Film set bar for horror films

“Night of the Living Dead” is just as good today as it was when it was first released, which speaks loudly, considering how many movies from the horror genre seem to lose their staying power relatively quickly.

The 1968 film that was largely the creation of one man, George A. Romero, not only started a new genre of films with the zombie conflict that encompasses the movie, but set the bar extremely high for horror movies that followed. For Romero, it seems the film isn’t always about scaring the audience and grossing them out, but also representing hidden messages that for their time were a step in the right direction for filmmaking in general.

The film begins like most zombie movies do with a scary opening sequence that sets the tone for what is to come. In this case, the audience sees Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny visiting their father’s grave in a small Pennsylvania town. Out of nowhere, an awkward-looking man suddenly overpowers Johnny and begins to eat his flesh.

Barbara watches in horror, unable to do anything but scream and run away. Left alone to fend for herself, she stumbles upon a secluded farm house. There she discovers a chain-smoking, hot-headed husband (Karl Hardman), his objectionable chain-smoking wife (Marilyn Eastman), their sick and injured daughter, a teen couple and an African American man named Ben (Duane Jones).

The group is tired, frightened, and desperately in search of an escape from the large amounts of flesh-eating zombies heading their way. With the phones no longer working, their only connection to the outside world is a television set and a radio. However, what these connections only offer is more horror, as the world they see is being torn apart not by zombies but by the conspiracy theorists and rising hysteria that ensue from the zombie predicament.

It is an intriguing plot, and the fact that the film was the first to take on the zombie scenario makes it amazing in itself. But the fact that the strongest character is an African American, who isn’t killed off first (or at all), in a time when African Americans were hardly being cast in any major leading role speaks volumes for the film’s hidden messages Romero obviously put into his labor of love.

For those who don’t want to look too deeply into the horror flick and want the usual thrills and scares, the film does just that. While it has its hidden messages and societal interpretations, it also offers a large portion of legitimately intense and scary moments that can put the toughest kind of person into a fetal position.

The film contains three scenes that are definitely high on the list of most outrageously gruesome scenes ever in a movie. However, “Night of the Living Dead” is able to use these three scenes, and other not-so-pleasant sights, to enhance its greatness and not use it as its only weapon. It could have just as easily been similarly made to the other disappointing zombie movies that came after it. But fortunately, Romero understands what makes horror films great isn’t simple imagery, but everything that encompasses a scene where the imagery is placed.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars