Night of the Living Dead (1968) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 4

by Jovial Jay

America is beset by the horrors of the first modern zombie apocalypse.

Welcome to another H-Origins film, as 31 Days of Horror looks at some of the most classic and original horror films this week. Night of the Living Dead serves as the basis for hundreds of films that follow it as it presents the modern origin of the zombie apocalypse film.

Before Viewing

The trailer makes for some chilling viewing in itself. It’s obviously a horror film but why are these dead people coming after the humans? What’s really going on? If the purpose of the trailer is to incite interest this does so. It also may turn a number of people off, due to the relatively intense nature of the footage and the voice-over narration. This is a classic film that 31 Days of Horror hasn’t looked at yet, so onto the film!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead title card.

After Viewing

In a rural Pennsylvania cemetery, siblings Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner & Judith O’Dea) lay flowers on their father’s grave when a ghoulish man attacks them. Johnny falls and smashes his head on a gravestone and Barbra runs off hysterically into a nearby farmhouse. Inside she grabs a knife and attempts to phone for help, but the line is dead. Exploring the house she discovers a decaying dead body at the second floor landing which sends her into more histrionics.

As the sun is setting a car pulls up. Ben (Duane Jones) beats up two ghoulish people in the front yard and comes inside, taking charge and trying to communicate with the shocked Barbra. Ben begins to board up the windows with anything he can find. He tells Barbra, who he’s not sure is actually listening, how he arrived here. He noticed the gas pump by the barn and was hoping he could fuel his car to continue his journey. Barbra comes out of her trance briefly to talk about what happened to Johnny, but gets all worked up. Ben slaps her causing her to faint.

Ben sets a chair on fire on the front lawn which appears to ward off more of the ghoulish, lumbering “living dead,” before finding a rifle in the closet. Suddenly two men come out of a doorway leading to the cellar, freaking Ben out. They are Tom (Keith Wayne) and Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman). They have been hiding in the cellar with Tom’s girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley) and Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and sick daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), because as Harry states, that’s the strongest place to defend. Harry berates Ben for not listening to him, and chooses to stay in the cellar to protect his family.

Night of the Living Dead

Barbra watches a ghoul attack her brother. They are coming to get her!

While Judy and Helen take turns making sure Karen is alright, the others gather around a television set and listen to updates on the state of the world. According to news reports, the unburied dead are returning to life. There’s also several news stories about a potential probe from Venus that may have crashed which is loaded with radiation. The men keep an eye on the various shambling ghouls gathering outside the house, as their numbers are growing.

Tom finds the keys to the gas pump and he, Ben and Judy take Ben’s truck to the barn to fill up on gas, while Harry throws mason jars of flaming kerosene from the second floor window at the undead. As the trio start to fill the gas tank, the flammable liquid spills on a nearby torch causing the truck to erupt in flames. Tom and Judy attempt to drive away to extinguish the flames, but the vehicle explodes, killing them. Ben runs back to the house but has trouble getting inside when Harry barricades the door and is hesitant to let him back in. When Ben gets back inside he punches Harry.

A short while later there is a power outage and the ghouls begin to break through the barriers. Harry grabs Ben’s rifle but is shot in the process. He crawls into the cellar and dies. Barbra finally comes out of her trance and helps Helen from being grabbed. When Helen returns to the cellar she sees Karen eating the remains of Harry. The undead daughter then comes after Helen and kills her mom as well. The reanimated Johnny enters the house and drags Barbra outside. Ben locks himself in the cellar, shooting both Harry and Helen, who have reanimated. The next morning Ben is awoken by a posse killing ghouls outside. As he walks to the window to see what’s happening he is shot as well, mistaken for an undead, and then thrown onto a pyre and burned with the rest of the monsters.

They’re coming to get you Barbra!” – Johnny

Night of the Living Dead

Nobody can mansplain the zombie apocalypse like Harry Cooper!

Night of the Living Dead is arguably the horror film that instigated the modern notion of zombies on film. However, at least two dozen films prior to this dealt with zombies in the more traditional sense. Prior to 1968 if a film was listed as having a zombie in it, such as the 1932 White Zombie (viewed as the first zombie film with Bela Lugosi) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943), it was clear that the film was going to deal with aspects of voodoo, houngans, plantations and potentially a Caribbean setting. Those Haitian inspired zombies were possessed individuals under the trance of magic, but not necessarily a reanimated corpse seeking to eat live flesh. To confuse matters further, a 1936 Boris Karloff film called The Walking Dead is not about zombies even though the title is now a phrase used to refer to the flesh eating undead. It does deal with a man brought back to life, in a way that could be similar to Frankenstein. Thirty-six years after White Zombie was released, Night of the Living Dead presented an entirely new idea about reanimated corpses, and unleashed a new breed of monster on the cinematic world.

To be fair, director George Romero never refers to the reanimated corpses as zombies in his film. The words “flesh eating ghouls” or “unburied dead” are the only descriptors applied to these creatures, but they exhibit all the signs and symbology of the modern classic zombie as most people understand them. They crave the flesh of the living and if the brain is “killed, you can kill the ghoul.” Modern zombies would evolve into slightly different creatures than what is presented here, as some of these monsters are able to use tools to come after their victims. The monster that chases Barbra through the cemetery picks up a rock to smash the car window in order to get at her. Others were frightened by fire. Some of the monsters shambled in what is understood as the classic mode of transport for these creatures, but others moved at a perfectly normal pace, while some lunged and could even run short distances. The film also created the idea that those bitten by the zombies became infected with whatever virus, radiation or disease they posed. Then when those people die, they reanimate as these mostly mindless corpses. All aspects of the mythology for the modern zombie horror film, packed in a neat little package.

Besides opening up the floodgates for a new style of monster film, Night of the Living Dead also ushered in a new style of making horror films as well. Classically, horror films with vampires, werewolves, or other creatures usually took place in castles, manor houses and other gothic inspired structures. Along with the new wave of horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, Night of The Living Dead created the horror of the mundane. Horror was not a special category that required haunted houses, gothic mansions, or foggy moors in order to be successful. The new wave of horror films found the ability to set the terror in the unexceptional. Rural farmhouses, New York brownstones, and summer camps were all fair game to create exceptional moments for fear. Night of the Living Dead also eschewed the need for expensive props, and Hollywood actors by proving that a few talented and focused individuals could produce a low-budget horror film that could scare audiences as much as one with a major studio behind it.

Night of the Living Dead

Tom, Ben, Harry and Helen listen to a news report hoping for some good news.

Whether intended or not, Night of the Living Dead also introduced the idea of a social subtext into horror films, at least one that is often used in films about zombies. Romero, making this all up as he went along, was unknowingly creating the rules that others would play by for decades. Here he introduces the main protagonist, and the de facto leader of the small group of survivors as a black man. Taking into consideration the political and social upheavals that were part of the latter half of the 1960s, this seems like a bold choice. However, Romero has been quoted as saying that he never intended to cast an actor of color in the role of Ben. It was only that Duane Jones was the best person for the job, regardless of skin color. But his inclusion coupled with the dire ending to the film where Ben is killed (having been mistaken for a ghoul), and then drug outside with meathooks to be burned by a posse made up of good ol’ boys with guns speaks volumes about the true nature of the African American struggle in America. The remaining struggles of the characters pale in comparison. These social implications were showcased further in the sequels to the film, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, with commentary on capitalism, commercialism, and the military industrial complex.

Night of the Living Dead still delivers chills, making your skin crawl even being over 50 years old. It’s methodical revelation of the terror presented by the zombies and the slow creeping horror that the survivors are unable to help themselves creates a dire and dreadful film that sticks with the viewer long after the film ends. As with some of the other modern horror films, such as last night’s Rosemary’s Baby, it presents an ending that is down, in this case where all the characters die. There is no final moment where the characters are saved. This is yet another aspect that many modern zombie (and horror) films present as well. Sometimes there may be an upbeat ending with a survivor or two, but in the grand scheme of things, when the world is infected by flesh-eating monsters that won’t stop, there is no happy ending. It’s just another example of the presentation of a loss of innocence seen in motion pictures as a disillusioned America moved out of the troubled 1960s and into the future.

Night of the Living Dead

Harry’s daughter Karen reanimates and goes after her father.

Assorted Musings

  • Towards the middle of the film there’s a shot of a female ghoul eating a bug off a tree. This actress is ​​Marilyn Eastman, the same actress that played Helen. She also assisted with applying the makeup to the extras portraying the horde of the undead.
  • Karl Hardman’s portrayal of Harry seems to have very much in common with Lee J. Cobb’s Juror #3 in the 1957 courtroom drama 12 Angry Men. Both are biased, blustery and certain of their beliefs at the expense of others.
  • Night of the Living Dead was one of the last films to be released without a rating, and presumably was another factor in the MPAA introducing the basis for the modern ratings system in November 1968.
  • An animated version of the film was released earlier this month called Night of the Animated Dead, starring Dule Hall as Ben and Katharine Isabelle as Barbra.

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