Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Night of the Living Dead (1968, USA)

(A ramble with spoilers.) What can be said about this film that hasn't already been said? It is still a film that any and all fans of modern horror films has to see at least once to properly be allowed to call themselves a fan. Of course, fans of the modern day zombie film — especially the new turbo-energized rampaging zombies so popular for the Romero-film-based remakes — might find this filmic patriarch both slow moving and low on the gore. But for as creaky and dated the film sometimes seems, Night of the Living Dead still unnerves, scares, enthralls and works. There is a valid reason that Night of the Living Dead was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1999: it may be a cheap horror film, but nonetheless the ingredients happened to mix in that special, unplanned way that leads to an unexpected masterpiece. Likewise, the film also introduces a modern icon of horror: that of the flesh eating zombie. Prior to Night of the Living Dead, zombies may have been dead, but they were primarily unthinking slaves/henchmen/servants; since then, basically, all they want is a warm lunch.
Inspired by EC Horror Comics and, possibly, the underappreciated Last Man on Earth (1964) — an Italo-version of Richard Matherson's novel I Am Legend which is actually the first film to feature slowly shambling living un-dead out to kill the living — Night of the Living Dead was a labor of love from a number of people who hoped that the film would take them to bigger and better things, though no one involved probably realized that they were taking part in creating a true masterpiece of modern horror, an event which none of them were ever to repeat again.
A true low-budget film, Night of the Living Dead was filmed in the countryside outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mostly on weekends. When money would run out the pauses between filming were even longer, so the final product took 30 days over a seven-month period. To save costs, some investors took over important rolls, such as that of Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), while others doubled as zombies — matricide victim Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), for example, is seen briefly as a bug-eating zombie. Featuring an inexperienced cast and crew of unknowns, even director George Romero himself, while a dedicated 8MM filmmaker since his childhood and a local producer of commercials and industrial films, had no actual experience in feature film making. (According to Danny Peary in the book Cult Movies, Romero's only previous experience with feature film was as a 19-year-old grip for Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959).)
Romero himself, despite many an interesting film since then, including The Crazies/Code Name: Trixie (1973), Martin (1978), Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Creepshow (1982), has never really managed to achieve an as successful alchemist's mixture as he did in his first film — though he did come close with Martin and Dawn of the Dead. In truth, however, after seeing what he delivered in Land of the Dead (2005), the worst of a row of increasingly disappointing films, it is probably safe to assume he will never make another truly good film. (Still, how many directors can truly claim, as he can, to have invented a whole new horror sub-genre? For all the crap he has made since then, he still deserves respect for that.)
At the time when Romero had finished the mother of all flesh-eating undead movies, actually, the original industry response was relatively disinterested — not surprising, considering the overall bleakness of Night of the Living Dead. (Likewise, it came just at the time when B&W film was falling out of favor due to the competition of television.) Both AIP and Columbia turned the film down when it was offered to them, and had the Walter Reade Organization not taken it on to round out triple features and drive-in showings, who knows how long it would've taken to be discovered. But they did, and word-of-mouth and unexpected critical popularity did the rest...
As mentioned before, today's standards Night of the Living Dead is relatively bloodless, the average pay-TV production or PG-rated movie featuring more blood and guts than this zombie fest (although the uncut matricide scene does still rate high in shock value). Nonetheless, it still packs a gritty punch, it pessimism and claustrophobia overcoming its dated aspects enough to convincingly dish out a horrific mixture of everyone's most common fears, that of being alone, defenseless and vulnerable in an increasingly uncontrollable and unexplainable life-threatening situation — in the dark. Like all of Romero's best films, Night of the Living Dead is populated primarily by flawed, if not completely unsympathetic heroes — people just like you or me or the jerk next door, not some exceptionally good-looking and super-intelligent Übermensch from Planet Hollywood — thus making all that happens all the more realistic.
The film starts off innocently enough with Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny driving to some distant cemetery to put the yearly bouquet on their father's grave. Johnny's brotherly taunting of "They're coming to get you, Barbra" suddenly taking a terrifying turn when the tall, gaunt man stumbling around the cemetery actually does first attack Barbra and then kills her protective brother. (That the zombie continues after Barbra instead of first chomping on her brother is one of the lapses in logic the story sometimes suffers, but such flaws are easy to overlook in the excitement of the moment, especially since the concept of logic is actually rather misplaced anyway when talking about flesh-chewing living dead.) Escaping to a deserted farmhouse populated seemingly only with a half-eaten corpse on the second floor, Barbra is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a young black man also running from the reanimated dead. Boarding themselves into the house, it is soon revealed that there are five other living people hiding in the cellar: Judy and Tom, a young local couple, and Harry & Helen Cooper, with their injured child Karen, who has been bitten by one of the creatures. Over the television they learn that due to some unknown radiation emitting from a satellite that has returned to earth from Venus, all the freshly dead are returning to life, hungry to eat the living. When not fighting the zombies gathering in ever larger numbers outside the house, the seven spend their time fighting with each other. In the course of the evening Judy and Tom get barbecued in Ben's truck when an attempt to refuel it backfires, Barbra gets pulled out into the mass of hungry zombies by her very own dead brother, Ben shoots Harry in an argument gone out of control and Helen gets killed by her very own zombified daughter. Come daybreak, the trigger happy hick law comes ambling through the area hunting the dead, and Ben, as the last survivor in the house comes out from the safety of the cellar... minutes later, Night of the Living Dead, ends with one of the most depressing, unsentimental endings of all time.
There are some interesting aspects of Night of the Living Dead that don't always come to mind when seeing it for the first time, though some do seem to be brought up in every article about the film. Firstly, while to today's world, the concept of a black hero is nothing new, in 1968 it was something that got a double take. Though Romero consistently states that he was in no way making a political or social statement in the movie, all his horror films have featured too much subtle socially conscious criticism to take his denials seriously. Not that Romero ever actually pounds it over the viewer's head in Night of the Living Dead that Ben should be some sort of political statement; the rest of the characters obviously view him simply as a person in an equally desperate situation. Even Harry, while an obvious asshole with no likable features, never once uses the N-word, makes any sort of racist statement or calls Ben's skin color to recognition. Still, at the time, it was a statement simply by being. (Unlike in the first sequel Dawn of the Dead, there isn't even a single Afro-American among the walking dead.) On the other hand, for as advanced as the film was in regards to Black Americans, all the women are definitely examples of the helpless second sex, miles away from being anywhere close to independent, strong or in any way equal to their male counterparts. (An aspect corrected in the remake, interestingly enough, in which only Barbra survives.) Likewise, it is interesting to note that in the end, the fact is that the asshole Harry was right the entire time, and that the cellar was indeed the only truly safe place in the house; everyone who dies, does so more or less for listening to and doing what Ben suggests.

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