This is the grandaddy of the modern zombie genre, and the first in director George A Romero’s “Dead” series (formerly a trilogy, but later installments have been added). The movie lays a lot of the groundwork for the familiar themes and motifs of the zombie genre.
It’s a low budget gem, and while the effects are basic and some of the acting stilted it manages to remain an engaging and interesting movie. Like most zombie movies it deals with a small group of survivors having to hole up and fight off the undead, and the usual trope of the living being just as dangerous as the living.
The movie kicks off with Barbra (Judith O’Dea) visiting the grave of her father, accompanied by her brother, who proceeds to mock her for being scared of the cemetery as a child (“They’re coming for you, Barbra”), a slow, shuffling man appears and attacks Barbra. Her brother fights him, but is injured and Barbra flees, pursued by the mysterious stranger until she hides at a farmhouse.
O’Dea’s performance as Barbra is one of the film’s weakest as at times she’s a tad hammy and her inactivity is frustrating. I remember seeing this as a teen and the wet blanket Barbra drove me up the wall, but rewatching it recently I think it kinda makes sense, her shutting down being caused by her being traumatized. Her reaction to her brother’s mockery reveals she may already be a fragile character, and the horror she witnesses has clearly broken her.
With Barbra doing little the film’s real protagonist is Ben (Duane Jones) the clever, resourceful dude who arrives at the farmhouse and protects Barbra and attempts to secure the property. It was a bold move for a movie made in 1968 to put a black character in a lead role, and Ben avoids all stereotypes by being just a regular dude who happens to be black.
Ben is the guy you root for throughout the movie, he’s the most proactive and decent of the bunch. He’s also the smartest, as seen in his arguments with the angry Harry (Karl Hardman), who they discover has been hiding in the cellar with his family and two other survivors. Harry is angry, selfish and cowardly, further enhancing Ben’s standing as the film’s hero.
Duane Jones’ performance is a little stage-y in places and his delivery could be better, but it’s still a strong performance for a ’60s horror movie. He manages to convey Ben’s confusion but that this is a man who is proactive and quickly figures out the best ways to try and stay safe.
Race is an issue which lurks in the back of the movie, and while never openly addressed it could explain Harry’s reluctance and anger towards listening to Ben’s ideas, and it also raises questions about the movie’s gut punch of an ending.
As I’ve said, the budget is low, and the effects are pretty basic, but the movie continues to work, partly down to the fact that shuffling zombies are inherently unsettling. Romero’s best trick is to have the zombies be of all different types, showing that this event has struck all people, and at any time, we see zombies who have clearly been in bed or ready for bed and even a naked zombie.
Romero didn’t invent zombies, but his shuffling hordes are still the touchstone for the zombie genre, and the influence can still be seen in things like Shaun of the Dead and The Walking Dead. So too are some of the plot developments and genre conventions, as with later movies the characters huddle around radios and television which give warnings and advice, and show the growing terror and loss of control elsewhere.
Other conventions include the nature of the virus being spread, the way they can be killed (headshots only, people!) and the story line of people either (a) not realizing how the virus works or (b) hiding their bites.
There’s also the sense that the zombies have the upper hand, despite being slow moving and dull witted, although we do see them using basic things as tools here. They have the advantage because they don’t get tired and because the human survivors always fall foul of their own weaknesses (fear, selfishness, personal differences) and just bad luck. There’s also the tension building device of having every possible route of escape destroyed or blocked.
So while it’s a little creaky in places, and Romero would improve on his zombie themes with Dawn of the Dead, Night… remains a solidly made, creepy and entertaining zombie movie, and you can’t deny it’s role in shaping the zombie genre. If you’re into zombie movies, definitely check it out as this is where the groundwork was laid.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.