Every Dead Body That is Not Exterminated Becomes One of Them. It Gets Up and Kills! The People It Kills Get Up and Kill!

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R.I.P. George A. Romero
1940-2017

So, it’s no secret that Night of the Living Dead is one of the movies that so viscerally changed my life as a film and that it is reserved that most esteemed seat in my heart as my favorite horror film of all time. I feel like the things Night of the Living Dead did for the genre were never bettered in the slightest since. And yet, common consensus seems to lean on its 1978 follow-up Dawn of the Dead being one of those rare cases of a sequel outperforming its predecessor and if I can’t really bring myself to love it more than Night, I still might just lean on the idea that Dawn is kind of the “better” movie in a sense.

Part of it is having to just come to the conclusion that, despite being some scraggly ol’ hipster who loved the genuine lo-fi work of Night of the Living Dead and the way Romero squeezed atmosphere out of every single limitation he had and from sheer creativity, Dawn of the Dead is objectively more polished and thus a lot more focused as a horror film and as a social commentary. For of course, like its predecessor, Dawn of the Dead in itself is a very dedicated commentary ingrained inside the presentation of a zombie movie and unlike Night, it does take a good amount of digging into it to find audiences looking into a mirror about how the then-alarming growth of suburban shopping malls as a hub for community interaction deteriorates human interaction and turns folks into mindless followers of blind consumerism and BTWTHEREISNOETHICALCONSUMPTIONUNDERCAPITALISM… *clears throat*.

But there’s just so much more ambition in Dawn of the Dead that Romero gets to act upon from square one that distinguishes the movie from the very first shot with a wash of bold and textured red – distinguishing itself from Night‘s black and white – that widens and focuses to reveal it was simply a close-up of the carpeted wall of a local Philadelphia news station already three weeks deep in the outbreak and shutting off its broadcast soon. It’s here where producer Francine (Gaylen Ross) and traffic pilot Stephen (David Emge) decide to steal one of the helicopters for their own personal escape, which… guys, a helicopter! Romero gets to use a helicopter and gives his characters more mobility (and thus the zombie infection more scope) than in the claustrophobic trap of Night‘s isolated house (though again… I prefer Night in that sense, I just find Dawn‘s approach impressive!).

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During their escape, they also pick up SWAT team member Roger (Scott Reiniger) in the middle of his brutal and consciously racist police raid of a housing project. During this raid, we get to witness the full extent of the zombification of the dead and the escalating violence in no time introduces us to Tom Savini’s landmark zombie makeup and gore – comic book greys to neutralize any details in a person’s face without losing their aged look (this becomes clearer as characters we see die and return as zombies), vibrant red blood so we know somebody is maimed and the gore is the first thing our eyes target, and an all-timer of a head explosion. The sort of violence you get in a 70s cop picture put now to a darker context that demands you reckon with the amorality of the SWAT’s fascist exercise of power on the poor and cold disposal of their bodies in a practical sense. In a moral breakdown atop the building, Roger meets the hardened but humane Peter (Ken Foree) and invites him in the escape group, thereby rounding their aimless flight out of the city.

After finding out staying in the air is easier said than done, they make their personal base out of the Monroeville Mall, a huge construct of shops and restaurants and other resources that they take much time turning into their own fortress of personal goods. And at first, it’s relatively fun as a bonding exercise to have them figure out plans and ways to maintain the whole location for a long time, but soon after it becomes frighteningly insulated and the activities they try to indulge in – now that they have everything they want locked away from the world – like Stephen and Fran’s makeshift restaurant date (with a shockingly dark punchline cut to it), just feel like attempts to pretend the world isn’t dying outside those walls, even despite Peter’s steely residence near screens to illuminating the insanity going on with psychotic talking heads and Fran’s insistence that the mall won’t last. It’s a weighty portrayal of the apathy privileged people have to others’ suffering when it’s distanced and the way that Romero shoots the even the maintenance hallways and vents with plenty of space between the cameras and characters sells Monroeville Mall as just as openly empty as the lives of our four.

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That’s without recognizing how effectively uneventful Dawn of the Dead becomes very quickly. From the moment the news duo pick up the SWAT duo, the movie doesn’t really have a narrative object or target outcome. The characters have few places to express anything beyond sheer survivalism (though they’re all embodied by great performances) and until maybe the 2/3 moment – punctuated by a stressing waiting game turned into a headshot – their detours are almost strictly utilitarian. And so they earn the R&R they take in Monroeville, but it still feels sheltered and naive to do so in their condition and their personalities are clearly clashing enough to promise their eventual exile from the shelter they found. It’s almost the Tokyo Story of horror films in how much time you understand is wasted watching these folks try to deflect the inevitable.

I realize I’m not delivering this as humorous, but that’s one other thing about Dawn of the Dead. Its sense of levity and personality – most largely supplied by Italian prog rock band Goblin**’s iconic score overselling the eerie nature of a giant empty mall (the most iconic musical cue of Dawn, “The Gonk”, is in fact not Goblin’s creation) and a climax that precludes its intense horror and hopelessness with a disarming amount of pie fights – is what prevents Dawn from turning into an overwhelmingly nihilistic film in spite of all its observations about humanity, especially in consideration of the alternate ending it was forced to shelve due to budgetary restrictions*. And this is probably where I especially end up preferring Night as a film, because it’s fearless in selling its themes angrily and with vicious bite. Dawn still finds itself watchable and insightful due to its craft and survives the theatrical ending turning out to be the film’s only flaw.

There’s only so much you can stretch out of the budget and narrative constraints of a single-location story that demands its characters, save for Fran, refuse to evolve due to their egos, but Night already made good on Romero’s promise to deliver on that and Dawn of the Dead is the result of him trying to push it further and build as a filmmaker. When one recognizes that the driving force of the zombie genre has to be its characters cooped up, Dawn of the Dead is the ultimate zombie film to bring that out. And being made in the ultimate middle ground between the updated budget of an esteemed filmmaker but the creative freedom of an independent feature, Romero ends up with the ultimate movie to show his heart, his ideas, his glee, and even the city he came from that he clearly loved for supporting his dreams and letting him shooting in malls and airfields and news stations. There’s probably no better film to remember and revisit him by.

*Allegedly, the particular dummy needed for the grim final note of that alternate ending was considered unfinished and couldn’t be used so they just had it the target of that famous head explosion in the housing raid.
**Goblin was of course at the time collaborated with Italian giallo icon Dario Argento, who also famously helped Romero with the development of the film.

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25 for 25 – This Ain’t No Love-In, This Ain’t No Happening, This Ain’t No Feeling in My Arm

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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 FacePeeping 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.

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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.

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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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