Is Night of the Living Dead the best Halloween movie?
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead doesn’t seem like much from the outside. It’s a low-budget horror movie with a cast of Romero’s friends and theater semi-pros with a minimal plot, scored by stock music cues, and shot in black and white to save money, but it’s simple b-movie trappings hide a film that still has the power to deeply unnerve audiences
Its plot is incredibly simple. It follows a group of people who are holed up in an abandoned farmhouse under siege by an army of walkingcorpseswhodevour human flesh, who bicker with each other until one by one they fall prey to the forces of chaos outside their doors, first mentally, then physically.
Aside from an opening scene in a graveyard, most of the action takes place inside the farmhouse, which is lit throughout most of the movie by bright floodlights, giving every scene a suffocating atmosphere, like the characters are stuck in a cardboard box. The music cues are all taken from old stock sound libraries from the 1940s and 50s, but they prove to be incredibly effective in conveying the tension of the situation, an accomplishment thrown into sharp relief by the cheesy, artificial attempts various other composers have made to give a new score to the film over the years.
This music, combined with the black-and- white film stock and the close, contained, theatrical scope of the screenplay were already a throwback in 1968, but this Pittsburgh-area community to this day. vintage style combined with the very modern, nihilistic, unrelenting bleakness of the tone, makes it seem like a Twilight Zone episode gone horribly awry.
The actors aren’t Oscar caliber, but their inexperience and lack of effect helps them seem like regular Joes caught in a situation beyond their comprehension. The venality, and cowardice of the characters they portray, and the ineffectual nature of their efforts to stop the onslaught was very relevant in the late-1960s, when the country was torn apart by social and political conflict, and carries that same power in the present, when people seem to be less and less able to understand each other and work together to solve common problems. Romero realized the power of suggestion, and mystery could make up for a lot of deficiencies in budget. Even though the monsters in his films were just regular people in cheap makeup walking slowly in the dark, it was their very banality which made them terrifying. These weren’t demons, ghosts, or bloodthirsty European aristocrats, these were people who could be friends, neighbors, or relatives, who had been corrupted by a strange alien force.
While other horror literature before this film had shown that people you might know in real life could be consumed by darkness, could fall prey to the madness that lurked outside human knowledge, this was one of the first films, along with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alfred Hitchcock’s two early-60s suspense/ horror masterpieces The Birds and Psycho, which presented a visual, cinematic representation of this horrifying possibility. In the end of the film, even though the zombies are temporarily defeated, no one is redeemed, the shadows are still closing in, the apocalypse is still on its way, and humans are still unfathomably cruel to one another. Its this unsparing allegorical look at the rot which seeped into society, which makes the horrors depicted too real to us today.