In case you haven’t been around here much, I’m not a big movie watcher. I didn’t watch a lot of tv as a kid; am not real strong on pop culture; and horror movies were never my top choice. Also, my parents hadn’t yet met in 1968. So this movie was altogether new to me when Husband and I sat down on Halloween and watched Night of the Living Dead, the original 1968 black and white movie in which a group of strangers gathers in a farmhouse to defend themselves against …we would now call them zombies, although that term isn’t used in the film. In the film, they’re called ‘ghouls.’
In the opening scene, Barbra and her brother Johnny are visiting their father’s grave (and Johnny’s being a real pill about it, by the way) when a ghoul approaches and… goodbye Johnny. Barbra runs to a farmhouse, chased by the undead, and holes up, soon to be joined by a stranger named Ben. Ben keeps his calm and has a plan to board up and defend the farmhouse, while Barbra becomes hysterical and then catatonic. It turns out that they have company: another group of frightened (living) people were already hiding in the basement. There’s a young couple, and an older married couple with an injured daughter. The movie covers just the one night, in which the zombies, I mean ghouls, mill about outside and the people inside make plans to escape. The radio and television inform them that there is an epidemic of ghouls ravaging the country, killing people and eating them.
Cinematographically, this film struck me favorably. I am no student of this art form, especially in black and white, but the few black and white films I’ve seen have impressed me with their use of light and shadow – necessarily, since that’s the big visual contrast they have to work with. Certain aspects of the movie were woefully dated: pacing is always the first I notice with older movies, since we have such short attention spans these days; the dialog felt stilted and abrupt; the acting was overly dramatic; and can I just gripe about Barbra for a moment? What a worthless weak female figure, and how disgusting is that? I imagine her portrayal took some heat in 1968, too! But just as I started to scoff at these faults, I’d jump in my seat. Despite the dated aspects, that fine use of light & dark and the suspense, the surprises, and let me say, the terror of the undead eating people is still scary. I can see why this movie was a hit and why it still draws a following. I can see why some consider it a classic.
I do have one final complaint, relating to how the movie ends. I won’t articulate it here, in case you want to go discover it yourself. I will only say, I have a certain James Dean movie in mind, which did it better.
I enjoyed this movie far more than I expected to at about 20 minutes in. Touché, old movies. Happy Halloween.