Night of the Living Dead

Year: 1968
Studio: Universal
Director: George Romero
Writer: George Romero
Cast: Duane Jones
The one that started it all, culminating (so far) in 2005's Land of the Dead and putting George Romero at the top of the heap of cult filmmakers.

Done on the extreme cheap (even more so than 1978's Dawn, no mean feat even by 1968 standards), Romero used the same premise that he has in every film since (excluding Land, to a large degree). He takes a bunch of desperate survivors just trying to stay out of the way of the encroaching threat by holing themselves up somewhere safe while the clock ticks and the plague spreads across the earth.

The social commentary Romero is as famous for now as he is for being the father to a modern horror subgenre is there to varying degrees depending on whom you believe. Romero has stated he wasn't making any comment on race relations in America by featuring a black hero. It is pretty much agreed upon however that he was riffing heavily on the Vietnam War and other mans-inhumanity-to-man historical milestones at the time.

We see the plague in its early stages ('they're coming for you Barbara') and the first group of people who lock themselves in a farmhouse and manage the crisis to varying degrees, from freaking out and going catatonic like Barbara does to jostling for the social upper hand like Ben (Jones) and Harry (co-producer Hardman).

And in a more downbeat climax than the rest of the series, where it seems at least one character makes it out alive, Ben is the last to go down in an undignified anticlimax to everything he's been through (apparently the cause for more controversy - a black man shot inside a house by a bunch of redneck yokels), only to be dragged away with meathooks and thrown on the fire with the rest of the undead.

I was expecting it to be extremely tame, but there are actually a couple of sequences of gore I wouldn't have credited for the time the film was released.

And despite its classic status, it's also classic golden age cheese. Overzealous gestures, cheesy, explosive music to mark a bombshell, thespian flourishes and corny dialogue make it almost a historical piece. It'd be very interesting to see how a big studio (or even Romero himself) remade the exact premise and characters today.

And in one enormous plot hole, the zombies have remembered how to pick up and use things (the rock through the car window, the trowel the girl murders her mother with, etc).

Throughout the rest of the series, the undead have been mindless automatons with no apparent faculties to use tools or manipulate their environment. Dayand to a much larger extent Land were based on that exact premise.

But if you're a zombie film fan, it's a must despite its age.

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