"They're coming to get you, Barbara!" And they were...
A true classic whose importance to horror cinema and culture cannot be overstated, the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD reigned for a long time as one of the scariest movies ever made, but today it may seem rather quaint to audiences jaded by the far gorier zombie apocalypse offerings that came in its wake, and that's a goddamned shame. When first released upon an unsuspecting public back in October of 1968, at first glance it looked no different from any of the legion of innocuous, time-wasting low-budget black & white shockers that populated local grindhouses and drive-ins across America, but in no time its grimmer-than-grim and then quite graphic content was traumatizing attendees of kiddie matinees and shocking audiences used to more genteel fare. Genteel this movie sure as hell ain't.
As a bona fide "monster kid" who'd devoured horror movies since I was three or four and religiously read FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND and books on the subject like the most fervent of Talmudic scholars, I had heard of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD mentioned as "the most horrifying movie ever made" and was aware of its zombies being clearly depicted in the act of consuming human flesh, so I longed to see it but never got the opportunity during my early childhood. Bitter over never getting to see it on any of the local NYC syndicated TV stations' horror movie showcases, I figured all the hype was probably just another come-on to lure the gullible and fleece them of the admission price, but my chance finally came when I was around twelve or thirteen and I was alone in the house on a stormy Saturday night. The local listings noted that the film would be on at 11:30pm on Channel 7, so I made myself some popcorn, turned off the light in my room, and turned on my black & white TV to the channel in question. Over the next two hours (including commercials), I was treated to what was up to that point the most relentlessly intense horror film I'd ever seen, and it frankly scared the shit out of me. And you know the film bore considerable power when even the periodic commercial breaks didn't douse the tension.
The story is simplicity itself: seven people end up trapped inside a remote, abandoned house somewhere in the vicinity of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as an unexplained invasion of slow-moving zombies surround the place. In short order they realize that there's little hope of escape or rescue from the siege of the undead, so they defend themselves with fire and limited weapons while crudely fortifying the windows and doors with bits of scrap plywood. They receive emergency TV news broadcasts that shed little light on the situation, but the reports state that the dead are rising all over the place and the only way to stop them is to burn them or shoot them in the head. ("Kill the brain, kill the ghoul.") And as if putting up a feeble defense against an ever-growing swarm of ravenous revenant flesh-eaters weren't bad enough, the trapped strangers must also contend with their mistrust and great dislike of one another. By the time it's all over, nobody wins and the ostensible hero (Duane Jones) meets an incredibly ignoble and ironic fate, which leaves the viewer utterly devastated and stranded in a world of doom and utter despair.
In retrospect I was glad I did not see the film any earlier than my tweens, because I knew in no uncertain terms that I simply could not have handled it while in the single digits. Watching the movie on a dinky black & white TV set only added to the experience, especially during the section where the characters watch the news reports; it felt like I was right there in the house with them, even when Channel 7 ran a title across the news segments that read "A Simulation."
Now a firm supporter of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and its director and co-writer, George Romero, I kept my eyes open for a showing of the film where it would be completely uncut and projected, and it eventually turned up at the local youth center as a cheap show for Westport's tweeners who were (mostly) too young to have yet discovered the joys of stolen booze, pilfered weed and prescription drugs, and the physical fun that could lead to sweaty, backseat conceptions. The uncut version was even more of a revelation, with the brief gut-munching now being unmissable, as was the then-shocking presence of blank-faced nude zombies (that presumably wandered in from a local morgue or medical school). The implacability of the growing zombie horde was also much more effective when seen large, and the stark monochrome imagery read like some horrible latter-day E.C. Comics story, only written from a totally adult sensibility. The film is completely lacking in humor — excepting the famous "They're coming to get you, Barbara" scene, which almost immediately negates its dark levity with the arrival of the first zombie that unexpectedly attacks the Barbara in question — and its bleakness totally affected myself and the other kids who truly lost our horror cherries to Romero's instant classic. Sure, we'd seen horror movies for years prior to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but for most of us it was that first life-changing moment when the scares were genuine, and from that there was no turning back to the almost corny weekly monster-fests that fired our imaginations as children. With NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, horror finally got real for Americans and bared its teeth like the gloriously nasty beast we always expected it could be. (The same could be said of the impact of PSYCHO in 1960, but that's one of those scary films that walks the fine line between the thriller and the outright horror film, while there was no such ambiguity about what Romero had wrought.)
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD unintentionally gave birth to the zombie genre as we now know it, and while its descendants, several of them made by Romero, may bring more in terms of budget, action and graphic gory content, none of them can match the film that started it all as a feature-length journey to an inescapable Hell on earth. If you've never seen it, it's readily available and dirt-cheap, so watch it with a big bowl of buttered popcorn and make sure the lights are all turned off...