Happy almost-Halloween! The perfect time for a foray into that most classic of horror films, the 1968 “Night of the Living Dead.” I am usually a giant fraidycat during horror movies, but, fingers crossed, George A. Romero’s first foray into the zombie genre won’t have the truly scary stuff figured out yet.
Down to business. Serious scary black and white business. We start off with two young people who look like Brad and Janet from Rocky Horror. (Okay, they’re brother and sister, but that doesn’t matter much when it comes to “Rocky Horror” comparisons.)
Anyhoo, because they are young people and it’s the 60s, they’re whining a lot about parental obligations — specifically, having to come out and put a wreath on their dead father’s grave. When Janet admits to being a little creeped out by the cemetery Brad’s a dick and totally taunts Janet— okay, her name is Barbara. I know this now, because Brad has THE CREEPIEST LINE EVER.
Brad’s giving Barbara shit in the above scene because some random duder is wandering around the cemetery at 8 PM and she thinks he might be some sort of monster — SPOILER ALERT HE IS A MONSTER, who first attacks Barbara, then Brad.
When Brad’s head gets whacked on a gravestone, Barbara totally ditches him and flees for her life. (I love my brother, but I kinda see where she’s coming from here.) Turns out this is like the smartest Z-word ever, though — (fun fact alert: the word “zombie” is never uttered during the course of this movie) — because he uses a ROCK to break the car window. The genre in its infancy, Frank.
Barbara flees, in a weird flailing sort of way, into a farmhouse with a gas pump outside (that strikes me as weird, but I am not familiar with country folk); the Z-word chasing her (who looks like a very tall Ray Wise, tell you the truth) lurks outside.
But moments into Barbara taking refuge in the house, she gets a houseguest, whose name is Ben and is THE BEST. Ben shows up and is like, oh, cool, a safe place to crash, and don’t worry, blondie, I’ll take care of you.
Ben is black, which wouldn’t normally be worth mentioning except that I have seen Mad Men and thus know that the 60s were not a happy sunny racial paradise. So the fact that the smartest and most capable person in this movie (who’s not above punching a hysterical lady) is black is pretty damn impressive. Hell, in striking contrast to modern horror films, he’s not even the first to die!
Point is, Ben is EXACTLY the kind of guy you want to hang out with during a Z-word emergency — skilled at activities like boarding up the windows, smart enough to figure out that the Z-words are afraid of fire and find the shotgun that belonged to the original owners.
He also, as mentioned before, knocks out Barbara when she starts talking about going to rescue her brother. Barbara has devolved, since fleeing from Ray Wise, from relatively capable Final Girl candidate into full-on catatonic mess. So I can’t say I disagree with Ben’s reasoning or methods here.
Now that Ben’s got everything boarded up, it’s about time for a twist, and that’s when the people hiding in the cellar decide to poke their heads out! One of them is bald and annoying and thinks that the cellar is the safest place to hide with his wife and “sick” daughter (sick from a Z-word bite UH-OH), but when Ben won’t let him take food or the radio downstairs, he and college boy Tom (who’s also hiding in the cellar with his coed sweetheart Judy) agree to relocate upstairs.
They spend a LOT of time watching the news, which is a big ol’ infodump about how these mass murders (which, the newscaster gleefully reports, are followed by the undead cannibalizing the new corpses) are all NASA’s fault — a satellite orbiting Venus may have brought back the infection keeping the dead alive. Whoops! Stupid Venus.
Z-words are milling about outside as a reminder of why exactly slow Z-words can be even scarier than fast Z-words — slow Z-words can be outrun, but there are just so fucking many of them. And they never give up.
Announcements are made about rescue stations in the area, and most everyone (except Baldie the spoilsport) wants to go to one, especially Tom, who has my favorite line of the whole fucking movie: “The television said that’s the right thing to do.” I believe strongly in this line of dialogue, just like Maggie Simpson.
In order to do so, though, they have to fill up Ben’s pick-up truck from the gas pump. And at this point there are like thirty Z-words waiting outside to eat them. Ben has a plan, though, involving Baldie throwing Molotov cocktails from an upper-story window while he and Tom fill up the truck without accidentally setting the truck on fire.
Unfortunately, Ben’s plan does not go perfectly when it comes to that last part. I’m not totally sure how Tom managed to set the truck on fire while filling it up, but I do know that that truck? Totally on fire.
And for some reason, Judy decided she wanted to come along on this mission, and when her sweater gets stuck while trying to get out of the truck, she and Tom both go BOOM. Tom and Judy were nice people, but I’m thinking that for the good of the gene pool, it’s probably for the best that they never got a chance to reproduce.
Ben flees to the house, but Baldie (who’s jealous of how much THE BEST Ben is) hesitates to let Ben in. Ben handles this situation by kicking open the door and giving Baldie the Barbara treatment. To quote the wise scholar Rose McGowan in Scream: “Boom boom bitch go down!”
Oh, and now the Z-words are eating Tom and Judy. Lovely. Lovely. According to the IMDB Trivia page for this movie, the actors were provided with baked ham covered with chocolate sauce for this bit. Deeeeeeeeeelightful.
(This is not what it actually looks like.)
The TV, which is still telling us the right things to do, is now referring to the Z-words as “ghouls” and picked up on that most important bit of Z-word lore: Aim for the head.
Conflict between Ben and Baldie is at an all-time high, and while Ben’s trying to keep a pack of Z-words from breaking down the door, Baldie steals Ben’s gun in a power grab clearly designed to lead to Ben’s death. Given that this is the second time Baldie’s quasi-tried to kill Ben, I got no problem at all with Ben shooting Baldie, who retreats to the cellar.
Except whoops, remember Baldie’s “sick” daughter Karen? She’s better now, if by better you mean “no longer suffering from the effects of a Z-word bite and instead now actually a Z-word.” And Karen’s in a bad mood — first she eats Baldie’s arm off, then, when Karen’s mom comes downstairs to see what’s going on, stabs her over and over again with a spade. (Again with the Z-words using tools. Romero clearly hadn’t worked out what it means to be undead yet.)
Ben, meanwhile, just watched Barbara’s reunion with her brother — he’s having so much fun being a Z-word, he drags her away to join the party! Poor stupid Barbara. I had such hopes for her.
The house is now full of Z-words, including young Karen, so Ben takes refuge in the cellar after disposing quickly of the newly-Z-worded Baldie and Karen’s mom. Morning comes, and the house empties of Z-words, leaving Ben free and clear to make his escape.
So now you’re like, awesome, now Ben gets his well-deserved happy ending. Oh, but here comes the mother of all WHOOPSIES. A bunch of (noticeably all-white) sheriffs and deputies and duders with guns are roaming the countryside disposing of the Z-word menace, and when they get to the house Ben’s hiding in, Ben’s like, oh, this sounds like help, I’ll see what’s going on. And then the sherrif’s deputy SHOOTS BEN IN THE HEAD, and they drag his corpse out of the house and burn it in a bonfire.
THE WORST, Frank, the absolute saddest. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t find this movie as scary as I would have liked — there’s some great character development and some decent jump moments, but most of the big scares are a little too telegraphed for a modern first-time viewer.
The scariest bit, ultimately, is the reminder that Z-word apocalypse or not, it really sucked to be a black guy in 1968.