When I decided to get digging into this personal series, one of the very first things that I remembered was how immediately unsatisfying my double review of Halloween and Night of the Living Dead was upon its first posting and my public pledge to return to those movies whenever I could. Whelp, I guess it’s time to pay the piper. And one of these is my favorite horror movie of all time so I may as well begin with that.
Night of the Living Dead is potentially the laziest choice you could ever make for your favorite horror film because it is so very popular and well-known and influential. It ranks up there with the Universal Monsters and Psycho as the most influential and recognizable horror film of the 21st Century, effectively shaping how horror cinema would function in all of the years to follow. And how it does that is also possibly how it finds itself snuggly close to my heart. One of these the minimalist austerity of the classical era, something director George A. Romero had absolutely no choice except to use as a tool kit for his low-budget black-and-white $114,000 production. The other is the absolutely visceral physically-minded horror that Night of the Living Dead cuts through its seemingly restrained production like a beast swooping upon a prey, the most recognizable aspect of horror filmmaking these days of slashers and torture porn and generally violent horror pictures, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre all the way over to A Cure for Wellness, even if the gore isn’t a-flowing in a particular horror movie. Given that I adore both of those sides of the horror cinema coin, the fact that Night of the Living Dead flips in between those is in the end a large part of what ensures it a spot in my personal canon. It’s not the FIRST movie to do it – Psycho, Eyes Without a Face, Peeping Tom, and Blood Feast (let alone all of the Hammer studio pictures) introduced many of these practices in a more sophisticated manner – but the grimy dirt on Night of the Living Dead‘s production values probably makes it easier for me to respond to (and answers why it’s one of my filmmaking bibles as a movie). Sometimes grit and grime makes something seem more real, even if it’s as ridiculous as a zombie story.
Indeed, Romero and co-writer John A. Russo provided the FIRST zombie story as we know it, as they were previously simply treated as voodoo hypnotized corpses pristine without a semblance to the shambling, decrepit, and cannibalistic corpses we know them as (and while the zombies in Night of the Living Dead aren’t all that decrepit, the very pale makeup gives them a sickly ghoulish look especially with the contrast of the black-and-white photography, not to mention their absent facial expressions). That first zombie story is not complex on a surface level: a group of people in the face of a plague of undead eaters sit stuck in one small house, all in different frames of mind at our first meeting of them, and we slowly watch the tension between different game plans and egos boil out until the zombies spill into the house and up the carnage. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) is our first in on the story, as she witnesses her brother’s death in a cemetery visit gone nightmarish and then follow her to the seemingly abandoned house, but she’s quickly made catatonic and unresponsive from the trauma and the main focus is the clash between African-American calm tactical-minded Ben (Duane Jones), who comes in soon after to secure the house, and the white, paranoid, sputtering, flop sweat patriarch Harry (Karl Hardman), holing up in the basement to protect his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and sick daughter Karen (Kyra Schon).
All others are merely casualties in the middle of Ben and Harry’s fight for control of the situation from two very apparently different stances and I really can’t go this far anymore without echoing everybody else on how obviously (even if incidentally by Romero’s admission) Night of the Living Dead functions as a racial commentary. There’s no way in 1968 you can have a white man and a black man so at heads, especially with the black man winning out most of the time, frustrating the white man at how he’s usurped and not be a commentary about race relations. There’s no way you can have THAT ending (which I won’t spoil) in 1968 and not be a commentary on race relations. I’m not being profound in mentioning this. It’s especially obvious that the film WANTS us to be on Ben’s side – Ben is always the most rational character in the frame and Jones is frankly the only actor who gives a performance above and beyond the basics of his character – so when the movie goes on to use Ben and Harry’s conflict for its own nihilistic ends, it’s not the way one expects or hopes.
What violates my sense of narrative most in this film, more than the ending, more than the sudden violence used to punctuate the long drawn-out tensions (convincing with Romero’s control on the framing and editing), is the fact that the fight between Ben and Harry ends up leaving people killed no matter what. Abruptly, suddenly, with no real information to contextualize beyond a news cast that serves us exposition and an eye on how this situation is working out within the continental United States (I’ve read around on how the Vietnam War and its frank television coverage is another subject of Night of the Living Dead‘s social commentary, removing the divide American viewers had with violence going on in a faraway country and bringing right home). I don’t want to go so far as to claim Ben is wrong in the end (for it’s not a secret how cruel the film is to everyone and on nobody’s side), but he’s OUR HERO. He’s supposed to leave the film with everybody alive and well.
And he can’t save everyone the way we want him to. This is something I think Robert Kirkman has tried to utilize in his comic book series The Walking Dead (and its TV adaptation) and its hero Rick Grimes, but the problem is there’s more of a finite element in film whereas a comic book can keep adding characters on and on.
Anyway, that’s all just praising Night of the Living Dead on the narrative end without acknowledging that the real reason this movie is such a Bible to me is how it utilizes its limitations as much as it can to be potent tension regardless of how apolitical you might be. Again, this movie takes place in one house and yet Romero knows how to keep the 96-minute runtime moving with using the angle of the frame to clock out the increasing uneasiness of its characters all the way to their outright hysteria, a sense of bringing the movie out of balance visually with fear with an insistence on having the movie feel trapped or cornered with these characters, whether the angry humans or the dangerous zombies. Implication enough – with the help of the actors’ expressions – to know we’re watching something horrible and giving a sickliness to the frames of powdered white people eating Bosco’s Chocolate covered hams pretending it’s blood-soaked guts. And while the music is nothing to write home about, oversignaling the mood, the sound mix is otherwise the sort of thing that gets under your skin in its lo-fi (as it would have to be) manner. Just recently, I tried to show a friend a clip of the most infamous (and possibly violent) moment in the whole film – you know the one… with the trowel… – and she wouldn’t finish it because hearing the continuous moans and beats of the zombies outside the house door was completely upsetting to her. So, there’s your thing.
Any movie was eventually going to open the doors in 1968 – shortly after Some Like It Hot destroyed the Production Code’s power – for truly violent reckless cinema to finally enter horror culture, but Night of the Living Dead does it with a slight restraint and earthiness that both adds to the grungy disturbing elements and then harkens back to the limitations of our more classical terror works that had to make do with (albeit unfortunately NotLD does have a cheapness that makes unpalatable to some). And no other movie does it with such an angry attitude, having things to say about how ugly the world is, right down to the final beat of the film and how the credits follow the ramifications of it to the very final frame.
Night of the Living Dead didn’t open the doors, it blew them wide the fuck open. For cinema, for horror culture, and for this little 16-year-old that watched it late at night in an isolated house in Homestead, FL in 2008.
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