George A. Romero / USA/ 1968/ 96mins
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 26 Feb 2018
The opening credits tell us that this movie is in the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art (and this glorious restoration was supervised by the director). It’s a hugely influential horror picture that subverted the genre. It has none of the seriousness nor psychological creepiness of Psycho, made eight years earlier and a superior film all round. Rather, it’s a remorseless, nihilistic vision more reflective of its era – the late 60’s saw America in turmoil. And it’s in turmoil today.
From the outset the chills begin. An ominous winding road, winter trees, speeding Pontiac, and a partially obscured “cemetery” road-sign are ramped up with a relentless Moog. The hairs on the back of the neck will stand to attention.
Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and he brother Johnnie are putting a wreath on the grave of their father on the anniversary of his death. Johnnie resents the 600 mile round road trip. He is jokey and nerdy – thick specs and pens in his shirt pocket signify that he’ll be first to get it. Meanwhile Barbra gets the creeps and big bro’s teasing: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” doesn’t play well when they realise he is speaking the truth as a zombie hoves into view.
Babs makes a run for it and finds a lonely farmhouse. There’s thunder, lightning, domestic taxidermy and flesh-eating ghouls in the front yard. It’s hugely atmospheric and as you start to giggle the night terrors begin. The violence is relentless – though much of it is off-screen. Also of note is that of the two main protagonists one is female and one African-American (Duane Jones). Barbra is joined by the Brady Bunch who have been hiding in the basement and they all listen to radio reports of “an epidemic of murder”. More accurately, it’s a zombie cannibal apocalypse. As the captives in the house bicker about how best to save themselves the zombies are massing outside. Our flesh-eating friends then enjoy a barbecue when two escapees get fried in their pickup truck. Lovely femur, pass the smoky sauce.
It’s effective horror but has dated. There’s a lo-fi quality (it’s black and white, there’s handheld cameras) and the acting is way dodgy in places. The ranks of the undead have the demeanour of art students in rag week and the sheriff’s posse has the look of alt.right Trump supporters. The bloody finale is not what you might expect.
Looking for allegorical meanings is probably a waste of time. What was once a subversive shocker where everyone seems evil (or has the potentiality for evil) is now a curiosity – especially in light of the “horror porn” that has come since.