"Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up."
Though the word "zombie" is never mentioned in it, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead really marks the beginning of zombie movies as we have come to know them. Romero and his friends may simply have been trying to come up with an inexpensive idea to break into feature filmmaking but they did much more. Romero and John Russo wrote a screenplay that is tightly suspenseful. There are some interesting subtextual comments on America's socio-political situation in the 60s and it's really scary. Romero is known for using really quick shots and fast edits and you can already see that technique developing with this film. He creates an almost documentary-like feeling with close shots at strange angles that really draws the viewer in.
The story begins with siblings Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) driving to a remote cemetery to leave a wreath on their father's grave. While there, Johnny teases Barbra about ghouls coming to get her. Little does he know that actual ghouls are about! A zombie attacks Barbra and Johnny comes to her rescue but is killed in the process. Barbra then flees and finds an old house where she takes refuge.
Traumatized, Barbra becomes almost catatonic. Soon, another survivor locates the house. His name is Ben (Duane Jones) and he immediately sets to fortifying the house. He boards up the windows and doors. Ben soon finds the owner of the house, dead upstairs and as the night becomes darker more and more zombies begin to gather outside the house.
The sounds of Ben's work soon reveal that there are other occupants in the house when a man named Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) comes upstairs from the cellar. He's accompanied by his wife and their injured daughter as well as a young local couple. Immediately, there are tensions between Ben and Harry. Harry feels the safest place to be is in the cellar but Ben refuses to box himself in.
The captives manage to work together to finish fortifying the house and they get a television working. On the news, there are reports of strange radiation from Venus which might be causing the newly dead to rise and feed on the flesh of the living. The news also reports that a rescue station has been set up by local authorities not far from the house. Ben takes the lead and concocts a plan to escape. There is a gas pump outside, if they can get by the zombies they can gas up a truck and escape to the rescue station. The plan goes horribly awry when a torch lights leaking gasoline on fire and the young couple are killed when the truck explodes. Ben barely makes it back to the house in one piece and the zombies make quick work of the remains of Tom and Judy.
Now, with tensions even higher in the house and no way to escape, the zombie horde outside grows ever larger. The zombies begin to break through the fortified windows and doors. Harry Cooper's cowardice asserts itself and Ben finds himself forced to shoot the man. Meanwhile, Helen Cooper has revealed that her daughter was bitten by a zombie and we soon learn that such a bite equals a fate worse than death when young Karen arises as a zombie to brutally kill her mother and finish off her father.
When Barbra finally breaks out of her shocked state to try and help keep the zombies out of the house she is confronted by a zombi-fied Johnny. She tries to hug her brother but he pulls her out of the house into the waiting arms of the zombie horde. Now, left alone, his defenses compromised, Ben has no choice but to retreat to the cellar and barricade the door. He manages to survive the night and the next day when a rescue party arrives he is awakened by the sounds of gunfire as the locals destroy the zombies who are roaming outside. Ben carefully exits the cellar but when a rescuer sees movement through the window of the house, Ben is taken for a zombie and is shot and killed. It's a brilliantly tragic and horrific ending to the film.
Romero's suspenseful and claustrophobic masterwork is compelling and horrible. It would be the birth of a decades-long career that continues to this day. Romero has become one of the masters of horror. Unfortunately, when this film was released the prints did not include a copyright notice. Laws at the time meant that the film quickly became part of the public domain and though it has made millions of dollars worldwide, Romero and his crew have seen next to nothing of those profits. Thankfully, after the night would come an even more terrifying Dawn...