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.