NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The film that started it all. Before NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, zombies were nothing more than mindless slaves that toiled at their master's command. No, these creatures were much, much different...
Johnny and Barbara head out into the country to lay a memorial on their father's grave. Barbara is fearful of the cemetery, and Johnny taunts: "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" Just then, a disheveled corpse reaches out and attacks Barbara, killing Johnny in the process. Barbara escapes to a remote farmhouse, where she discovers a small group of people holed up for safety. They work to board up the doors as more of the flesh-eating ghouls begin to surround the house, but who will survive the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?
Why has NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD endured all these years? What makes it the Horror classic that it is today? For one, it is still terribly frightening. There is some primal fear about being eaten alive that strikes a chord in each of us. It is also extremely violent and grotesque for the time, depicting the ghouls as they rip the flesh off of the bones of their victims before receiving damaging blows to the head. The danger is all around us. The monsters are ourselves. There is no Transylvanian count nor man-made monstrosity out to get us. It is your neighbor, your son, or your daughter. The ghouls banging at the door are only half of the problem, as fear and paranoia drive men against each other in the struggle for survival.
Although it was never originally intended as such, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is a powerful social commentary that addresses issues ranging from the inadequacy of government officials during times of crisis to more apparent themes like the racial strife of the 1950's and 60's. At the time, it was practically unheard of for an African-American to star in the lead role of a motion picture, but here we have a smart, resourceful, and courageous anti-hero of sorts in Ben. Ben is willing to help the others, but only so long as it improves his chances to survive. Beyond that, Ben shouts demands at his white co-stars, slaps a white woman, and shoots a white man -- progressive motions that put NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD years ahead of its time. It also begs the question as to whether or not Cooper would have acted with the same hostility if Ben had been a white man? The horrifying images of bodies being dragged with meat hooks and burned in funeral pyres instantly recall the historical references to Southern racism, a very somber and depressing end to an already nihilistic film.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD would go on to become one of the highest-grossing Independent films ever made, and widely-considered to be amongst the finest cinematic achievements in America. It is an undisputed classic in the Horror genre, and acts as both a horrifying monster movie and a terrifying microcosm of the social and political turmoil of the Vietnam War era.
Movies like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD:
ZOMBIE, ALTERED, SPLINTER, DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DEAD.