I revisited this classic on the big screen as part of its fiftieth anniversary celebration. It’s been well over ten years since I’ve seen it and I only saw it once. Even though this isn’t necessarily the first film that leaps to mind when you think “visually stunning,” I still somehow felt that it was a movie that I really, really needed to see on the big screen and I think I was right about that. That flickering black & white image taking up the whole room really added to the claustrophobic, hopeless feeling of the film. Anyway, at the end of the day, this really is a kind of perfect horror movie: simple premise, self-contained setting, fast pace, archetypal characters and, most of all, a merciless attitude toward its characters and its audience. The film has a lot going on in all kinds of ways though; it’s so much more than just a B-horror movie. There’s a shot toward the end of the movie of the police officers, having organized and figured out a way to kill the zombies (or “ghouls” as they’re called in this movie). They’re crossing a field in a long staggered line and the image is stark and startling. It’s a call-back to the way we’ve seen the zombies before; “who’s the real monster?” is a cliché, but Romero does it well. But even more than that, the image, which includes a helicopter landing in the background, calls to mind the footage and pictures everyone then had seen of soldiers in Vietnam, advancing across empty fields in exactly the same way. That’s the level Romero is working on here; there’s not just hidden meanings behind the images, sometimes there’s two or three. It’s risky for him to put as much weight on the television as he does; basically all of the exposition comes via calm news broadcasts and you’d think this would be dull from a storytelling perspective and also kind of calming in terms of seeing how the larger world is working toward a solution, but neither is true. The broadcasts just add to the documentary feeling of the entire thing and somehow the banality just makes the horror seem more real.
But even putting all that aside, the film is economical and thrilling in all the right ways. The zombies here are still frightening, fifty years later, and the scenes where they feast on dead flesh are still unsettling. The film’s iconic opening retains its power to disturb and, while we’ve seen a ton of disturbing things happen in movie basements over the years, what happens to the iconic nuclear family (which is, par for the 1960s, already fracturing under its own weight of resentment and bitterness) in this basement is still right up there among the most horrifying. Romero’s vision is pitch black really and even his most sympathetic characters are guaranteed a pretty awful fate. Judith O’Dea is really wonderful as Barbara; as the trauma works on her, we watch her slowly sink into a complete mental collapse and it’s hard enough to see that. The ultimate fate she meets is absolutely harrowing, all the more so because we’ve seen how profoundly she’s already suffered. We want her to survive, even broken as she is, and not to face the ultimate horror that she finally does, which is confrontation with the shambling thing that is in her brother’s body. Romero’s pulling no punches here, not a one, and while the title obviously refers to the resurrected zombie-ghouls, it also speaks to the fate of the characters who still have their humanity when the film starts. There’s only one fate for the dead in this film: resurrection, a return to life. For the living, there’s also only one fate and I probably don’t have to tell you what it is. It’s right there in the titles really. Night leads inevitably to Dawn which leads inevitably to Day which leads inevitably right back . . . yeah, Romero’s getting at something about the unstoppable nature of the cycle of violence and despair. Romero puts the “vicious” in “vicious circle.” 4 stars.
tl;dr – horror landmark holds up as a nightmarish, merciless, near perfect film; still claustrophobic, grim, unsettling and ultimately shocking, this one is still a despairing knock-out. 4 stars.