|Night of the Living Dead, 1968. Directed by George
A. Romero. Duane Jones, Judith O'Day.
Synopsis: Johnny and Barbara make their annual pilgrimage to their father's graveside in the Pennsylvanian countryside. Johnny knows that the cemetary creeps out his sister, so he taunts her as they lay the flowers on the grave. In the background, a lumbering man stumbles towards them and attacks Barbara. Johnny struggles with the man, but he is knocked over and killed when his head strikes a gravestone. The man looks up at Barbara and stumbles after her. Barbara flees to their car, but Johnny had the keys. All she can do is disengage the brake and roll the car down the hill. When it comes to a halt, she runs into the countryside toward a lonely farmhouse. The farmhouse appears to be abandoned, so she hides inside. The occupants of the house are dead. She is soon joined by Ben, a black man who has had similar encounters. Found hiding in the cellar are five more people: the Coopers, whose daughter has been bitten by one of the maniacs roaming the countryside, and Tom and Judy, a young couple. They barricade the house and find a television. It seems that the dead are returning to life, reanimated by radiation from a returning space probe. The only way to "kill" the newly risen dead is to burn them or shoot them in the head. "Beat 'em, burn 'em, they go up pretty easy," says Sherrif McClelland, who is leading law enforcement efforts in the area. Soon, the house is surrounded by zombies. Our heroes bicker about how to escape and formulate a plan that backfires, roasting Tom and Judy in a gas-tank explosion. The zombies devour their charred remains. Meanwhile, the Cooper's daughter dies and rises again to murder her mother with a garden trowel. Mr. Cooper is helpless before his undead daughter as she kills him, too. Barbara is swept away by the zombies as they finally break into the house. By the end of the night, only Ben remains. When the authorities finally arrive, they mistake him for a zombie and shoot him through the head. "All right," Sherrif McClelland says, "that's another one for the fire."
"They're Dead, They're...All Messed Up": This is the movie that put a bullet in the head of the traditional horror movie once and for all. It is the synthesis of the evolutionary strains running through the genre, boiled down and distilled into a highly concentrated shot of pure, 200 proof fear and loathing. As a movie, this is deceptively simple. The dead have risen and seven people have barricaded themselves into a farmhouse to escape the plague of zombies. From this simple premise, Romero proceeds to subvert both the generic conventions of the horror movie and the societal conventions of the American way of life. Romero's take on things casts the zombies as the modern equivalent of some biblical scourge, loosed upon the land to scour away the sins of civilization. America deserves the zombies (it should be noted that the most ironic shot in the movie is Romero's credit at the beginning, superimposed as it is over an American flag). The scenes of law and order on search and destroy missions in the Pennsylvania countryside bear a disturbing resemblance to similar footage of troops in Vietnam clearing out villages. We become monsters to fight monsters.
The killing of Duane Jones, shot thorugh the head, at the conclusion of the movie is an act designed to eradicate the distinction between the zombies and us. We have met the enemy, as Pogo once mused, and it is us.
Of course, none of this would work if the movie wasn't scary. Here, Night of the Living Dead succeeds spectacularly. This is a full blown nightmare cast in the mold of the Universal Nightmare--something is after you and no matter how fast you run, it just keeps on coming. "They're coming to get you, Barbara," and get her they do. This is the first cinematic nightmare where the audience is given no release at the end of the movie. The ending of this movie, in which the good guys do not win and order is not restored, is calculated to follow the viewer home after the final credits have rolled and make the viewer uneasy for days afterward. This is great art. The font from which all modern horror movies flow.