Big Screen Streaming: Night of the Living Dead

Big Screen Streaming:

Night of the Living Dead

-Film Reviewed by Roger Market

Halloween is around the corner, and AMC’s smash hit The Walking Dead continues to dominate television with record-breaking ratings. In this climate, what horror movie marathon worth its salt would be complete without zombies? Consider George Romero’s 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, for your fright night. Five years after the film’s release, Canadian magazine Take One noted that it was the most profitable independent horror movie ever produced to that point. The film’s phenomenal success is not without reason. Even in the age of The Walking Dead, with its high production values and gripping, honest storytelling, horror fans have likely never seen anything as dark as Night of the Living Dead. The film resonated in 1968, and it retains the power to leave audiences terror-stricken.

In the opening scene, Barbara and Johnny arrive at the grave of their father. They’re still bickering about the three-hour trip they’ve taken for five minutes of remembrance when Johnny catches on to Barbara’s fear of the dead. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” he taunts, chasing her around the cemetery. Their teasing is all in good fun, but Johnny’s joke is all too true. Several zombies are lurking in the background…

Barbara and Johnny are oblivious, but for the clued-in viewer, the suspense builds until the pair finally realize that their world has changed forever. After the attack, Barbara escapes to a nearby abandoned house where a strong, resourceful man named Ben joins her. Unbeknownst to either of them, five others also claim the house as a refuge: Harry, Helen, and Karen Cooper, as well as a young couple named Tom and Judy.

What began as a quest for survival now includes themes of sanctuary and trust. Paranoia runs deep in such dire circumstances, and viewers wonder who will do the right thing, among other questions. Who is the strongest? Who is the cleverest? To what degree is each level of the house secure? Is there a safer place nearby?

Each character responds to the crisis in a different way. Barbara is almost catatonic throughout much of the movie, following the apparent loss of her brother. Actress Judith O’Dea brings a fitting sense of fear and vulnerability to Barbara’s expressions; however, this was her first movie role, and there is no denying that her line delivery is overdone in some places. Due to the movie’s low budget, many in the cast suffer from inexperience. They were all either unknowns or theater actors. Fortunately, one of the most compelling characters, Ben, is played by competent stage actor Duane Jones, who performs admirably in Night of the Living Dead. Jones has a commanding presence. As the only African American actor in the film, he stands out as a welcome hero in a racially charged era. Romero notes that Jones was chosen for the role not because he is black but because he was the best actor to audition.

Despite some acting hindrances and outdated sound and visual effects, the movie continues to garner critical acclaim for its exceptional story and its ability to reinvent the horror genre at the time. In fact, some critics and historians have remarked that Night of the Living Dead is a subversive film critical of 1960’s American society. Indeed, there are echoes of the Cold War and the Vietnam War embedded in the film. The climactic moments and denouement are bold and earth-shattering in a way that most horror movies, even now, tend to avoid. In 1999, the Library of Congress added Night of the Living Dead to the National Film Registry among other films that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The movie is “Certified Fresh” on review site with a 96% rating—sound evidence that tricksters shouldn’t skip this treat.

Ready to watch? You have three main viewing options, one of which is (legally) free since the movie is in the public domain due to a distributor error. First, you can watch Night of the Living Dead on Netflix if you have a subscription and don’t mind that the quality is less than great. No Netflix, but have Amazon Prime? Amazon provides a much better cut, digitally remastered for the 40th anniversary of the film’s release. The clarity improvements are staggering. Without access to Netflix or Amazon Prime? You can download the original cut of the movie at the Internet Archive (sorry, no 40th anniversary version there).

Happy Halloween!


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