(CBS News) Halloween chills have been Hollywood fodder for years, posing a challenge for our David Edelstein:
I've been asked to pick the scariest movie ever, and the task is, frankly, scary!
Look, I was weaned on horror. How can I omit so many films I still carry with me still like family photos, from the silent "Nosferatu," to "Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff, to Hitchcock's "Psycho," to the best of all giant-monster shockers, "Jaws," which makes you laugh at your own crazy terror?
But there is one film that rises to the top -- or sinks to the bottom, depending on your vantage. It's a movie made for nothing, that started small and seeped into the culture like blood into a rug.
It's George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead."
There's a mistaken idea it's a "zombie" film. Back then, zombies meant undead slaves in Haiti, most of them harmless. Romero gave us ghouls that feed on human flesh -- and spread their contagion like a virus, a plague.
It was 1968: The height of 20th century American social upheaval: The Vietnam War seen every day on TV, race riots, the nuclear family fracturing."Night of the Living Dead" didn't happen in a vacuum. Romero poured that unrest into the film, which opens with a flag fluttering in a lonely cemetery, and ends with images that evoke a lynching.
The hero is black -- unprecedented in horror then. Duane Jones has a manner that's not unlike Sidney Poitier. He's one of seven trapped in a farmhouse, boarding up windows while ghouls amass outside.
Some scenes are clunky; the actors, variable (from excellent to amateur). But the gore is still shocking -- the blood runs shiny black in black-and-white. Romero's canted angles intensify the claustrophobia, the nightmarish absurdity. Brother attacks sister, child butchers mother.
In the years since Romero's masterpiece, flesh-eating ghouls -- zombies, if you will -- have become commonplace, the ideas cannibalized in movies and TV, parodied, domesticated.
But "Night of the Living Dead" will always be there, like the old man in the cemetery, coming slowly but relentlessly, to feed on our nerves.
Edelstein also endorses:
- "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" (1969)
- "The Haunting" (1963)
- "Carrie" (1976)
More from David Edelstein:
David Edelstein's blog at New York Magazine