I use hands to help my fellow man / I use hands to help with what I can / But when I face an unjust injury / Then I change my hand into FIST OF FURY

Night of the Living Dead

An obscure kind of conspiracy: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is on a long list of the movies that I mention all the time in reviews and then when I go to add a link I realize that I’ve never officially written it up. It’s one of those classics that so much has been said about that it’s intimidating to even approach it. Seems presumptuous to think I might have something new to say about it.

It’s also a movie that I felt I had worn out at a certain point. I remember a Halloween some years back when I put it on and when it was over I felt I hadn’t gotten as much out of it as I used to, so I put it on hiatus. But now the Criterion Company has given us what could be the definitive release of the abused-by-public-domain film, which is as good an excuse as any to finally revisit the movie, discuss different aspects of it and see how its themes apply to these fucked up times we’re living in fifty years later.


1. BARBRA

1968 is before my time, so my ideas of what the world was like come largely from the hippie-glorifying movies and music that remain. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s black and white photography and restrained style place it in some non-distinct “Long Ago” spot on the historical timeline of my imagination. It’s hard to square it as only one decade earlier than gaudy orange and brown late seventies in your face DAWN OF THE DEAD. But seeing the furnishings of the house in MoMA’s Romero-and-Image-Ten approved, partially George Lucas funded, fucking pristine 4K transfer from the original camera negative via Criterion Blu-Ray I finally had a flash of what it would look like in person and that yes, this was the same 1968 as the rainbow colored one where Jimi Hendrix recorded Electric Ladyland and The Beatles released YELLOW SUBMARINE. BARBARELLA came out the same month!

(Did you know NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was 1968’s #10 movie at the U.S. box office, beneath PLANET OF THE APES? 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was #1. Good year for movies.)

Of course, we’ve all been taught to look back at NIGHT as a perhaps-unconscious reflection of the turbulent times it was produced in. This was the year of the bloody Tet Offensive, the riots at the Democratic Convention, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. But also it was a major year for feminism. A number of influential radical feminist journals were published. The term “sexism” appeared in print for the first time (in Caroline Bird’s speech “On Being Born Female”). Women who felt the National Organization for Women was too conservative were leaving to form smaller grassroots organizations that became known as the Women’s Liberation Movement. Airlines ended a policy of firing female flight attendants who got married or turned 32! Major New York newspapers integrated their help wanted ads, helping to make gender less a part of hiring. A protest against the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City gave birth to the myth of bra-burning when a New York Post article’s analogy to the burning of draft cards was taken literally. The first national Women’s Liberation Conference convened about two months after NIGHT’s release.

But our lead, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), was not a part of that changing tide, and I think she’s the only element of the movie that’s dated in a bad way. She’s the character we start with, but she’s so meek in the face of danger that she lets Ben (Duane Jones) take over as the hero of the movie. He tries stern talking and friendly patience, but the only thing that can snap her out of her catatonia of terror is the opportunity to make a hysterical speech about what happened to her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner, also producer). And then she fucking faints! At the end she finally seems to shake it off and helps nail a few boards. Too little, too late.

I’ve always loved that in the remake, scripted by evolved 1990 George Romero, Barbara (Patricia Tallman) straightens up during an early zombie attack, literally puts on pants and for the rest of the movie she’s more like Ellen Ripley than the original Barbra. In a Q&A included on the Criterion Edition, Romero brings that up himself, lamenting the weakness of the character the first time around. It seems like he just didn’t think about those sorts of things back in ’68. So I’m not sure if it’s an intentional or accidental point about sexism when Tom (Keith Wayne), seemingly a voice of reason, says “We’d all be a lot better off if all three of us were working together.” That number includes himself, Ben and Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) but not Barbra, Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) or his own girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley), who are also trapped in there and debating about what to do.

But let’s take gender out of it and look at what Barbra could represent character-wise. In the opening, when she and her brother don’t know about the ghoulification of America because they’ve been on a long drive and the radio station they had on stopped broadcasting, a contrast is drawn. Barbra is dedicated to their mother, to the yearly tradition of coming out to see her and bringing a wreath to their father’s grave on her behalf. Johnny is impatient and annoyed with the whole thing, cynical about the gesture, even suspects the wreaths they leave each year might be collected, refurbished and resold. He hurries her when she wants to pray. He teases her about her childhood scaredycatness and superstition, which she’s sensitive about.

What we see here is that Barbra depends on a foundation of tradition and institution. The rise of the dead and more importantly the collapse of society fucks her up because it’s flipping everything she’s ever counted on upside down. Mom won’t help, church won’t help, there is no tradition about how to handle this. No brother, no car, nobody out there to come save her. Since she drove in from Pittsburgh, she’s also not used to how things work out here in the country. The way Romero shoots the hunting trophies implies that she’s startled by them. I’m not sure how far Ben came from, but we can infer that he may have experienced less help from institutions, having lived through segregation, and might count on them less. So shortly after Barbara has seen her first zombies he’s already okay with stabbing heads with a screwdriver and lighting bodies on fire, while Barbara is totally lost.

This is kind of funny though when you think about it. The dead have been rising for only two days, and he’s only known of it for, like, an afternoon, but he’s not at all bothered by putting them down. While the radio is advising staying in place “until we can advise what course of action to take,” Ben is already taking the course of action where he bashes their brains in with tools and scares them away with burning furniture.

2. THE DEAD

As the popular trivia goes, the word “zombie” never appears in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Romero never thought of them as that until people told him to later. He considered them “ghouls,” and the characters mostly call them “those things.” But they are the genesis of the modern conception of the zombie, as seen in his five sequels, five decades of derivative movies and eight-and-growing seasons of the mega-popular TV show The Walking Dead (which Romero resented): dead people reanimated, some rotting a little, incapable of speech, giving uncomprehending stares, shuffling along, attacking and biting anything that lives, re-dying if shot in the head or lit on fire. Even the convention of them being conveniently easy to kill is established here in the news broadcast when Sheriff McLelland (George Kosana, also the production manager) tells a reporter, “Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy.”

In fact, most of what we know about those things the ghouls in this movie comes from the media, as the radio and TV are the characters’ only connection to the world outside the farmhouse they’re trapped in.

One thing that never comes up again in Romero’s series or the popular idea of the zombie: speculation that gamma rays from a returned satellite have caused this whole situation. That seems to be the favored theory of the panel of the President, his cabinet, leaders of the FBI, CIA, Joint Chiefs of Staff and NASA scientists that we hear about, in one of the series’ most optimistic attempts by the authorities to address the Those Things problem. Interviewed on the way out, the leaders can’t even agree on whether they agree on this theory. I’ve always taken it as a wild, incorrect guess, experts grasping at straws to understand the un-understandable, but watching it now it does seem like it’s Romero’s way to explain these events, just with a little ambiguity. I think we all like to forget this gamma ray thing ever happened. The midichlorians of the dead.

Its fun to hear news anchors and police being very professional about explaining the brand new concept of a zombie holocaust. From the sounds of it they consider the possibility that it’s some sort of flash mob. They don’t know at first if this is a planned uprising, a bunch of people going crazy, or what. We hear it called “an obscure kind of conspiracy” and “more than just the usual run of lawlessness.” The zombies are described as “murder happy characters,” “things that look like people but act like animals” and “a virtual army of unidentified assassins.” In fact, I believe “assassins” is the only word they use for them more than once, so maybe that’s what we should call them.

The first assassin is “Ghoul” (Bill Hinzman), the iconic dead guy who stumbles through the cemetery, inspiring Johnny to joke “They’re coming to get your, Barbra” before he actually is the one who gets got. This Ghoul can move at a pretty good clip, and intentionally picks up a brick to smash through the window of the car that Barbra tries to escape in. These days it seems startlingly out of character for the monsters. In one of the interviews in the extras we learn that this was the last scene filmed, and that it was pointed out to Romero that it didn’t follow the rules of the rest of the movie for him to be using a tool, but he decided to go with it anyway. (We do see other assassins picking up bricks and doing other things we don’t see later, like eating bugs.)

3. BEN

Much is made of the groundbreaking choice of African-American lead Jones, what subtext his race adds to the story, and Romero’s insistence that he didn’t script it that way, he just cast the best actor in his circle. I can believe that Romero (whose group of artistic friends must’ve been pretty inclusive and open-minded, judging by what we see in KNIGHTRIDERS) was comfortable in his own bubble and didn’t give too much thought to the dumbasses who would be shocked to see a black man star in a movie like this. But while a racial subtext wasn’t the original plan, it seems likely it was something they considered and understood while filming. Jones even tells a story in an interview on the Criterion disc about a group of teenagers following and brandishing a tire iron at him during the production. I doubt Romero could’ve been oblivious to this context when filming the ending scenes of redneck cops casually shooting Ben and throwing him on a pile of bodies to burn. Clearly Jones wasn’t.

Come to think of it, maybe I’m forgetting something, but does race ever come up in any of the other dead movies? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think even Rhodes and company, the most obnoxious fucking assholes ever committed to film, ever delved into the ol’ racism. Did they? (Thanks sweetooth0 and Michael for correcting me in the comments)

In a more recent film festival Q&A included on the disc, Romero says that he had just finished the movie and had the reels in the trunk of his car when he heard about the King assassination on the radio. And that’s when he started thinking maybe this movie was gonna be a big deal.

1968 was also the year of the Mexico City Summer Olympics, where two American medal winners raised the black power fist on the podium. Today it’s an iconic photo, but when Tommie Smith and John Carlos made the gesture (wearing symbolic scarf, beads and socks), they were booed in the stadium and expelled from Team USA. The 2018 comparison is obvious: our justice system keeps causing the execution of black people and the exoneration of the officers (or vigilantes) who do it. It’s not a fluke, it’s how the system works. Yet when football players do a small symbolic gesture against that fact, half of the country gets mad at them, going great lengths to not even acknowledge what they’re protesting. If you want to talk about making society more inclusive to different races then you’re being PC and playing identity politics, but if you want to talk specifically about the system treating black lives as if they don’t matter then all the sudden this chunk of white people really wants to be sure that the discussion is inclusive to all lives and you can’t tell if they are just belligerently changing to a totally different subject to protect their feelings or if they have some kind of weird voodoo curse that prevents them from understanding or acknowledging issues that affect other people. Racism is so over that how dare you bring it up at all mary had a little lamb little lamb little lamb support the troops.

So in a certain way this racism that seems to exist within the world of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD but is not discussed is like the real world, where some people could swear they’ve never once seen racism in the wild, they’re pretty sure it doesn’t happen much anymore, while to others it’s plain as day that it’s all around us. But you don’t have to talk about race to think about it. Ben’s race is never mentioned, but it’s there on screen. When he suddenly runs into the house where Barbra has taken shelter, she has every reason to be frightened by him. Is she more frightened because he’s a black man? We can only guess. Harry would probly be an asshole to anybody. Is he more of an asshole to Ben because he’s a black man? You gotta wonder. We don’t know where Harry is coming from, but in an age and place where kids treat terrorizing Duane Jones like it’s drag racing or cow-tipping, which side do you think that guy’s more likely to come down on?

4. THE COOPERS

Harry and Helen Cooper are representatives of a normal (but dysfunctional) middle class family of the time, and they don’t have the strong values needed for civilization to withstand this pressure. Harry is a stubborn asshole who doesn’t give Helen much say, though she tries. She says that they’re not happy living together – maybe their daughter is the only thing keeping them married. Until she turns and splatters them.

Harry always has to be the boss, and always has to be right. When it’s decided that he and his family will stay in the basement while everybody else stays upstairs, he fantasizes about them coming to him for help when he turns out to be right. So it’s not so much about the vindication as about having power over them.

He’s selfish, and he’s a coward. He argues out loud that he shouldn’t have to risk his own life to help other people. When Ben is surrounded outside he doesn’t let him back in. He stands back and watches him for a while before finally running in to help shore up the windows with more boards. As soon as they’re safe Ben punches him. “I oughta drag you out and feed you to those things.”

A thing I always forget, though, is that Ben is about as wrong as Cooper. He’s calmer, more resourceful, more likable, braver. But ultimately where does he end up? Running into the basement when the main floor is overrun, just like Harry said it would be. I guess we can’t say Harry was 100% right, because if they’d all been downstairs with little assassin daughter they might’ve been done for earlier. But I think we can safely say that it was poor strategy for Ben to be beating up Harry, and then shooting him! Maybe he deserved part of that, but this is their failure, the fighting amongst the living instead of teaming up to survive. Ben blew it.

Helen is not as helpless as Barbra, perhaps because she hasn’t given up her faith in institutions. She doesn’t agree with Harry’s plan of “locking ourselves in this dungeon” because she wants access to the news. “If the authorities know what’s happening, why they’ll send people for us or tell us what to do.” I wish I could say she was right. The opening of DAWN OF THE DEAD marks the end of this kind of attitude as the TV station knowingly broadcasts out of date shelter information and people are deciding to abandon their jobs and lives to flee civilization.

5. ANOTHER ONE FOR THE FIRE

After this night of the assassins, of Anubis, of the flesh eaters, of the living dead, there is the next morning. And for a moment it kind of has that feeling of the morning after a bunch of craziness happens and then the sun comes up and the calmness is restored and the people try to get back to their lives. Go to the burned out pizzeria and get the two-fitty from Sal. Because outside of the farmhouse there are police and they’re still acting like they’re in charge, like they’re solving the problem, like they think civilization still exists. They have no idea the end is dawning.

There’s a posse of volunteers, but some of these people are still on the job, still wearing uniforms or suits. The sheriff walks around pointing and delegating and the officers do whatever he says. They shoot the assassins so quickly and casually, pile the bodies up for a bonfire and see no contradiction when they tell reporters everything is gonna be fine. No big deal.

So it’s almost what Helen said. “The authorities” did “send people for us.” Specifically, the Sheriff asked for “about four or five men and a couple dogs” to clear out the farm house. So they went over and shot the first person they saw – the lone survivor, Ben – and thought nothing of it. Didn’t even occur to check if he was human first or to wonder about it afterwards. Shoot first, ask questions never.

Okay, I had my criticisms of some of Ben’s choices, but consider all that he’s been through. He escaped a siege at Beekman’s Diner, avoided a gasoline truck crash, found the farmhouse for refuge, protected Barbara and tried to calm her down, secured the place by finding wood to board up all the windows with, kept the assassins at bay using fire and weapons, made a plan to use the truck to get medical help for Karen (failed), got locked out by Harry but made it back in, later made it into the cellar and shot the ghoulified Coopers, the only member of the group to survive the night. And then, after all that, it’s not a fucking monster, it’s not even an out of control citizen, it’s the law that kills him. The actual system, the remaining part of civilization, the part that’s still operating as planned. It’s all coming down like the walls of Jericho and god damn it it’s the part that’s still intact that murdered him.

Yeah, that still seems about right.

The savagery of this police shooting of an innocent black man is emphasized by its style: still photos in montage, a technique that Romero and company had used in commercials. They don’t treat the bodies (ex-living dead or otherwise) as people. When they see the spot where Tom and Judy died in a burning car they say “Somebody had a cookout here.” And they drag Ben’s body out using meat hooks.

It only took one night for them to accept people as meat.

Note: Screengrabs are from the old Elite Millennium edition DVD, not the new transfer, which looks WAY better.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 14th, 2018 at 10:00 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Night of the Living Dead”

  1. The soldiers in Day of the Dead are all heavily racist against the John (saying they’ll bash some sense into his jungle bunny head) and constantly calling Miguel a spick or yellow bastard.

  2. Crushinator Jones

    March 14th, 2018 at 10:32 am

    Now that’s a closer that’s gonna haunt me for a while.

  3. Thanks Sweettooth. Will update.

  4. This is a movie that I only pull out of my shelf every few years and that isn’t that high on my list of good movies, but it’s interesting that every time I watched it, I had a different reaction to it. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I’m extremely bored by it. Not many movies do that to me.

  5. One little narrative bit I’ve come to deeply appreciate in NIGHT is that, as mentioned in Vern’s review, Harry is “right” inasmuch as fortifying themselves in the basement would have been the decision most likely to keep the survivors alive through the night, based on the information the film gives us. But Ben is still unambiguously the hero, because he is “wrong” for the right reasons – despite the breakdown of existing institutions, he still believes in a common future for human beings and refuses to accept an anti-social isolation, even at the cost of repeatedly risking and in the end losing his own life. This defense of sociality, cooperation, and collectivity as the essential human qualities necessary for building a future fit for the living is the most outstanding and radical through line in the OG dead trilogy, imo.

  6. I highly recommend that anyone who has the criterion blu-ray or the streaming channel to checkout out the special features video essay LIMITATIONS INTO VIRTUE. It’s great at breaking down how from a craft POV how Romero and the filmmakers worked within their low budget to give the movie it’s style, which still largely holds up.

  7. DAWN OF THE DEAD

    Roger: Come on, Martinez.
    Wooley: Yeah, Martinez! Show your greasy little Puerto Rican ass so I can blow it right off!
    [Cocks his gun]
    Wooley: Blow ALL their asses off! Low-life bastards! Blow ALL their low-life Puerto Rican and N***** asses right off!

  8. zero-mentality – I like that. Great insight.

    Michael – Of course. I was just thinking about the mall and forgot all about that section. Thank you for the correction. I should ditch that paragraph.

  9. I highly recommend that anyone who has the criterion blu-ray or the streaming channel to checkout out the special features video essay LIMITATIONS INTO VIRTUE. It’s great at breaking down how from a craft POV how Romero and the filmmakers worked within their low budget to give the movie it’s style, which still largely holds up.

    And it shows you a commercial for Duke Beer! (the champion of Western PA Dad beers throughout the 60s and 70s. No car could be washed without it)

    I don’t know how these newfangled restorations work, but I didn’t think it was possible for NotLD to look so crisp. It’s like the first time I saw Mad Max cleaned-up and letterboxed I was like “wait, this movie is actually pretty fucking slick”

  10. Opening scene in dawn of the dead takes place at public housing location. Many in National Guard were pissed about wasting time at location (racial overtones). Quite a few background civilians were clipped during the operation.

  11. It might not be your cup of tea but I have to say Filmspotting did an actual very good job doing a sacred cow review of Night of the Living Dead and brought up some good points. Worth a listen to if you’re into that.

  12. This is a terrific review!

    One thing I find interesting about the film is how much of the world-building is merely verbalized. Some of the grandest zombie imagery is left to characters simply telling each other scary stories about it. Plus, the exhibition is really clever here, in the way it’s interspersed throughout the film by news reports. Shyamalan was clearly inspired by that technique in SIGNS.

    And yeah, a movie where the lead in the first half is a white woman, and the (heroic) lead in the second half is a black man was ahead of its time in 1968 and still is today.

  13. Has anyone here read the story collection Book of the Dead by John Skipp and Craig Spector? It’s set within the world of Romero’s Dead series (approved by Romero) and is THE best argument for the old “splatpunk” lit trend. The stories are a who’s-who of horror names and some of the results are fascinating or just downright amazing.
    Stephen King himself contributes a story called “Home Delivery” that gives a totally awesome/bonkers reasoning for the dead coming back to life: comet filled with giant, necrotic space worms gets caught in our orbit and bathes the Earth in some radiation that raises them up.
    David Schow’s tale, “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy” is so grimy great, I can’t really put it into words. Straightforward enough, but a “dueling psycho’s” story on a grand scale during the zombie apocalypse is an excellent kind of straightforward.
    “On the Farside of the Cadillac Desert With Deadfolk” by Joe R. Lansdale (hisownself) has to be read to be believed. One of the best of all time. No joke, no hyperbole. One of the best. Won’t spoil a damn thing here.
    Buuuttt…
    My big one from the collection is a novella called “Like Pavlov’s Dogs” by Steven R. Boyett. Straight up, no joke, that SHOULD be a legit, canonical film sequel in the series. It has themes and ideas from both Dawn and Day rolled up into a delightful little story that allows, basically, every kind of location for a zombie attack: It’s mostly set inside a biodome-type self-sustaining enclosed habitat out in the desert. There’s every type of biome represented inside, forest, jungle, beach, etc. in miniature and a small team of specialists who were inside when the outbreak struck and simply stayed inside. Now, tensions are mounting and relationships have been strained but the big problem is how they’re going to handle the family that just pulled up outside begging for help…
    So, so good.

    Sorry, kinda tangential, but the collection does a lot to expand the idea of what’s going on in this cinematic world. And again, fuck, somebody please make “Like Pavlov’s Dogs”.

  14. I’ll have to get a copy of the NOTLD Criterion edition one of these days. As someone who grew up in rural western PA (but whose family drank Stoney’s, not Duke–sorry, jojo), Romero’s films will always hold a special place in my heart, especially because he didn’t shy away from portraying the racism and sexism that existed and unfortunately still exists there. I can be reminded of my childhood without being overwhelmed by nostalgia. Bittersweet, you know?

    I got to briefly met the man himself once when I went to watch a film crew blow up a car on my college campus. One of Romero’s proteges was directing, so he was there hanging around with the rest of the onlookers. He was very approachable and warm, even to dorky students that had only seen a couple of his films at the time. It was totally worth skipping class for the chance to exchange a few words with him and get blasted with heat and showered by safety glass when the car finally exploded.

    Tonight I will raise a glass of Stoney’s in honor of Mr Romero and Vern’s excellent, insightful review. Vern, going by this example, you shouldn’t be so intimidated about reviewing the classics in the future.

  15. Oh, and Adam, thanks for mentioning the Book of the Dead. I’m going to try to locate a copy.

  16. I feel you, Vern. NIGHT is a stone-cold classic, a great and unprecedentedly influential movie that is the O.G. of at least four schools of filmmaking that mean a lot to me, but at this point I’m not sure how much I can get out of it anymore. The opening is still a rock ’em sock ’em statement of purpose but I start tuning out when the arguments start. Maybe seeing it in a fancy new format will reinvigorate it for me.

    How are the special features, by the way? I’ve always felt Criterion was overrated on that front.

  17. Twenty years after this film came out the guy who played Ghoul (Bill Hinzmann) ended up writing, directing, producing, editing, starring in, and probably catering his own kinda-sequel, FLESH EATER (or the funnier UK title ZOMBIE NOSH). It’s also got one of the posse members from NotLD (Vincent Survinski) reprising his role. It’s not great and mostly seems like an excuse for Hinzmann to fondle partially-clothed female actors, but I think it’s fascinating how NotLD and the sequels have spiraled out into their own little universe of official and unofficial remakes, sequels, prebootquels etc.

    Maj: The DVD for FLESH EATER has surprisingly good special features, including a making-of documentary and interviews with Hinzmann where he is refreshingly guiltless about cashing-in on his marginal fame. Since you’re probably also interested, the costuming is very good; authentically ugly late-80s rural Pennsylvania.

  18. I want to second Adam’s recommendation of Book of the Dead (as well as a handful of novels Skipp and Spector wrote together). The truth is it’s been 25-30 (?) years since I read them, but as I recall the BOTD was pretty great. I also especially enjoyed their vampire novel, The Light at the End. Good stuff.

    As is NOTLD. As is Vern’s review of NOTLD. Thanks, Vern.

  19. I’m insulted that anyone would assume I haven’t seen the special features for FLESH EATER.

  20. The Criterion looks GREAT. Amazing extras, too.

  21. FLESH EATER? Why aren’t we talking about NIGHT’s REAL sequel: CHILDREN OF THE LIVING DEAD!

    -I guess I’m surprisingly odd-man-out in that NIGHT totally still does it for me and I watch it every Halloween.

  22. To answer Majestyk’s questions about the extras, it depends what you’re looking for, but it has a bunch of stuff I enjoyed. Someone mentioned the video essay about the style of the movie, which I found very insightful. I mentioned the Q&A in the review. There’s an old interview with Duane Jones and some with other people involved. There’s an old Romero commentary track. There are other little odds and ends like footage from shooting the news broadcast. Quite a few things, all worth watching, though the pristine transfer overshadows them.

  23. I just picked up this Criterion version and watched the film for the first time in many years and probably only my third time ever. It was really good. There’s an impressive degree of restrained, atmospheric filmatism. Claustrophobic, tense, eerie, tragic, at points truly horrific. Sure, elements are going to seem quaint or clumsy by our present standards, but only because Romero gave us the archetypes and grammar of the zombie film that he and others refined for several decades there after.

    Some of the things that really struck out at me on this viewing:
    1. How little the zombie film has really evolved beyond the thematic elements and tropes that Romero bequeathed us in this film. This is not to say that this is the best zombie story ever told, but it is an incredibly assured, mature offering, and it is truly stunning how much material has been mined from Romero’s premise while generally respecting the basic rules and constraints he supplied. When we think of innovations in what a zombie story is, it’s relatively superficial, almost gimmicky, stuff like “found footage and zombies” or “fast zombies.” Other than these minor tweaks, every great zombie story I can think of entails taking Romero’s basic idea and expanding its scale, fast-forwarding the outbreak timeline, or putting it in a gimmicky context.

    2. Duane Jones is incredibly captivating and just amazing to watch. His face is endlessly engrossing and full of pathos. He anchors the film so effectively, and it’s great the way Barbra essentially passes the main protagonist baton to him early on.

    3. The film explores the horror of zombiehood, herd mentality, social upheaval, and the fragility of civilization in such a profound way. Local, claustrophobic, and intimate in scale, it is an incredibly effective and compelling microcosm of our greatest fears around familial and societal dissolution, despair, anguish, betrayal, isolation, and forsakenness. The film confronts us with so many poignant, bittersweet, and truly horrific moments, from the attack on Barbra’s brother, to the young lovers blown up and then consumed, to the little girl turning on her worried and devoted parents (especially her mother), to the choice between self-interested cowardice vs. self-sacrificial courage, to Barbra being swept away by a mob led by her own zombie brother, and, finally, to the abrupt, business-like dispatching of protagonist with we’ve spent 80 minutes bonding–this film hits us with one harrowing, horrific, nihilistic gut punch after another. It is utterly unflinching. If we can see this film in its era (vs. anachronistically and unfairly comparing it to its great-great grandchildren), it’s truly something beautiful that touches on some of our greatest sources of perennial and uniquely modern dread. Makes Rob Zombie look like a pussy.

  24. Some behind the scenes photos (in color!) that made me really happy: http://bloody-disgusting.com/movie/3478402/wonderful-night-living-dead-behind-scenes-photos-full-color/

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