It is 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.
There is horror before 1968’s epochal Night of the Living Dead, and there is 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, Romero found a unique and unorthodox way to envisage the tipping point that society seemed to be careering towards at the time.
Romero monkeys about with the audience’s expectations from the film’s opening scene 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!”
Johnny 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!”
This unintended irony 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 for seemingly no reason. 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, more to the point, imprisons them both) saying, “it’s alright”.
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, took it upon himself to shake the foundations when he chose 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.