbing Billy Batts to death in the boot of Henry Hill’s car.
As the main bulk of the film kicks in to gear, we are subject to more monotonous monologues than we are genuine tension. The zombies seemingly take a nap for about 45 minutes as an aggravating house of survivors gurn through Jon Russo’s hideous dialogue. But its from the moment Ben goes for petrol that things start to heat up (quite literally in the case of Judy and Tom). And it is here that Night of the Living Dead starts to earn its stripes. It’s also here that the film’s oft pondered social ethics become most tangible. Is it about racial inequality? Maybe the Vietnam war? Or possibly a reaction to the Cold War hysteria. Whatever the case, there is no arguing that you don’t get more caliginous than those closing titles.
Fans will continue to let the film’s many faults slip, citing its imperfections as adding to its rough and ready feel. They might be right. You cannot argue with how impactful the film has been over the years. Intentional or not, Romero has a lot to say about humanity, and challenges many conventions of storytelling to create something truly disturbing. But the simple and abstract truth is, there is a lot to dislike about the film…if it wasn’t so damn brilliant. Now there is an oxymoron for you!
Film Grade: B
Oh my goodness, what a package! Not one, but two Director’s Commentaries (albeit taken from a previous release), a workprint titled Night of Anubis (which is an awesome title); but essentially the same film, some Dailies for the über fan and the Newsreel Footage from during the film’s shoot. So far, so meh, but the true gems are yet to come. To list everything here would cause severe DVT. So let us surmise as a series of Featurettes and Interviews. Highlights include original zombies talking about their experience in the film, a Criterion exclusive that focuses on the film’s soundtrack (mostly stock), and Judith Ridley sharing some great anecdotes. All that is missing is the famed ‘colourised’ version of the film.
Special Features Grade: A
For all its shortcomings, there is good reason Night of the Living Dead is still held in such high regard. In a world fast approaching Zombie fatigue. It is amazing Romero’s work remains relevant.