Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Zombies have appeared in fictional works for too many years to count. The undead certainly predate George A. Romero’s 1968 social commentary piece, Night of the Living Dead. But the commercial success of the ghouls with no pulse can be directly traced back to Romero’s chilling story of a band of survivors who find themselves holed up in a farmhouse desperately fighting to keep the walkers from forcing entry into the home and devouring them all. The whole ordeal is quite frantic and the level of dread that Romero keeps pulsating through the story is a thing of beauty.
While Night of the Living Dead will probably always be acknowledged as the first official zombie film, it’s not the undead that make the flick so unbelievably chilling, it’s us. It’s the humans and their acts of desperation that really begins to crawl under the skin, and as Romero guides us toward a strangely anticlimactic finale, we’re all but forced over the cliff of tension. Suddenly the day’s early light spreads through a battered building and Romero lets us all know that while this is a movie about zombies, it’s also about the inherent threat that man himself poses. It’s a lesson that one of history’s most likable heroes, Ben, learns the hard way, as he’s mistaken for a zombie by reckless white law enforcement and ironically, executed after enduring the darkest night of his life. The message was not missed by the masses, and neither was the potential of the zombie in celluloid.
There is no subgenre today that rivals the popularity of the zombie subgenre. Slashers aren’t on fire, vampires have been bled dry, and the excellent werewolf films are few and far between, we’ve seen all there is to be seen from the haunted house story, and possession pieces make for far, far more misses than hits. But zombies? Well zombies have never been so popular. They’re riding an unchallenged streak of success and impression in the structure of today’s pop culture, and we’ve got this little movie and the towering George A. Romero to thank for that.
Continue the countdown of the 15 films that defined the horror genre on the next page!