Four Frames – Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

I’m proud to say that I’ve become an offical contributor to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. Aimed at the enthusiastic film-goer at large, The Big Picture provides an original take on the cinematic experience. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from George A. Romero’s horror classic Night Of The Living Dead.

It’s perhaps fitting that in the year that saw the world descend into civil unrest, a micro-budget splatter movie in which the dead rise from the grave and usher in the apocalypse would redefine both the horror genre and contemporary cinema.

Night of the Living Dead

There’s horror before 1968’s epochal Night of the Living Dead and there’s what came after, such is the seismic impact that George A. Romero’s debut feature continues to have.

Chucking out the rulebook in true anti-establishment style, he found a unique and unorthodox way to envisage the tipping point society seemed to be inevitably careering towards at the time.

Night of the Living Dead

Romero monkeys about with the audience’s expectations from the film’s opening moment when siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Steiner) visit their father’s grave. Our assumed hero Johnny latches onto his sister’s unease and, putting on his best Boris Karloff pokes fun saying: “They’re coming to get you Barbra!”

He continues to freak out an angry Barbra and observes a shambling figure seen earlier in long-shot drawing ever nearer. “Look! There’s one of them now!”

Night of the Living Dead

The unintended irony of this statement arrives with a jolt when the man (Bill Hinzman, who in basing his shuffling gait on Karloff in The Walking Dead proves that the old ways are sometimes the best) attacks Barbra. We presume Johnny will come to the rescue, but in fighting the ghoul (the word “zombie” is never uttered in the film) he falls and smacks his noggin on a headstone. Not so much the hero after all.

With our assumptions in tatters, all bets are off as Barbra flees to a farmhouse and is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who doesn’t convince anyone, least of all himself when he shuts the growing horde of undead out (or imprisons them both, more to the point) and says “it’s alright”.

Night of the Living Dead

Not for nothing has Steiner’s Karloff impression become a defining moment in horror cinema. Romero, deciding that no-one else was going to do it passed the baton to himself by choosing to subvert an old icon, as if to say: “That’s then, this is now and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Tellingly, it’s the one amusing moment in a film that, like its implacable army of the undead, relentlessly progresses towards a soul-shattering conclusion.

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10 comments

  1. ckckred · May 27, 2013

    Nice review. I first saw this when I was a kid with some friends. The movie didn’t scare me initially but for months afterward I had nightmares. I also admire the social commentary Romero put in the movie, especially with the ending.

    • Three Rows Back · May 27, 2013

      Thanks very much. Social commentary and metaphor has long been a part not only of Romero’s films, but horror cinema in general (well, the decent ones anyway). It’s a film that stays with you long after the closing credits.

  2. armanddc · May 28, 2013

    I always admired Romero’s films. My favorites are his Dead’s, and “The Crazies.” Excellent write-up! Glad you’re a part of that magazine now. Best of luck.

    • Three Rows Back · May 28, 2013

      Thanks very much for those kind words. Yeah, I love The Crazies too; it’s as good as Night and Dawn.

  3. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · May 29, 2013

    I’ve still not seen this, it’s one of my biggest horror blind spots. I think it’s on YouTube actually, there’s no excuse for me! Nice write up though and congrats on becoming a part of The Big Picture.

    • Three Rows Back · May 29, 2013

      Much appreciated! It’s an absolute classic, although try to watch it on a TV rather than a laptop/PC on YouTube.

      • Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · May 29, 2013

        Yeah I definitely will, I don’t want to have to watch a grainy little picture. How did you get involved with the magazine, if you don’t mind me asking?

      • Three Rows Back · May 29, 2013

        They put out a request for new contributors via Twitter. I got in touch and put a few links to my work. They asked me to come up with a piece within a certain time which I did. If you go on their site there’s a piece asking for contributors. If you can’t find it I’ll send you the link.

      • Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · May 29, 2013

        I’ll have a look around the site and give you a bell if I can’t find anything. I fancy getting involved in something along those lines. Cheers man!

      • Three Rows Back · May 29, 2013

        No worries! Best of luck with it.

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