Filmsite Movie Review
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

The Troubled Relationship Between Harry and Helen:

Harry's exhausted wife Helen, obviously in a troubled and frustrating relationship with her controlling husband, was exasperated by him because he always insisted he was right (and everybody else was wrong): "We'll see who's right. We'll see, when they come begging me to let them in down here."

She objected to his decision to keep them locked down in the cellar - a "dungeon" without access to the radio ("There's a radio upstairs and you boarded us in down here?"). Helen made a rational argument that she (and her husband) would be better off to join the others upstairs:

"Take the boards off that door!...Harry, that radio is at least some kind of communication. If the authorities know what's happening, well, they'll send people for us. They'll tell us what to do. How are we going to know what's going on, if we lock ourselves in this dungeon? We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn't going to solve anything. Those people aren't our enemies."

After Tom yelled down to the Coopers that the black man Ben had found a Motorola television set, Helen decided to join the others there. Judy reluctantly agreed to swap places with Harry and Helen, and care for the Cooper's sick daughter Karen. All Harry could do was obnoxiously complain about the weakened defenses of the upstairs area:

"This is ridiculous There's a million weak spots up here...And they talk about these windows. I can't see a damn thing. There could be 15 million of those things out there. That's how much good these windows are."

Instead of being negative, Helen insisted that her vitriolic husband Harry constructively help: ("Why don't you do something to help somebody?"). After Ben carried the TV into the living room area, he insisted that he was the boss in the upstairs area:

"I don't want to hear any more from you, Mister. If you stay up here, you take orders from me!"

TV Broadcast About the Crisis:

The group assembled to listen to another broadcaster describe how the first reports from eyewitnesses had been met with disbelief. But it was confirmed that the National Civil Defense Headquarters in Washington DC had reported that the "undead" were coming back to life (reanimating) in funeral homes, morgues, cemeteries, and hospitals and were seeking human victims. People were encouraged to make their way to rescue stations that had been set up to provide food, shelter, medical treatment and protection by armed National Guardsmen:

"Reports, incredible as they seem, are not the results of mass hysteria... The wave of murder which is sweeping the eastern third of the nation is being committed by creatures who feast upon the flesh of their victims. First eyewitness accounts of this grisly development came from people who were understandably frightened and almost incoherent. Officials and newsmen at first discounted those eyewitness descriptions as being beyond belief. However, the reports persisted. Medical examinations of some of the victims bore out the fact that they had been partially devoured.

I think we have some late word that's just arriving and we interrupt to bring this to you. This is the latest disclosure in a report from National Civil Defense Headquarters in Washington. It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder. A widespread investigation of reports from funeral homes, morgues and hospitals has concluded that the unburied dead are coming back to life and seeking human victims. It's hard for us here to believe what we're reporting to you, but it does seem to be a fact.

When this emergency first began, radio and television was advising people to stay inside, behind locked doors, for safety. Well, that situation has now changed. We're able to report a definite course of action for you. Civil defense machinery has been organized to provide rescue stations with food, shelter, medical treatment and protection by armed National Guardsmen. Stay tuned to the broadcasting stations in your local area for this list of rescue stations. This list will be repeated throughout our news coverage. Look for the name of the rescue station nearest you, and make your way to that location as soon as possible."

Municipal buildings, hospitals, fire departments, medical centers and other locations were superimposed on the TV screen. Space and military experts and scientists hypothesized that the crisis may have developed as the result of a returning, disintegrating Venus space probe/satellite that was deliberately exploded in the Earth's atmosphere by the military when it was discovered that it was carrying a high level of radiation contamination, and the fall-out had infected a wide area of the US. The radio reporter-broadcaster ended by posing the hypothetical question being asked:

"Since convening, this conference of the presidential cabinet, the FBI, the joint chiefs of staff, the CIA has not produced any public information.

Why are space experts being consulted about an earthbound emergency? So far, all the betting on the answer to that question centers on the recent explorer satellite shot to Venus. That satellite, you recall, started back to Earth, but never got here. That's the space vehicle which orbited Venus and then was purposely destroyed by NASA, when scientists discovered it was carrying a mysterious, high-level radiation with it.

Could that radiation be somehow responsible for the wholesale murders we're now suffering?"

During on-the-fly interviews with experts leaving the meeting (a military officer, a medical practitioner, and an academic), there were debatable, uncertain opinions about whether or not there was a "definite connection" between the freakish release of a high degree of radiation from the Venus probe to cause molecular mutation --- evidenced by ghouls rising from the dead (to kill and eat people), and the many instances of crazed mass murder.

Escape Plan:

As a result of the broadcast, the group quickly determined that their best solution was to reach a rescue station - the nearest one on the list displayed on the TV was in the town of Willard, Pennsylvania (fictional) with a Medical Center, about 17 miles away from their location, to seek medical attention for Karen. In the continuing coverage, a university official reported on an incident that illustrated that corpses needed to be cremated immediately, without time for bereavement or a funeral, before they reverted or were reactivated into flesh-eating zombies in "a matter of minutes":

"In the cold room at the university, we had a cadaver. A cadaver from which all four limbs had been amputated. Sometime early this morning, it opened its eyes and began to move its trunk. It was dead, but it opened its eyes and tried to move...The bodies should be disposed of at once, preferably by cremation...It doesn't give them time to make funeral arrangements. The bodies must be carried to the street and burned. They must be burned immediately. Soak them with gasoline and burn them. The bereaved will have to forgo the dubious comforts that a funeral service will give. They're just dead flesh. And dangerous."

Helen traded places with Judy to return to her ailing daughter Karen. Ben proposed an escape plan with the truck, but they first had to acquire fuel for it. Their first step involved creating Molotov cocktails (with Mason fruit jars from the cellar filled with kerosene and with strips of cloth as fuses), to be hurled from an upper window, to keep the zombies at bay while he and Tom fueled the pickup truck at the farmhouse's outdoor gas pump. For her safety, Barbra was moved to the basement. Fearing for Tom's life and clearly in love with him, Judy emerged from the basement and rushed to join their daring plan at the last minute. As planned, Harry tossed the fire bombs from the upstairs window (setting a few zombies on fire and intimidating others) to divert the 'living dead' while Ben (in the back of the pickup), Tom (as driver), and Judy (as passenger) took the pickup truck to the gas pump a few hundred yards away.

The Deaths of Tom and Judy:

After parking too far away from the gas pump, Tom abruptly pulled the short gas hose toward the truck's tank and accidentally splashed gasoline from the nozzle onto the flaming torch that Ben had placed on the ground next to the truck. As he tried to drive the flaming truck away from the pump to prevent further conflagration, he only had a few moments until their gasoline tank exploded. He paused to help Judy whose jacket caught on the door handle in the cab, when the truck became an engulfing ball of fire and they were both killed and burned to death. With his rifle proving to be ineffective once again, Ben held off the relentless creatures with a torch as he rushed back to the house.

There, he found that Harry was so terrified that he had been locked out. Ben kicked open the door and after blockading and securing the door, he fiercely and vengefully beat Harry with four brutal punches, while threatening:

"I oughta drag you out there and feed you to those things."

Outside, the voracious monsters converged on the charred corpses of Tom and Judy in the truck and consumed their body parts, bone fragments, internal organs and entrails.

The group was stymied about what to do next: (1) the Cooper's car was overturned and at least a mile away, (2) Barbra was completely disoriented, confused and bewildered and kept saying she wanted to leave; also, Johnny had the keys to their car that was nearby but smashed into a tree, (3) young Helen Cooper had been bitten by one of the ghouls and was too weak to walk anywhere, and barely conscious, and (4) the Willard Medical Center was too far away to reach on foot.

Another report on the TV at 3:00 am described how the levels of the mysterious radiation radiation were still steadily rising - implying that the danger would exponentially increase, and more "flesh-eating ghouls" would develop from reanimated corpses:

"So long as this situation remains, government spokesmen warn that dead bodies will continue to be transformed into the flesh-eating ghouls. All persons who die during this crisis, from whatever cause, will come back to life to seek human victims, unless their bodies are first disposed of by cremation."

Local Search and Destroy Missions by White Rednecks:

The report continued with an in-depth look at a 'search and destroy' mission to eradicate the marauding ghouls was being led by local Sheriff Tom McClelland (George Kosana) in Butler County, Pennsylvania. His posse of white men with rifles had reported to the Pentagon's Command Center that the only methods that were effective in permanently killing the deadly horde were a gunshot or heavy blow to the brain or by incineration:

"A ghoul can be killed by a shot in the head or a heavy blow to the skull. Officials are quoted as explaining that since the brain of a ghoul has been activated by the radiation, the plan is, kill the brain and you kill the ghoul."

[The Sheriff advised in a TV interview: "If you had a gun, shoot 'em in the head. That's a sure way to kill 'em. If you don't, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat 'em or burn 'em. They go up pretty easy....We know when we find 'em, we can kill 'em...they're dead. They're all messed up." They were working their way (and hoping to wrap up in 24 hours) toward Willard to team up with the National Guard.]

The End of the Cooper Family - and Barbra:

Later after the lights went out due to failing power lines, and Ben defended the house from further attempts of the grasping hands of ghouls attempting to break in through the barred-up windows and other entrances, Harry took the opportunity to try and wrest control of Ben's dropped rifle in order to take charge. Harry taunted Ben with the rifle as he ordered his wife Helen down to the cellar. Ben struggled for possession of the gun (a phallic symbol of sorts), and overpowered Harry. He pointed the rifle at Harry's abdomen and shot him point-blank. Lethally-wounded, Harry stumbled down the cellar steps and collapsed at Karen's side, soon to die. Meanwhile, Barbra sprung into action and freed Helen from ghouls reaching for her, allowing her to safely flee to the cellar. There, she found her zombie-bitten young daughter Karen consuming her husband's corpse.

In a gory and startling scene, Helen cried out: "Poor baby," before being viciously stabbed in the chest multiple times with a triangular-shaped metal garden or cement trowel (often taken to be a social metaphor for the late 1960s youth of the nation rebelling against their elders), and then eaten by her daughter. Numerous upward and downward stabbing motions sent blood splattering onto the wall. [Note: The scene paid homage to the shower stabbing scene in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960).]

Upstairs during further 'undead' attacks, Barbra's 'undead' brother Johnny grabbed her and pulled her outside, where she disappeared into the middle of the horde. Overpowered and surrounded, Ben turned and saw Karen attacking him, but pushed her aside and protectively locked himself in the cellar. Ironically, this was the one thing he had vowed not to do -- as the ghouls took over the house and began to rip everything apart. To prevent the corpses of Harry and Helen from awakening and reanimating, Ben shot both of them in the head, and then waited until morning to be rescued.

The Senseless Murder of Ben By Good 'Ol Boys:

The tragic, distressing and startling ending came from the actions of real mindless 'zombies' -- a lynch mob or posse of armed rednecks with attack canines involved in a 'search and rescue' mission early the next morning. They were about three to four hours away from reaching Willard and joining the National Guard. Ben was awakened by gunshots and barking German Shepherds as the posse approached the farmhouse, where they observed the burned truck and its occupants. Hick Sheriff McClelland commented on the grisly scene:

"Somebody had a cook-out here."

By film's end - and with a shocking surprise plot twist, one of the townsfolk in the white-trash vigilante mob, Vince (Vincent D. Survinski), mistakenly and perfunctorily shot sole-surviving black man Ben in the forehead after his desperate fight for survival. [Note: This was an inversion (or subversion) of archetypal horror film tropes - it was usually a sole-surviving white man or 'Final Girl'.] It was believed that he was one of the 'living dead' when he peered out of one of the barricaded and broken windows in the living room of the farmhouse. The Sheriff supervised and promoted the senseless, grim, and startling killing:

"Hit him in the head, right between the eyes. Good shot. OK, he's dead. Let's go get him. That's another one for the fire."

Under the credits (in a series of still frame shots), Ben's body was dragged from the house with a meat hook, and then thrown and burned in a pyre of other ghoul bodies in the middle of a field, as the downbeat film ended hopelessly. [Note: The dehumanizing and nihilistic images recalled the Holocaust and its horrors of piles of dead in concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, or the brutal lynchings of blacks in the South.]

The final lines were voice-over dialogue of male posse members communicating on a police radio:

"We're moving. All right, send the wagon through, directly ahead. Over. Roger. Here comes the wagon. Keep those dogs back off of those things. Come ahead with the motorcycle, please. Let's go! Hey Randy, light these torches over here."

The film's despairing tone, especially its tragically ironic ending, struck audiences as a true depiction of the lifeless dehumanized society in which people were living.

Previous Page