The word "classic" gets bandied about far too frequently in this day and age, but it's well deserved here. Night of the Living Dead changed the face of the horror genre, and brought it kicking and screaming into the modern era – in making it, first time feature film director George A. Romero invented the modern horror film. It presented horror in a way that was more frighteningly realistic than it ever had been before, showed violence in an unflinching fashion without the campy humour of an HG Lewis gore-fest, provided grim social commentary about the state of the US at the end of the Summer of Love, and by extension the state of the world.
|Director: George A Romero
Starring: Judith O'Dea, Duane Jones, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Judith Ridley, Keith Wayne, Kyra Schon
Screenplay: George A Romero, John Russo
Now, you might be thinking, "Dude, it's just a zombie flick", and on the most basic and most viscerally entertaining level, that's true, but peel back the layers to observe what Romero was trying to represent and you'll be more sufficiently rewarded.
For those of you who haven't seen the film, here's a brief, spoiler-free synopsis: prissy Barbra and her goof-off brother Johnny are travelling to Evans City Cemetery to put flowers on their father's grave. Johnny tries to scare Barbra by stating that a nearby passer-by is one of "them", who's coming to get her. For no apparent reason, the stumbling, lurching passer-by lunges at Barbra. Johnny tries to defend her, but to no avail, Barbra runs, with the passer-by in pursuit, to a nearby farmhouse, which is seemingly deserted. Ben, an angry young black man who quickly dispatches two more of these shambling, incoherent strangers who are trying to enter the farmhouse, soon joins her. Barbra's reason starts to unravel at this point, hastened by the fact that it appears that these slow, lurching people are actually the reanimated bodies of the recently dead, and that their intention is to eat the flesh of the living – worse yet, the dead they kill become flesh-eaters as well, and join the hungry mob. Ben decides to barricade the house until help can arrive; it's soon revealed that they are not alone in the house – in the basement are the Coopers (a bickering couple with a young child who has been bitten by one of these "things" – the word "zombie" is never used in the script), and a young local couple, Tom and Judy, who seem unsure what to do. As the film becomes a siege against the hungry dead, tempers fray as various characters try to assume power, monopolise access to information by emergency broadcasts on the only radio and TV in the house, steal weapons from each other, and sway others around to their own way of thinking, while the numbers of the dead outside keep growing, and any chance for escape becomes increasingly slimmer. The film moves inexorably towards a grim, distressing climax that still retains its shock value 40 years later. Lord only knows what audiences made of it at the time.
That might not sound all that original forty years down the track, but you're looking at things with hindsight, and some knowledge of the forty years of horror cinema that's come since, all of which incidentally owes Night of the Living Dead a tremendous debt of gratitude. Think of all the rip-offs, the spin-offs, the sequels (official and otherwise), the re-makes, the homages, the parodies and the films that count Night of the Living Dead as a direct inspiration, whether feature films, short films, comics, TV shows, video games, cartoons, songs – the list is long and of admittedly extremely variable quality, but it definitely proves that this film deserves that "classic" status I was talking about before, and deserves it in spades. It casts a long, long shadow over modern horror cinema. Without it, the humble cinematic zombie would probably still be stuck as a plantation slave out there in Haiti.
Think about this: the film eschews most of the conventions of the horror genre to that point. There's no mystery to be solved, no romantic sub-plot, our heroes (such as they are) are simply a bunch of everyday people, it's not set in some exotic local or as a period piece, there are no aliens, there's nothing supernatural, no gothic boogeymen like Dracula or the Wolf-Man. The "villains" if you can even call them such, are, as Fran points out in the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, us. They're as much everyday folks (albeit the reanimated dead) as the "heroes", the audience, and you and I. In some ways that's a much more frightening concept than the external force (whether atomic monster, villain of folklore or bug-eyed monster from beyond the stars) – it's also one that Canadian auteur David Cronenberg successfully tapped into in his first two films (Shivers and Rabid, both of which owe this Romero masterpiece much); at a basic root level: who knows what regular folks are capable of, given the right stimulus?
Further than that, think about the heroes we've been given. Each of them is flawed in his or her own way: Ben's anger, Cooper's selfishness and cowardice, Barbra's nigh-on-catatonic withdrawal, Tom and Judy's gormlessness, Mrs Cooper's submissiveness – there are points of the film where you want to give each of the characters a darned good shake and tell them to wise up and work together. That's actually another point worth noting: Night of the Living Dead presents us with no square-jawed hero as we'd have gotten in prior horror films. In more traditional horror films, there was always an empowered male figure who knew how to deal with the menace and did so with no uncertainty. Van Helsing characters abounded in the old Universal and Hammer films, usually in cahoots with one or more younger men to handle anything physical, like the heroine, or being roughed up by the bad guy. And everything was wrapped up neatly with a bow at the end.
Part of the social commentary that Romero addresses in this film is through his characterization of the heroes, or at least the points of audience sympathy: unlike before, we have no professors, no doctors, no police, no independently wealthy adventurers, no lawyers, no aristocrats, no landed gentry – and the only figures of authority we've been given, we despise on sight as a redneck posse getting cheap thrills by acting like the traditional heroes of yore – particularly those of the "shoot first and ask questions later" school so popular in films of the 30s, 40s and 50s. The media? We can't trust them, either – the usual calm exterior that news presenters exude on screen is simply not present when we see the emergency broadcast footage, and the ready made answers they give us nightly on the TV news? They have none, and for a generation that has started to rely on the TV as their prime source of information, that's a frightening thought – more frightening when you consider what the biggest story on TV news in the US would have been at the time – the Vietnam War – if the media suddenly didn't have the answers, or tell you what to think about the carnage they're showing to you on-screen, those images would suddenly become much more confronting, much more distressing than they already were.
Romero has often said that he doesn't make zombie movies, more that he makes movies and puts some zombies in the background. That's certainly true here – when you scratch below the surface of Night of the Living Dead (and you really don't have to scratch very far at all) this is a movie about human nature, psychology and the USA in 1968. The zombie apocalypse is just the catalyst for the truth to be revealed. Deep down, people can't know each other, can't really even trust each other or even the authority figures they themselves vote into power, they fear change and will ultimately turn on each other viciously, like cornered rats, should the conditions be right. It's a bleak outlook, but the late sixties were a bleak time in US history – racial tension, involvement in an unpopular war, student unrest, assassinations of popular leaders, open confrontation with both secular and sectarian authority, the breakdown of "traditional" values, shifting gender and generational paradigms – and Romero's unremittingly tense and bleakly claustrophobic film mirrors all of that.
The house in which nearly the entire film takes place is a microcosm for the US as a whole. That's not a good thing. If you think about the chaotic final act of the film, and what that promises for the future of America, and how the ultimate resolution (such as it is) is reached, Romero's acerbic left-wing social commentary vilifies US foreign and domestic political policies whole-heartedly. It makes us ask ourselves more than a few questions on a personal level, too – notions of ultimate good and ultimate evil have become a lot more blurry in contemporary times.
If you look at the film simply as a horror story, however, you can heap praise on its goodness for other reasons. Firstly, look at the camerawork: a lot has been written about the cinema verite/documentary style of the film – part of its bleakness comes from this. From the moment Barbra turns and runs from the ghoul in the cemetery, there is no relief. The camera follows Barbra and the others, watching their actions and reactions without judgment, recording objectively (we may hate Cooper for some of his actions, but remember, he's simply protecting his family, and who wouldn't try to do that?). The use of some pretty neat film noir lighting and camera angles are what actually remind you that you're watching a feature film. The editing is quite novel for its day as well, jumping from scene-to-scene quickly, thus heightening that tension I was talking about. There's a lot about the technical aspects of the film that stamp its' claim for originality.
On the special feature "One For The Fire", some of the actors complain that their own performances aren't up to scratch. I'd have to disagree with that, as I'd go so far as to say that the acting comes across with a reasonable amount of verisimilitude. Sure, there's a lot of shouting and hysteria, but I reckon that if half a dozen average Joes and Joannes were put in the same situation, they'd be hard-pressed to retain a grasp of the finer points of etiquette and drawing room manners.
A couple of other things and then I'll let you go. Firstly, why there are so many different versions of the film available. When the film was originally finished the title was Night of the Flesh Eaters, which the distributors wanted changed due to another movie called The Flesh Eaters already existing. When the title was changed to Night of the Living Dead, the credits didn't have that little "c" inside the circle copyright notification after the title, and thus the film was effectively immediately in the public domain. So while the film made a pretty good return on its initial release, it kind of meant that any unscrupulous bastard could release it and not have to pay royalties to Romero and co. This means that there are many awful quality versions of the film available, including one truly dire one from the late 90s with fifteen minutes of excruciatingly bad new footage added as a kind of a framing narrative, ruining the flow, pacing and message of the original version. The filmmakers (with the exception of those involved in this bastardised version, Romero not being one of them) made no money from such bargain basement releases, and to me, that's a crying shame. So is the fact that inferior quality prints released in those generic multi-movie packs you can grab for a pittance is the way that some people have first experienced Night of the Living Dead. The first time I saw it was in the colourised VHS version released in the 80s, and man, that stank out loud, and I'll guarantee was not endorsed by Romero. You need to see the film in one of its legitimate releases to experience it the way the director intended.
Secondly, the OFLC rating and consumer advice for the film has recently changed. From its initial Australian home video release until this one – well over twenty years – the film carried an R18+ certificate. It's now been given an MA 15+, with the consumer advice changed to "Violence, horror themes and coarse language". The times they are a-changin', huh?
Thirdly, the film's legacy and importance as a work of art has been recognized as culturally significant with its inclusion in the American Film Institute Museum – no mean feat for what a lot of people at its time of release saw as a film that was merely an example of "the pornography of violence" (Variety's call, not mine – some people really missed the point). Look at the films in your collection, particularly the zombie films. Without this film, those other ones would just be empty places in on your shelves. You need to treasure films like Night of the Living Dead – films this good don't come along every day.