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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

In 1968, George A. Romero gave the world a whole new look at an old and underestimated fear:  zombies.

After her brother and her are attacked in a cemetery by a strange man, Barbara flees to an isolated farmhouse.  There she is joined by six others as they try to survive a night long siege from crazed flesh eating people who turn out to be more than mere humans... they're zombies...

George A. Romero was inspired by the novel, "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson to write "Night of the Living Dead."  He wanted to explore how such an apocolyptic "revolution" might start, and how humans might react in a situation where something that's supposed to be "forever" stopped being... well, permanent.  That "forever" was Death, and thus the Romero zombies were born.  Matheson, himself described Romero's interpretation as, "kinda of cornball".  Little did he know the sort of grip it would have on the world.

The character of Ben- played by Duane Jones, was originally intended to be a simple truck driver.  Jones had some problems with the dialogue, and pretty much re-wrote the character as being well educated.  Judith O'Dea told an interviewer that most of the dialogue was actually improvised:
"The sequence where Ben is breaking up the table to block the entrance and I'm on the couch and start telling him the story of what happened {to Johnny} it's all ad-libbed.  This is what we want to get across [...] tell the story about me and Johnny in the car and me being attacked.  That was it[...] all improv.  We filmed it once."
Even though most reviewers disliked the film when it came out, it has grown into one of the most successful horror franchises in the world... and one of my favorite films.

I thought the acting was great.  Duane Jones turned a serious, smart performance as Ben.  If I was isolated in a farmhouse with the hungry dead coming for me, I'd want Ben on my team.  Producer Karl Hardman was fantastic as Harry Copper, even though there were a few slightly hammy moments in his acting.  He makes Harry unlikely, but understandable at the same time.  Even though her role has upset feminists over the years for being a "stereotypical damsel in distress," I felt that Judith O'Dea's portrayal of Barbara was quite good- and reflected how ANY person might react in such a traumatic situation.  In fact, ALL of the actors did a great job presenting various facets of human response in a tough scenario.

I can't say enough about the camera work.  There are some remarkable angles and shots put in front of us in this film.  Wide angles of the slowly growing number of zombies approaching, mixed with close-ups of the blank expressions on their faces and off kilter, slanted angles all combine to create a tense atmosphere and mood.  Add into it the use of shadows to distort the appearances of the zombies, and you've got some skin tingling moments to enjoy.  And can't forget the music- it's the finishing touch of discordant notes that puts you on edge and gets your heart beating just a tad faster.

Of course, none of it would've worked unless the story itself was strong enough to support everything.  Even though it's a very basic premise, it was plenty strong enough- and relevant enough to people's fear of diseases, and Death to give structure to the meat of the characters, editing and events.

I could probably write almost forever about what makes this film such a classic, but I'll simply state out right that, "Night of the Living Dead" is one of "The Good".

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