This film was first released in the states in 1968, a true horror pioneer, it bridged the gap between the old style horror and the new. Up until NOTLD horror films did not show violent murders on screen, they didn´t show gory sequences of this magnitude, instead they would cut to shadows on the wall, all the scary action taking place off camera. Apparently when released several publications were appalled by the movie and Reader´s Digest even warned the public that horrific scenes of cannibalism would ensue if they watched the film.
Despite, and perhaps partly because of, this initial shock reaction NOTLD has come to be known as one of the greatest horror films ever. It is dark, moody and uncomfortable viewing which leaves you with a nasty taste in the mouth. On the surface the story is simple, the dead have come to life and they want to eat the living. Set in the Pennsylvania countryside the movie follows six strangers who are united in their desire to survive the night and decide to hole up in a farmhouse. Unfortunately matters are complicated by the tensions between the characters and the huge hordes of zombies who gather outside to try and get access to the fresh flesh.
Much of the darkness and the hard-hitting impact of the film comes from the way it was shot. They chose to film it in black and white with a grainy picture. While this was actually due to a serious shortage of money, it works fantastically well for the subject matter and adds gravity to the production. The location is also classic, an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere with the remnants of the farmer´s family now zombified and hungry.
The main character, Ben, is very strong and is forced to take charge of the situation because he is stuck with hysterical and selfish people. You find yourself supporting Ben from the first as, unlike the shrieking Barbra; he has good horror instincts, no messing just kill the zombies. He also has to contend with the bossy and extremely irritating Harry who wants everyone to go into the basement. As the situation becomes more and more helpless they struggle to survive and one by one they are picked off. Still you root for the hero of the piece and that makes the ending all the more shocking.
The script is decent, nothing spectacular but it fits with the shell-shocked desperate mood of the main characters. The acting is very good, make no mistake this is a serious horror film. Duane Jones is excellent as Ben; he gives the character some depth and makes it easy for you to root for him. Judith O´Dea plays Barbra, your typical horror female she screams too much and isn´t quick enough to help when the zombies attack. Karl Hardman does a good job as Harry, a thoroughly unlikeable character he reminds us that humans can be more annoying than zombies.
The undead themselves are a pretty mixed bunch, moving with jerky, faltering steps they moan in anguish filled with the compulsion to feast on the flesh of the living. They appear in varying states of decay but the make-up is quite dated and again here I think the use of black and white film makes them seem darker and creepier than they would have done in colour.
The direction is excellent, showing that Romero really knows what he is doing when it comes to building suspense and terrifying the audience. Long shots of the zombies as they gather in numbers are used to great effect and the action sequences are all gripping. The final segment of the film is especially well shot and it really packs a punch that will leave you feeling winded.
This film inspired many other zombie films and modernised horror for an audience used to Dracula movies and the Hammer Horror school of overacting, changing it into something much more real and visceral. The 1990 remake directed by Tom Savini is also a very good film but I´d urge you to seek out the original and watch for yourself the birth of the zombie movie.