Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
USA, 1968. Image Ten. Screenplay by John A. Russo, George A. Romero. Cinematography by George A. Romero. Produced by Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner. Production Design by Charles O’Dato. Film Editing by George A. Romero.
An entire genre of zombie movies was established by this underground, low-budget hit, which also made way for the illustrious career of George Romero, who spent the rest of his life trying to remake it with a bigger budget but never quite captured this one’s charm. Two siblings travel hours by car to a cemetery to leave flowers on a relative’s grave, not noticing the silent, ashen-faced people wandering the pristine lawn. The brother is knocked out by a zombie while the sister (Judith O’Dea) makes a run for it, breaking into a dilapidated house where she falls into a stupor. In bursts Duane Jones with a rifle, having outwitted the monsters long enough to get here, then they are joined by other strangers and the film becomes a masterful claustrophobic exercise as they try to protect the house from the approaching villains and fight about how best to do it. There’s very little in the way of special makeup effects with so little money, of course, it’s mostly achieved through camera angles and lighting and the odd wash of white paint on faces, the excitement created by increasingly intense performances and expert editing by Romero. The allegory of a country divided is achieved with less subtlety, there’s a message here about Vietnam-era counterculture and Civil Rights, but none of it feels preachy; Romero casts an African-American actor in the lead, something rare even for an independent film at the time, but insists on his being a three-dimensional character and never just a symbol. The humour helps with the rest, and this many years later the images have a simple beauty to them that makes the film well worth cherishing.