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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Judith O'Dea, Duane Jones, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Judith Riley, Keith Wayne
Not rated, 90 minutes

In the late 1960's, a small, Pittsburgh-based production company named The Latent Image decided to make the jump from commercials and industrial films to feature-length movies. Their first project would be a low-budget, black-and-white horror film intended to make a decent profit and hopefully lead to bigger things. To their shock, their little movie went on to become one of the most successful and influential independent films of all time, and would introduce a young director named George A. Romero to the world.

In the Pennsylvania countryside, a disparate group of people seek refuge in an abandoned farmhouse, while a growing horde of cannibalistic ghouls amass outside. News reports tell of an almost unfathomable horror: the bodies of the recently deceased are returning to life and feasting on the flesh of the living. As the night goes on, tensions amongst the survivors grow as their hopes and options for a safe escape diminish.

The film's grainy black-and-white photography and documentary-like approach, combined with an odd soundtrack consisting of public domain monster movie music and electronic sound effects gives the movie a genuinely nightmarish quality that holds up nearly five decades later. The scene in which the dead snack on the remains of two ill-fated characters while a low pulsating tone growls on the soundtrack has undoubtedly fueled many bad dreams over the years. Same goes for the basement scene, in which a woman's screams are looped and echoed over the sound of a trowel puncturing her flesh, over and over again.  Romero would certainly make gorier films, he would never again make one as frightening and unnerving as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

The scenes inside the farmhouse fuel an unbearable, and rapidly intensifying, atmosphere of hopelessness and dread. Coolheaded Ben (Duane Jones) begins clashing with the abrasive Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), while our heroine Barbara (Judith O'Dea), lingers on the edges of catatonia. Meanwhile, the news reports coming in over the television tell of a situation that is well out-of-control and certain to get much worse. Romero does a remarkable job of setting a tone that feels as the world as you know it is quickly coming to a horrifying end. While Romero's subsequent DEAD films would continue to use the "siege" narrative, none of them are as claustrophobic and nerve-racking as it is here.

Five decades since its release, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD continues to spawn tributes, remakes, and ripoffs. The film casts a long shadow that nearly every "zombie" film made since must reside under. Most remarkable of all is that the film has lost none of its power to shock and unnerve, and its apocalyptic tone has never been rivaled. Simply put, this is one of the greatest horror films ever made.

5 out of 5.

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