George Romero’s directorial debut was shot in black and white over several weekends in Pennsylvania and chronicles the desperate efforts of a bunch of Middle Americans, trapped in a remote farmhouse, to beat off the attacks of an army of walking dead – zombies who have inexplicably risen from the grave or broken out of the morgue.
The story begins with a bickering brother and sister – Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) – driving up to a bleak and isolated spooky Pennsylvania cemetery to place flowers on their father’s grave.
As Johnny mocks and teases Barbara about her unease in cemeteries, a strange lumbering pale ghostly faced man approaches and attempts to grab her.
Johnny scuffles with the man but is knocked cold by a gravestone – leaving Barbara to escape alone in panic as other shambling figures begin to appear.
The terrified Barbara stumbles across an old farmhouse and is frightened by a hideous decomposing head in the hallway upstairs, taking flight outside before being rescued by a resourceful young black man named Ben (Duane Jones) who takes her back inside and begins barricading the house as best he can.
The pair discover they are far from alone in the house. In the cellar downstairs are Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley).
As disturbing reports start to come in on the radio and television of widespread murders and a brewing flesh munching zombie crisis, this disparate group find themselves trapped in the farmhouse by the undead gathering outside.
The cantankerous and choleric Harry begins to argue with Ben over which course of action to take and – to make matters worse – young Karen is unwell after being bitten by one of the living dead.
With a skill worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, Romero undercuts the traditions of the horror movie: the apparent heroine lapses into a state of permanent catatonia early in the film; a young couple – society’s hope for the future – are burned to a crisp and return as zombies, and the black hero gets all his companions killed before being mistaken for a zombie and shot by a redneck rescue party.
For a film made by relative amateurs the settings, makeup and effects are excellent.
The lighting is professional, and the zombies are felled by bullet hits as good as those seen in Hollywood movies with much bigger budgets.
George A Romero