News Column

All you can eat

October 18, 2013


Oct. 18--Night of the Living Dead, cult classic, not rated, The Screen, 4 chiles

Before Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies had a lot more to do with voodoo than with the unexplained. Films like White Zombie (1932) and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie (1943) followed the premise that potions, not supernatural forces, caused the dead to walk among the living. Zombie films played second fiddle to the more successful Universal horror franchises Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man. Even as late as the 1960s, Dracula was still a dominant villain in the horror genre, thanks to a series of revamped vamp pictures by Hammer Film Productions that began in the late '50s and starred Christopher Lee as the famous bloodsucker. But horror was marketed mostly to young people then, and it wasn't taken too seriously as intelligent, thoughtful cinema.

One little film by a small production company in Pittsburgh changed all that. From its early shots in a cemetery to its final haunting series of still images that play while the credits roll, 1968's Night of the Living Dead made horror all the more real for its domestic, everyday settings.

At the beginning of the film, Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (an uncredited Russell Streiner) are on an outing to a cemetery. Barbara is frightened of the place, and Johnny teases her. "They're coming to get you, Barbara," he says, little knowing how right he is. Right from the start, Night of the Living Dead becomes a tale of survival as Johnny gets knocked out cold by a lumbering ghoul whose pursuit of the hapless and hysterical Barbara is relentless. "Relentless" is a good way to characterize the entire film.

Barbara takes refuge with a ragtag group of survivors in an abandoned farmhouse as more and more ghouls appear, determined to break in and, as we eventually discover, eat the protagonists alive. Among the good guys -- good being a relative term in this story -- is Ben (Duane Jones), the only one in the group with any sense. They barricade the windows and doors as best they can, but the living dead don't let that stop them. Ben understands that retreating to the basement means certain death and argues against the idea, even as the others see it as their only option. Of course, Ben is right, and it's no wonder he survives -- almost.

Director George A. Romero cast Jones as Ben because he had experience as a professional actor, unlike much of the rest of the cast. Ben's character was written as a white man, but Jones is black. Romero opted not to change the script, however, and simply made no mention of Ben's race in the film. But this being the late 1960s, with the civil-rights movement -- not to mention the war in Vietnam -- in full swing, it is difficult not to see the film in light of those events. The war brought grisly images into people's homes in a way that no war had before it, and images of lynchings and civil-rights abuses in the South were also prevalent. Understated though it is, the suspicion of authority in the film seems to reflect the times. Near the end, as posses of law enforcement and citizens appear, who the real villain is comes into question. The ghouls, after all, are only acting in accordance with their nature, out of hunger and survival instincts. The delight of the posses as they pick off the zombies with shots to the head (the only way to kill them) is cold-hearted and cruel. That they resemble lynch mobs was probably not lost on audiences of the day, and the film, which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, is regarded by some fans today as political. No one had cast a black actor as a lead in a film in which the script didn't treat him as black but simply as a man. Casting Jones was a daring move, but so was the level of violence depicted on-screen.

The ghouls are not content with merely killing people, they have to eat them, too. When a young couple flees the farmhouse in a desperate attempt to escape from the zombies, they are overwhelmed, and the ensuing feast of flesh and entrails was something cinema had never seen before. Shot in black and white, these scenes are easier to take than the graphic violence of more recent zombie films, but they still have the power to shock.

These were not monsters in any traditional sense. You don't need to be a horror fan to list the many ways a vampire can be killed. In Night of the Living Dead, there's only one way, and you had better be a good shot. These monsters, moreover, are friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents. Romero's vision is one of a world turned upside down. The death-by-trowel scene doesn't elicit the nervous laughter that inventive horror deaths sometimes bring to their audiences. The victim is a young mother, and her killer is her own daughter, whom we glimpsed just a moment before gnawing on the dead body of her father. It's grim, bleak, devastating, and unforgettable.

Romero further ups the ante by refusing to give his film a happy ending. Those who do survive probably don't deserve to, and those who don't -- well, at least they have the option of coming back to get revenge on the living.

The question of why the dead have come back to life is never adequately explained. Talking heads on TV newscasts (real news anchors, lending such scenes authenticity) have no answers, and the survivors in the farmhouse learn little until it's discovered that a shot to the head kills the zombies. You'd better know your target. They look, after all, just like us.


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