The flag in the cemetery, the entrails of the zeitgeist. Let the dead bury the dead, as the saying goes, interrupted mourning on a Sunday kicks off the seminal George A. Romero nightmare, just the blasphemy needed for a nation at a most dysfunctional crossroads. The antecedents go back beyond Hitchcock and Harvey's Carnival of Souls to Gance's J'accuse!, the "virtual army of unidentified assassins" consists of fellow citizens up from the grave and out for flesh. (Cosmic radiation is the official explanation, yet the sense of pervasive strife is a markedly ingrown one.) A Pennsylvania farmhouse sets the stage for the night of mayhem, the intrepid protagonist (Duane Jones) has many doors and windows to deal with while the trenchcoated blonde (Judith O'Dea) slips into catatonia in an appalled note adduced from Polanski's Repulsion. Outside threat heightens tensions within: The married couple in the cellar (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman) stew in pique and bad judgment, lovebirds on the run (Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley) are unceremoniously roasted in the getaway truck. (The bitten child has a single line before standing over her parents, bloody trowel in hand.) "This incredible story becomes more ghastly with each report!" Cinema as state of emergency, zombiedom as humanity's putrefied mirror, that's Romero with handheld camera and stringy viscera discovering a new visage of horror. Fervent light and smeary shadow lend a Friedlander effect, stark montage modulates the rhythms so that hysteria is punctured by the insistent chirps of crickets—a view from a boar's head mounted on the wall tilts down to a music box in a characteristic fusion of Psycho and Cocteau. Freeze-frames like newspaper bulletins curtail the most vital, vehement political document of 1968: Who needs ghoulish cannibals when the black hero who makes it to the dawn is greeted by a National Guard bullet? "Boy, somebody had a cookout here." The epidemic is contained at the close but Romero's apocalypse is only getting started. With Russell Strainer, Kyra Schon, and Charles Craig. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce