Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (co-writer John Russo) go to visit their parents’ grave. All of a sudden they are attacked by a disturbed, seemingly possessed man, who kills Johnny. But this was no man, but one of the walking undead, awakened (possibly via an interplanetary virus) to feed on human flesh. Barbara, now shell-shocked by her ordeal, seeks refuge in a nearby farmhouse. There she is joined by a number of others who board the house up against a seemingly insurmountably large army of zombies hungry for warm flesh. Duane Jones plays Ben, the film’s resourceful hero, whilst Karl Hardman plays the combative, nay saying family man also in the house, trying to protect his family and not giving a damn about anyone else.
Although it lacks the satiric edge and unrelenting, apocalyptic action of its superior follow-up “Dawn of the Dead” (comparisons are obviously inevitable), this George Romero low-budget horror classic still works very well today. It must’ve scared the living snot out of audiences on original release, as it still packs a wallop. I found it hard to shake immediately afterward, a sign of a fine horror film indeed. Despite its low-budget and the amount of handheld camerawork, the film looks excellent. Romero, who did cinematography as well as the direction, clearly knows all about shadow and light, and weird camera angles, and I love all that stuff.
The zombies are quite different to “Dawn of the Dead” in that they literally look like re-animated corpses, there’s no ‘life’ to them, whereas in “Dawn”, they were kinda mugging for the camera (which suited that film). The zombie scenes are few and far between, but what we get is pretty incredible. The lighting and camera angles really do enhance these scenes, as does some surprisingly impactful gore. Sure, it’s obviously animal meat, but it’s still quite shocking stuff. The scene involving a mother and daughter is an unforgettably disturbing one, even if it contains behaviour not quite zombie-like if you ask me.
This film’s greatest strength is its seriousness, it’s a whole lot less hokey than most horror films from say 1950-1968, especially the brilliant final third. Seeing those zombies come bursting into a tiny house en masse is really terrifying, claustrophobic stuff. Whilst no one here has the presence of Ken Foree from “Dawn of the Dead”, overall the acting is actually better and more consistent here than in “Dawn of the Dead”. O’Dea is especially good at acting shell-shocked, whilst it’s interesting (and somewhat rare for the period) to see an African-American in a strong protagonist role, even if Jones lacks presence or charisma. And only when he is heard saying things like ‘I’m the boss!’ and ‘You take orders from ME!’ is race even hinted at, which is refreshing, really.
For me, I’d trim some of the fat, make the film run at a better clip, but that’s true of “Dawn of the Dead” as well. The difference is, that film had humour and a playfulness to it (not to mention Tom Savini’s amazing FX and makeup), and this film could’ve used some of that in the non-zombie scenes, as most of it is just bickering and arguing (aside from the memorable ‘They’re coming to get you, Barbara!’ scene). I’d also remove the awfully cheesy music score (apparently stock music), which cheapens the film a little.
Any aspiring horror filmmakers out there really need to take a look at this and “Dawn of the Dead”, they’re practically how-to manuals of low-budget horror filmmaking. Incredible ending is depressing as hell, but in keeping with the harsh tone of much of the film.
The best zombie movie up to its date, but its lack of ‘frills’, if you will, puts it behind “Dawn”. It’s still terrific, as Romero is clearly no grade-Z filmmaker churning out a cheapo zombie flick, he’s a true filmmaker.