Movie writer and director George A. Romero made a lot of schlocky movies, but Night of the Living Death, his first feature, was and remains an intense low-budget suspense movie about the dead who, penetrated by radiation from an exploded space satellite, rise from their graves in search of live bodies to eat.
Romero’s movie is set in a rural farm house. Although the house is not haunted by evil spirits, a vengeful butler, wicked housekeeper or a deranged gardener (as was common in haunted-house movies), the arc of Romero’s script pretty much followed the haunted house template. He may have been influenced also by Orson Welles’ sensational radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, because Romero framed parts of his film as reportage from television and radio. Romero cast himself, unbilled, in ‘Hitchcockian’ fashion, as a TV news man reporting from a field near the farm house.
Night of the Living Dead is a much better movie than the dumbed-down slasher pics that attracted teens to scream with abandon while they cuddle in the dark of movies houses and drive-ins.
Wanton blood and guts characterized the wave of lesser horror films that succeeded the atmospheric classic fright flicks of earlier generations in which violence was implied rather than hyped. Which is not to say that Night of the Living Dead is without scenes of gore—there are flashes rather than scenes, but enough to stir shivers if not outright shudders.
The acting is more professional than is usually seen in scary drive-in fare. The acting honors in Night of the Living Dead are shared by Duane Jones (1937–1988) and Karl Hardman (1927–2007), although some recognition should be given Judith O’Dea for her role as a catatonic, disoriented, occasionally hysterical presence throughout the film while the others were trying to cope with the zombie attack. Most of Ms O’Dea’s later career has been as CEO of her own communications company.
Karl Hardman, an actor, director and radio announcer, deliveres a decisive performance as a frightened man trying to conceal his fear by bullying. Yet like Duane Jones, he did not achieve a film career he deserved.
It was Mr. Jones who created the spine of the movie, deftly underplaying the star role at the center of the film. Duane Jones, a handsome man, had already made his mark as a painter, musician, stage actor and director and ran a cultural institution in New York City. After a handful of movie roles, Jones became an English professor.
What makes Jones’ multiple careers during mid-20th century America significant, if not singular, is that Jones was black. He was quoted in an interview, that “It never occurred to me that I was hired because I was black, but it did occur to me that because I was black it would give a different historic element to the film.”
We should expect a compelling movie from a movie director if they have the generous budget to hire good, seasoned actors and top-notch technical talent. Director and co-scriptwriter George Romero had neither budget nor the resources of a major studio, yet he delivered a gripping film. He deserves, also, recognition for casting a black American actor as the lead in an otherwise all white cast.
Night of the Living Dead earns high ratings: 7.9/10 from viewers on IMDB. The aggregated scores on Rotten Tomatoes are an astonishing 98% of film critics with 87% of movie audiences not far behind the critics who enjoyed Night of the Living Dead.
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