Welcome to the Witching Hour. This is the time when shadows gather to hide the monsters watching as you pass. The breeze carries whispers from souls long dead and humans must share the Earth with creatures from other realms. Join The Inner Circle every midnight in October as we bring you a list of thirty-one monstrous experiences that just might leave you wondering if you are truly alone in the dark.
You knew it was coming. All of the zombie-themed movies and games we’ve discussed on The Witching Hour would ultimately lead us to where it all began. To be clear, Night of the Living Dead was not the very first zombie movie; those had been around for decades. However, Night of the Living Dead set the rules for the zombie genre for decades to come.
This look at Night of the Living Dead is going to be a bit personal. There’s no avoiding it because this film has been analyzed countless times over the last forty-eight years and nothing can be said about it that hasn’t been articulated before except for why Night of the Living Dead is special to me. Before we get to it, let’s add the spoiler tag:
Spoiler Alert! There will be spoilers for a nearly 50 year old movie.
One thing I greatly admire about Night of the Living Dead is just how well paced the story is. A lesser film would have become bogged down with exposition while trying to explain the origins of the undead menace. While this is probably due to the relatively low budget, the action in this movie begins after the first six minutes or so. The set-up is really quite brilliant with the brother taunting his sister and suggesting a man walking some distance away is a monster. After a bit more banter, well, see for yourself:
While there was a brief mention about interstellar radiation being responsible for the situation, there is no further thought given to the matter and really, that is for the best.
Why should the origin of the undead be left unexplained? Because they are not the focus of the characterization in Night of the Living Dead. Face it, there are relatively few zombies in film history with strong personalities. Zombies tend to be a relatively – pardon the expression – faceless threat. They are united through their instinct to consume living flesh with no aspirations to gain personal wealth or power.
Thus the characterization in Night of the Living Dead is focused exactly where it belongs – the human characters. After the opening assault in the cemetery which resulted in the death of her brother, a young woman named Barbra evades her zombie attacker and takes refuge in an old farmhouse. She is soon joined by a truck driver named Ben and several other survivors who fortify the house while the zombies gather outside.
However, the humans are not nearly so united in their quest for survival. They have their own unique motivations and ideas regarding the best course of action and that provides conflict within the group. The sad truth is that if there ever were some sort of apocalypse, human nature will make it very difficult for any survivors to thrive. Night of the Living Dead is as much a character study as a horror film. It doesn’t skimp on the horror either. One scene features a little girl who rises as a zombie and murders her own mother. That was quite a bold move for the era.
Another forward thinking aspect of the movie was the casting of Duane Jones as the lead character. Remember that the 1960s were a time of significant racial tension in the United States and not many films had the courage to cast an African American performer in the starring role of a film. I like to think that films such as Night of the Living Dead contributed in some way towards breaking down these barriers.
Night of the Living Dead is a classic horror movie that deserves to be seen again. Due to a legal snafu, you can legally watch it on YouTube or even download it for free due to the film’s public domain status. There is no excuse not to see this one. Just make sure to turn off the lights first.