Technically, it wasn’t the first zombie feast. For that, you’d have to rewind to, say, ’32 and White Zombie – unless you count the even earlier corpse-raising antics of Frankenstein. George A. Romero admits that Carnival Of Souls (1962) influenced him. But Night is the movie that single-handedly chewed a genre-defining path through the ’70s, ’80s and beyond. Not bad for a film made by a crew weaned solely on commercials – and for around $114,000, at that.
From the get-go, Night sets about the transition from classic to new horror, as Johnny (Russell Streiner) puts the willies up his sister, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), by impersonating Frankenstein’s monster at a cemetery. Then a zombie kills Johnny, leaving Barbra to flee to a house where a black man, Ben (Duane Jones), protects her, as more zombies amass outside. Soon, we discover that something, possibly radiation from a returning satellite, has raised the dead and zombiefied them. But there’s trouble in the basement, too, in the shape of more survivors who don’t all agree with Ben’s ideas on how to stay alive.
For sure, Night smarts as a monstrous horror piece. It’s dense and claustrophobic, only revealing the outside world through TV and radio (easy to see where Signs got its ideas from) before a ferocious finale – and even then, as in the end of Se7en, the final shift from darkness to daylight doesn’t improve the situation any. The shadowy lighting seems to shimmer with fear and implication and when a little girl stabs at her mother with a trowel, it plays like Psycho without the arch humour. There’s no digging out of this one. These guys are in serious shit.
But it’s those house-sharing tensions that provide the extra heft. Like another horror-cheapie that didn’t do too badly, The Blair Witch Project, Night is at its most effective as an acute dissection of the tensions of co-operation. Ben reckons they should all risk their lives in case other people need help; Harry, the white guy in the basement, is all for laying low. On this Special Edition set, both feature commentaries (from Romero and cast) deny that Night was intended to be an allegory for race relations in ’60s America. Black star Duane Jones, they argue, was just the best actor they auditioned. Fair enough, but the film assumes great resonance via Jones, right up to that notoriously caustic closer.
At any rate, it’s a virulent portrait of an America in flux and decay, from the flag billowing near the graveyard at the start to its disturbing depiction of a lynch-mob mentality. But Night also transcends its period through sheer intensity. Sure, it was cheap. It’s full of goofs, too, all pointed out by the cast and crew on the gleeful gab-tracks (watch for the numbers clearly marking where the boards have to be nailed back up). But it matches resonance with relentlessness, guts with gravity.
The big question is: does it need another DVD release? Although the transfer here looks and sounds smart and the commentaries are winning, probably not. But it’s little wonder that these flesh-eaters won’t lie down, even after the sun comes up.