Sunday, July 14, 2013

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead
Director: George A. Romero
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman

So I’ve been incommunicado for the past few days.  Why?  Because my friend Angie came to visit me.  Who cares, and why are you telling us, you might think.  First of all, I have been online friends with Angie since 2006 but this was the first time we’ve ever met in “real life,” (AND IT WAS AWESOME AND AMAZING AND FULL OF FANGIRL FLAILING) so that was significant, but Angie also came to visit for a second specific reason.  Angie was into zombies before zombies were de rigueur.  Angie wrote her undergraduate thesis on socio-political constructs in zombie films.  Angie is THE expert in all things zombie.  And the Dryden screen Night of the Living Dead this past weekend.

Thank you, Dryden, for bringing my friend to me and allowing us to meet and talk about classic zombie films in person.

The story of Night of the Living Dead is straightforward.  A young woman, Barbra (O’Dea), is visiting a cemetery to put flowers on her father’s grave when she sees a slowly moving body coming towards them.  The thing kills her brother and Barbra flees for the safety of a nearby farmhouse, where she is quickly joined by Ben (Jones).  Ben barricades the house and has phenomenal survival skills, especially compared to catatonic Barbra.  They are eventually joined by a handful of other survivors and tensions rise among the group when Cooper (Hardman) clashes continually with Ben.  Details of the reason for what we now call a zombie attack slowly leak to the people in the house.  Can the group survive the night?

So much of what makes Night successful comes down to its resolution, so I will say right now that if you are somehow, amazingly unspoiled on this horror film classic, stop reading then go watch the movie. 

It is very difficult to overstate just how significant this film is in horror movie canon.  I am not a horror movie buff, I seldom choose to watch horror movies (because I’m a wimp at heart), but I’ve seen many of the “significant” horror films thanks to 1001 Movies and I feel like I have a decent grasp on the evolution of the genre.  Just as the French New Wave revolutionized standard Hollywood filmmaking in the late sixties, the effect of Night of the Living Dead was to take so many “standard” classic Hollywood horror tropes and rip them up, spin them around, and usher in a new philosophy of fright.  When you tack on the staggering fact that Romero also manages to make this into an insidious socio-political commentary, you’ve got something that is nothing short of game-changing.

Consider first how Night compares, in terms of sheer concept, to the “monster flicks” of the thirties, forties, and even fifties.  Instead of posh sets and elegantly articulate actors, realism (due to budget constraints) reigns supreme.  This is not a monster pic in the world of some gothic Victorian village, this is real people in the real world facing a threat.  Although I very much enjoy Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man in particular, Night refuses to create that kind of posh, elegant horror movie.  What’s more, consider the threat itself.  Angie is always quick to point out that zombies have a significant distinction from other classic horror monsters in that zombies are ourselves.  Vampires, Frankenstein, werewolves, these are all horror monsters that have some element of separation from humans.  But zombies, ah, they are different.  As Night eventually says, anyone who dies during this zombie attack from any cause will then turn into a zombie themselves.  Even setting itself apart from the monster films of the fifties like The Blob and Them!, with whom Night shares the concept of some sort of foreign attack closing in on a group of characters, the central threat in Night cuts a little too close to home.  Zombies are not killer ants from outer space, they are us.  They are humanity itself.  Current settings and a monster threat that manages to be both supernatural and too close for comfort at the same time rewrote many of the rules for classic horror.

To me, this is interesting from a historical aspect, but what makes Night even more significant is its tone.  Yes, there had been monster invasion movies popular in the fifties, but none of them had the streak of utter, unrelenting nihilism running through them that Night has.  Our group of survivors in the farmhouse numbers seven total (Ben, Barbra, Cooper, Cooper’s wife, Cooper’s daughter, and young couple Tom and Judy), and not a single damn one makes it out alive.  What… what is going on here?  What did Romero do?  That’s not right.  We’re supposed to have at least one member of our band of gallant fighters live through the night.  Sure, we might not expect everyone to survive, but we certainly don’t expect everyone to die.  Even by today’s standards, killing off every damn one of our protagonists is a gutsy move.  It’s a game changer.  “You can’t do that,” someone must have said to Romero.  “Watch me,” he undoubtedly replied. 

It is this unrepentant nihilism that completely changed my perception of Night the first time I watched it.  I remember watching it through, unspoiled, with a sense of “Well, this is nice.  I can somewhat see why this movie is a big deal.  It’s fine.”  The film reached its climax and Ben survived.  “Great, cool, Ben survives, alright, movie over, large death toll but we have the survivor.”  Nope.  When Ben died, it was one of the few moments in film that actually made me gasp and clap my hands to my mouth.  I couldn’t believe that had just happened, and in that one brief, cruel moment, Night of the Living Dead went from “nice” to “yeah, okay, WOW, I *completely* understand why this movie is a big deal.  Holy crap.” 

And speaking of Ben, how can I not.  Famous for casting a black man in a movie filled with white characters and without the intention of making him black (Duane Jones simply gave the best audition, Romero said) is nothing short of groundbreaking.  Making that character the most resourceful and level-headed person in the film, even better.  And then unceremoniously shooting him in between the eyes, killing the character not by zombie attack, which Ben is smart enough to survive, but by the rescuers who assassinate anything that moves, is nothing short of heart-wrenching.  I cannot imagine living in an America in 1968 that had just lived through the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. mere months prior to having Night unleashed on them.  Racial tensions were notoriously high, and along comes a horror film, of all things, that zeroes in on them and splays them across the screen for all to see.  As my friend Angie knows with far more authority than I, Romero is a director dedicated to providing positive portrayals of both women and people of color in his films; he just happens to make his profound social statements through the medium of zombie films instead of academic articles.  The discontent of the American populace is somehow distilled down and incorporated, making the horror film not just mindless entertainment but a gauge of public attitudes.

Although filmed on a scant budget and looking like it (with some gawdawful performances, as Angie was constantly sniggering at Tom and Judy), Night of the Living Dead retains its power over time through its innovative storytelling and its fearlessness to confront social issues.  Although it might perhaps seem formulaic for a zombie film by today’s standards, you must remember that this is the film that WROTE that formula.  It’s not formulaic if you invent it yourself.  This is a film that deserves its place in history.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

PS – ILU, ANGIE!!!!!!!!


  1. Do me a favor--this is a hobby horse I've been riding for awhile. Angie, as a fan of all things zombie, can weigh in, too.

    As groundbreaking as Romero's film is, it's not the first zombie film. I contend that Hitchcock invented the genre in The Birds. The last half hour of that film--boarding up the house, creatures attacking from outside and trying to get inside, creatures attacking for some unknown reason--Romero took that half hour and expanded it into this film.

    Don't get me wrong--he's genius for doing it. But I still say Hitchcock invented the formula, or at least made the formula respectable.

    1. Oh, Steve. Why do you have to go making reasoned, logical associations that seem so obvious once you say them.

      I think I'd take issue with calling The Birds "zombie," what with the lack of the undead and the rather fascinating idea that the enemy in zombie films is humanity itself, your dead neighbors and friends, etc. But I definitely think your point re: the boarded up house is significant. I guess I would credit Hitch with, as you say, legitimizing the "standoff" idea in horror films, no small feat indeed, and then Romero co-opted that concept, making the enemy the zombie rather than the birds, and all that goes along with what is now the traditional the idea of the walking dead.

  2. While I acknowledge this movie's place in the horror genre, and in films in general, it didn't do much of anything for me when I watched it. I did not know what was going to happen at the end, but for whatever reason it did not surprise me. I think just the overall tone of the film made me assume that no one was getting out alive. The part of the movie I liked the most was the interplay within the house.

    With all respect to Steve, I don't feel The Birds is a zombie movie precisely because there are no zombies. Yes, people are trapped in a house and under siege, but that kind of scene had happened prior to The Birds in any number of westerns. Of course, some argue that Night of the Living Dead isn't a zombie movie either since the word "zombie" is never uttered once in the entire film.

    1. Fair enough.

      But if one make the argument that if the use of the word "zombies" is required to make something a zombie movie, then you're removing nearly half the genre. I know "The Walking Dead" calls them walkers, not zombies. Because people in zombie movies don't know they're in zombie movies, so why would they use the word "zombie?"