Writer and director George A. Romero has made a lot of schlocky films, but Night of the Living Death, his first feature film, was and remains an intense low-budget thriller about the dead who, penetrated by the radiance of an exploded space satellite, emerging from their graves in search of living bodies to eat.
Romero’s film takes place on a rural farm. While the house wasn’t haunted by evil spirits, a vengeful butler, a nasty housekeeper, or a deranged gardener (as was common in haunted house movies), Romero’s storyline arc pretty much followed. the model of the haunted house. He may also have been influenced by Orson Welles’ sensational radio show on War of the Worlds, because Romero framed parts of his film as television and radio reporting. Romero introduced himself, unbilled, in “Hitchcockian” fashion, as a TV reporter reporting from a field near the farm.
Night of the Living Dead is a much better film than the mindless slasher photos that got teens screaming with abandon as they huddled in the dark of movie theaters and drive-ins.
Faithless blood and guts characterized the wave of lesser horror films that succeeded the classic atmospheric dread films of previous generations in which violence was implied rather than publicized. That’s not to say that Night of the Living Dead is devoid of gore scenes – there are flashes rather than scenes, but enough to make you shiver, if not downright shudder.
The acting is more professional than what is usually seen in spooky dishes at the wheel. 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 to Judith O’Dea for her role of presence. catatonic, disoriented, at times hysterical throughout the film as the others try 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, actor, director and radio presenter, delivers a breakthrough performance as a frightened man trying to hide his fear through intimidation. Yet like Duane Jones, he did not achieve the film career he deserved.
It was Mr. Jones who created the backbone of the film, skillfully downplaying 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. After a handful of movie roles, Jones became an English teacher.
What makes Jones’ multiple careers in the mid-20th century in America meaningful, if not singular, is that Jones was black. It was quoted in an interview, that “it never occurred to me that I had been hired because I was black, but it occurred to me that because I was black, it would give a different historical element to the film. “
We should expect a compelling film from a director if he has the generous budget to hire good, seasoned actors and top notch technical talent. Director and co-writer George Romero had neither the budget nor the resources of a large studio, yet he delivered a gripping film. He also deserves to be recognized for choosing a black American actor in the lead role of an otherwise all-white cast.
Night of the Living Dead gets high marks: 7.9 / 10 from viewers on IMDB. Aggregate scores on Rotten Tomatoes are an astonishing 98% of movie critics with 87% of movie audiences not far behind critics who enjoyed Night of the Living Dead.
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