George Romero is synonymous with one thing and one thing only in films; zombies. He basically created a whole new horror genre, using the undead as a menace unlike anything audiences had seen. Romero has directed 16 films, many of them about a zombie apocalypse, but the whole thing started with 1968's Night of the Living Dead.
Visiting their father's grave, brother and sister, Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O'Dea), are attacked by a lone man who doesn't as much as utter a word to them. Johnny is knocked out, leaving Barbra to run for safety, the sluggish man pursuing her. She makes her way to an isolated house in the country and seeks protection. Inside, she meets Ben (Duane Jones), a young man similarly running for his life. They find others hiding in the house's cellar, but what's going on outside? Soon more people show up, and the radio reports countless attacks all over the country. The recently dead have come back to life, and they're feasting on anything alive.
Dubbed 'the Godfather of zombies,' Romero has made a career with his zombie-themed horror movies, from this original through the 1970s, 1980s and on right up through 2009's Survival of the Dead. That's his reputation, and it's a good one. He basically created the concept of zombies from the ground up. In a movie age where nothing is original, how cool is that? A whole genre?!? One guy? Awesome with a capital A. So where to start? Some rules. Originally, zombies can't run. They walk slowly, almost dragging their feet. No talking, only groaning/moaning. And most importantly? They exist for one thing; to feast on the living.
Made for just $130,000, 'Living' is a low-budget gem. Filmed in eerie, foreboding black and white (even washed out), the movie certainly looks cheap, even amateurish at times. The cast features no stars, much less recognizable faces. The story is almost exclusively limited to this one isolated house in the country, a small group of survivors banding together as a small army of the undead descend on the house. The camera is right there with the survivors, Romero using weird, odd and off-center angles to shoot the action. Extreme close-ups -- whether of the survivors or the ever-increasing zombies -- give the whole proceedings an uneasy, unsettling feeling. There are very few GOTCHA moments. Instead, that sense of doom builds as the survivors learn more about what's going on all over the country.
The acting ranges from tolerable to really bad to surprisingly good. All the performances are somewhat wooden, even stilted, but let's start with the positive. Jones as Ben is a bright spot. The fact that the movie has an African American main character (with an otherwise entirely white cast) is worth noting too. In a hectic situation, Ben thinks things through when most people's first impulse would be to panic. O'Dea as Barbra does a hell of a shell shock. Other survivors include a married couple, Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen (Marilyn Eastman), caring for their sick daughter (Kyra Schon), and a young teenage couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). Also look for Romero making a cameo as a reporter asking questions about the undead.
My first encounter with a Romero film was the 2004 film Dawn of the Dead, a tweaked update of the zombie movie. Blood-splattered throughout, it's a gem. This is the polar opposite. It's about the fear. Much of the movie unfortunately is spent among the dynamic of the group. There's far too much talking for my taste. 'Living' is at its best when the survivors are directly dealing with the zombies. The attacks are truly scary, individuals battling an enemy that won't stop attacking. The finale is a gem, the zombies finally organizing (do zombies organize? Eh) an attack on the house. The final scene provides quite a shocker, even though it's telegraphed some in the scenes leading up to it. A mixed bag, but certainly an influential film. Watch the entire film HERE at Youtube.
Night of the Living Dead <---trailer (1968): ** 1/2 /****