I had to change around the order of my list for this one, as an unforseen scheduling issue prevented me from seeing it when I originally intended. When I chose to include George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead in my 2015 Blindspot List, I meant to watch it for Halloween. I had a DVD copy sitting in my drawer for a few years that I had not yet gotten around to watching, along with all the other films on my list. Everything was all worked out, and I'd even developed a few rough ideas of which movies I was going to watch during specific months. Unfortunately, one thing happened I had no way of anticipating: it turned out it was being shown in one of my classes during the last of week of January, and by the time I found out I'd already done my blindspot entry for that month. The simplest solution was to move Night of the Living Dead into February, since I was not sure if I would have time to watch any of the other movies on my list anyway.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, we can get on with the movie itself. The story is pretty simple, and summed up more or less by the title. Night of the Living Dead takes place over the course of a night, and there are malevolent reanimated human cadavers staggering around. This particular movie does have a certain historical significance from a cultural perspective in that it was responsible for popularizing the modern image of zombies as monstrous flesh-eating corpses. A lot of the groundwork can be seen here, with elements that would get picked up by many later films, particularly in the generally bleak tone as well as the fact that the zombies consume human flesh and can only be killed by destroying their brain. It is also implied that being bit by one turns the victim into a zombie themselves.
There is also one element here that is not as popular in zombie films, though it will no doubt be familiar to viewers of The Walking Dead: everyone is infected. Night of the Living Dead runs with the idea that not only do the protagonists have to worry about the zombies outside, but also each other. The tension that develops among the small group of survivors is what ultimately ends up being their downfall, a theme that would recur prominently in The Walking Dead; a series in which the tension between survivors mounts to a point where the zombies themselves begin to feel more like an annoyance than a serious threat.
There are some sociological issues that should also be addressed regarding Night of the Living Dead. The story is in many ways about twisting social norms of the period, something particularly evident in the decision to focus primarily on a black man, Ben, and a woman, Barbara (who for a large portion of the film are the only two characters). Later on a middle-aged white man tries to take control of the situation for no other reason because that is what he is used to. Ultimately, Ben (Duane Jones) is the person who has to take control of the situation and the one man who knows how to survive. The fact that he is the only one to make it through the night (only to get mistaken for a zombie and shot when help finally arrives) serves to emphasize the point.
However, there is a question of how Romero treats women. While many of his later films make an effort to include stronger female roles (including the remake of Night of the Living Dead, for which he served as executive producer), it is debatable whether that applies here. There are four female characters among the main cast, but the only one who really gets any focus is Barbara, played by Judith O'Dea. While she begins by showing a degree of self-reliance (she manages to work her way to the farmhouse independently, evading a few zombies in the process), she spends the majority of the film in a traumatized state. She is largely unable to think for herself and requires protection from Ben. This aspect is also not helped by the fact that she gets killed just when she starts to get her act together and actually tries to help barricade the house once its down to her and Ben.
As for the rest of the film, I honestly found it to be a bit campy. The ending works to great effect, but I found everything up to it to be very predictable. It was obvious from the moment that little girl was first introduced that she was going to turn out to have been bitten and then turn into a zombie. The zombies themselves were okay, but a lot of the situations seemed contrived; particularly in the ways that certain characters die (what happened to Judy being a perfect example). The acting is okay, though the only two characters that really stand out are Ben and Barbara, with Ben's presence being a nice touch but Barbara could have worked a lot better if she had not spent most of the movie sitting on a couch in a half-delirious state of mind only to get killed off as soon as she actually started to do something useful. The editing is also a bit choppy at times, and there are some jarring inconsistencies (the way that scenes on the television showed things happening in the same area during the day even though this is supposed to be night).
Ultimately, while Night of the Living Dead does have a cultural significance, it really has not aged well. While I can respect the things it does do well, such as Ben's characterization, it ultimately feels extremely contrived with a largely underdeveloped cast. The effects are alright, but sociologically its treatment of women makes it difficult to sit through. It is not a bad movie, though, on account of the things it does get right; it just does not have the same impact it did in 1968. I would be open to seeing the 1990 remake, which I have been told improves on many of the problems of the original (particularly in how Barbara is treated). Perhaps I will respond to that one better.