The latest film, however, ploughs a different furrow. For now, though, let’s go back to where it all started.
‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1969), depicts from the outset a complete breakdown of all social conventions. The opening scene has squabbling brother and sister Johnny and Barbara visiting the rural graveyard where their father is buried. The solemnity of the occasion and the hallowed ground of the graveyard, already besmirched by Johnny’s glib sarcasm, are intruded upon by a lumbering zombie. “They’re coming for you, Barbara,” Johnny intones portentously, riling his sister.
No truer words have been spoken. Within moments, the film’s nominal protagonist is dead and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) is fleeing for her life. Finding shelter in a seemingly deserted farmhouse, she is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a black man - stereotypically the sacrificial character in genre films - who proves the most capable in battling the undead; a couple of clean cut high school sweethearts; and a squabbling family whose young daughter has been injured by a zombie.
With these disparate characters besieged, Romero divides the world outside into two factions: zombies (shambolic and slow-moving, but ultimately able to overpower through weight of numbers) and vigilantes (shambolic, gun-toting rednecks). These latter roam the countryside, treating the crisis as one big turkey shoot while they wait for the National Guard to turn up. (It is quickly established that burning or shooting them in the head is the only way to kill zombies.)
The farmhouse becomes less a safe haven than a pressure cooker of dangerously high emotions. Barbara withdraws into herself, spending most of her screen time as a catatonic mute. The cute teenage couple die hideously, victims of their own foolhardiness during an escape attempt. The family implode, the mother killed by her own daughter (in the most gruesome and disturbing scene in the film) who has transmogrified into a zombie. By the end, only Ben remains. In a grim coda, he is mistaken for a zombie and shot as he tries to leave the farmhouse. “Another one for the fire,” grunts the triggerman, a bitterly nihilistic closing line.
With its stark black and white cinematography and expressionist camera angles, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ far surpasses its budgetary limitations and the low-rent acting ability of many of its cast. (Jones, however, is superb as the clinically efficient man of action. Romero, it should be noted, was one of the first white directors to assign leading roles to black actors, a trait that distinguishes the films which follow. In the shooting of Ben at the end of the film, the question is implicit: does the redneck really think he’s a zombie?)
Tense, unremitting and incredibly bleak, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ - zombies or no - is as terrifying a portrayal of backwoods America as ‘Deliverance’. In the next film, Romero would quit the rural setting and take a step towards the big city, fetching up at a large out-of-town shopping mall …