They keep coming back in a bloodthirsty lust for human flesh!' With the appearance of that tagline, in 1968, the genre of horror filmmaking took a gigantic jump into uncharted territory.
Directed by George A Romero -- who also co-wrote, edited and managed the cinematography -- Night Of The Living Dead was the first part of what went on to become a famous trilogy, comprising Dawn Of The Dead (1978) and Day Of The Dead (1985). Now is a good time to re-live the terror of that first fright though, considering Romero's return with a fourth part, Land Of The Dead, a few months ago.
The plot, when looked at in our time, appears clichéd. You have to keep in mind, however, that the film is partly responsible for the creation of that cliché.
It concerns a woman called Barbara (Judith O'Dea) who, along with her brother, takes a trip to a countryside cemetery to visit her father's grave. Radiation from a fallen satellite has led to the deceased rising though, and they are now in search of the living for food. Barbara runs to an abandoned house and is joined there by Ben (Duane Jones). Incidentally, this makes Night Of The Living Dead the first horror film to have an African-American playing a lead role. They discover more people hiding in the basement, all of whom have different ideas about what they should do to escape.
Outside, the dead grow in numbers, silently, relentlessly, shambling closer. They can be 'killed' only by blows to their head. Inside, the bickering begins, the survivors trying hard to stay human, literally and metaphorically. Their only hope lies in getting fuel from a nearby pump, so they can use a truck to escape. This involves walking out into the night though, and confronting the hungry corpses.
What's amazing is that, despite the film being originally shot in black and white (it was remade in 1990), it manages to give you the kind of chills that directors today rely on high-budget wizardry to induce. It's a classic low-budget horror, made at a time when the phrase 'classic low-budget horror' didn't really exist. What sort of budget are we talking about? A ridiculous $114,000. The extras playing zombies were actually paid a dollar each and given a T-shirt that read 'I was a zombie on Night of the Living Dead'! Even the score saw some massive cost-cutting. It was created using old records on which the copyright had expired! At times, it's almost like a home movie. And as anyone's who's watched The Blair Witch Project will testify, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
In terms of technique, Romero still rises way above the many who have tried to imitate him since. The film is brutal in its unsentimental exploration of violence. The zombies kill for no apparent reason which, while sometimes held up as the film's weak spot, is actually what makes the chaos so difficult to handle. Also, few films have managed an ending so unpredictable, or so neat, using still photographs to bring the tale to a close.
So much for the film; why the DVD? Because, apart from letting you examine Romero's finest 96 minutes closely, it comes with a whole lot of features worth spending a Sunday afternoon on. Never mind the usual stuff like audio tracks, this one has a commentary by Romero and the entire cast. It also has a parody titled Night Of The Living Bread, a rare photo gallery, scenes from the director's 'lost' film called There's Always Vanilla, and a history of his company, The Latent Image.
You can also see the final interview given by actor Duane Jones, who died at 52 of heart failure and didn't see any of Romero's later films. There are personal scrapbooks of the cast members, the entire script, foreign and domestic film posters and liner notes by Romero and author Stephen King. Fiddle around with that remote some more, and other goodies pop up too.
If you haven't seen Night Of The Living Dead yet, there are reasons enough to pick it up now. If you have seen it before, why not relive the fear you first felt when you watched it as a child? A little chill in the afternoon never hurt anybody.