By Jerome Reuter
This is a film that needs no introduction. It’s one of the most recognizable horror films of all time. It’s also one that changed the face of American horror forever. If you ask an average person to name a film about zombies, this is most likely what they’ll answer. In 1968, George Romero made his mark on the world of celluloid with Night Of The Living Dead.
This is a work that maintains a legacy, even today. It embodies the development of American horror cinema, and champions the spirit of the independent filmmaker. You can even find it preserved in the national Library of Congress, as a film deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
When I look at this film, I don’t think of zombies. I think of an in depth character study of how people react during a crisis. Romero uses the zombie as a vehicle for a narrative. They’re a part of the story, and what helps bring the events to life. The production design of the zombies is one of the best I’ve seen. They appear more human, and move slowly towards their victims. The black and white photography really gives them a chilling aesthetic. Someone, or something that’s indistinguishable from another human being is absolutely terrifying. Fear of the unknown is a potent phobia.
Romero is a master of utilizing horror for the purposes of satire. This film is no exception to that. At a time when the cold war raged, he tapped into a phobia many Americans had–nuclear fallout. What if this energy we were harnessing in the atomic age backfired? What are some of the outcomes we may have to face? Would our government cover it up? That’s what he does here; he taps into fears of the time period.
Aside from Romero’s left wing commentary, he taps into interesting form of media to tell his narrative; the radio. As I mentioned earlier, this film is a character study of different people might react during a crisis. Some might shut down, others would think only of themselves, and others would take control to find a solution. The majority of the film takes place in a house, where survivors have barricaded themselves from the impending doom. Here’s where Romero’s background in broadcasting come into play. Rather than show a massive zombie outbreak, he relies on the spoken word. (A technique later used in films such as Pontypool.) It’s a general rule of thumb that real horror is what you don’t see. To paraphrase William Shakespeare’s Henry V: “your imaginary forces work.”
It’s hard in this day and age to imagine being excited by the radio. With social media everywhere, it’s become the new form of communication and entertainment. Harking back to the days of Orson Welles and his broadcast of War Of The Worlds, a simple voice over reminds us of the terror that lies beyond the walls of the home. It’s this, and the terror of the confined space that build a strong feeling of suspense and atmosphere.
This film will always stand the test of time. George Romero crafted a narrative, one that frightens us, and one we will always appreciate. It set a standard very few films have been able to live up to. This is when American horror became genuinely terrifying.