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Night of the Living Dead is the zombie film that started zombie films. Before this film, zombies as we know them were not a thing. The concept was there, but they were really just reanimated corpses and nothing more. Night of the Living Dead took this idea, remade it and created the flesh-eating, slow walking and slightly mindless creatures we know today. Without this film, many zombie classics wouldn't even exist. For that reason alone, it's hard not to have respect for this movie.
The film begins with a woman named Barbara (Judith O'Dea) visiting her father's tombstone with her brother, Johnny (Russell Streiner). Returning back to their car, the two stumble across a mysterious man. This man, who at first they try to ignore, starts to attack them, eating away at Johnny's flesh. Barbara makes a run for it, unsure of what to think of the situation. She escapes to a nearby house. It's here she meets a man named Ben (Duane Jones), who was in search of gas. The two of them lock themselves in the house, and it's here that we spend most of the runtime. They're trapped inside the house, along with a group of other survivors, attempting to defend off the wave of zombies trying to claw their way in. It's a game of survival and claustrophobia and it works.
It's the opening sequence of this movie that's truly phenomenal, and it's something the rest of the film never lives up to. The opening sequence is great, really nailing the suspense. Director George A. Romero knew exactly what he was doing and the result is priceless. It's full of paranoia, tension and a looming sense of dread. The mysterious figure constantly approaches, and each step he makes just builds upon the tension. His appearance on screen is subtle, but effective.
It's a fantastic way to set up the movie, but the rest of the film isn't quite up its standards. After Barbara escapes into the local house, where she's supposedly safe from the terrors that await her on the other side of the door, the film slows its pace way down. It starts to drag, a solid 45 minutes dedicated to arguing about what exactly everyone needs to do. It's uneventful and dull, none of the characters overly investing and the performances all mediocre. It goes from exciting to dull within the blink of an eye, and it came as quite the disappointment.
Thankfully, however, once the final act kicks in, the film picks back up again. Without delving into spoiler territory, the third act see's some actual zombie action, instead of just the sound of zombies banging against walls or discussions of zombies over the news broadcast. Things actually start to happen again, the characters get a chance to do more than just recite dialogue and the film becomes rather exciting. It once again fails to live up to the brilliance of that opening scene, but it goes to places you don't expect, and the ending is completely shocking.
To sum up, if this review needs any actual summary. Night of the Living Dead starts strong, but soon slows its pace right down and starts to drag, full of mediocre performances. Thankfully, the film picks itself back up with an exciting and shocking third act.