“Night of the Living Dead” is a seminal horror film directed by George A. Romero, which premiered in 1968. Not only is it credited with giving birth to the modern zombie film genre, but it also provided commentary on social issues of its time, becoming a cultural touchstone for its impact on horror storytelling and allegorical narratives.
Detailed In-Depth Synopsis
Opening Sequence The film opens with siblings Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) arriving at a cemetery in rural Pennsylvania to visit their father’s grave. The scene is iconic, with Johnny teasing Barbara, saying, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” in a mocking tone. The mood swiftly shifts when a strange man attacks Barbara. Johnny tries to defend his sister but is killed after being thrown against a gravestone. Barbara flees in terror, setting the tone for the film’s relentless suspense.
Arrival at the Farmhouse Barbara takes refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, where she is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones). Ben takes charge, barricading the house from the increasing number of ghouls outside—a term the film uses for the reanimated corpses. In a series of harrowing scenes, Ben and Barbara work to secure the house, while viewers are treated to news reports on the television, explaining the phenomenon as the reanimation of the dead due to radiation from a space probe that exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The Cellar Dwellers The tension escalates as they discover five other people hiding in the cellar: Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), their ill daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and a young couple, Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). A power struggle ensues between Ben and Harry over whether to stay upstairs or hide in the cellar, with Ben maintaining that they should defend the main part of the house. This interpersonal conflict amid the external threat deepens the horror and illustrates the film’s exploration of human nature under duress.
Desperation and Conflict As the night progresses, the group fends off the ghouls, which are iconic in their slow movements and their craving for human flesh. The film is punctuated by moments of gruesome horror, as the ghouls feast on the remains of Tom and Judy after a botched escape attempt and gasoline fire. The imagery is stark and was shocking to audiences of the time.
Climactic Tragedy The film reaches its climax as the ghouls finally break into the farmhouse. In the ensuing chaos, Harry is shot by Ben during a scuffle, Helen is killed by her reanimated daughter, and Barbara is dragged away by the undead, including her reanimated brother. Ben survives the night by barricading himself in the cellar, ironically validating Harry’s original plan. However, the next morning he is mistaken for a ghoul and killed by a rescue posse, a bleak and poignant ending that leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.
Cultural and Societal Impact
“Night of the Living Dead” had a profound impact on American culture and society. Its release during a time of civil unrest and societal change allowed for various interpretations, from the breakdown of family units to racial commentary—Ben, an African American, being the level-headed protagonist, was a significant choice in 1968. The film’s ending, with Ben’s death at the hands of a white posse, was seen by many as a poignant commentary on the racial tensions of the era.
Additionally, the film’s graphic content pushed boundaries, redefining what could be shown in mainstream cinema and setting the stage for the modern horror genre. It challenged censorship norms and viewer sensibilities, leading to discussions about media violence and its impact on society.
Romero’s film transcended its low-budget, independent film status to become a touchstone of the horror genre, inspiring countless films and establishing the template for zombie characteristics and the rules of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. It has been analyzed for its reflections on consumerism, the Vietnam War, and the fear of the unknown, illustrating the power of horror films to address contemporary societal fears.
“Night of the Living Dead” remains a pivotal work, both as a masterclass in building suspense and for its enduring ability to provoke thought on the human condition through the lens of horror.