Friday, October 16, 2009

Film Friday: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a seminal movie in the horror genre. If you haven’t seen it, you really should. Not only was this one of the first horror movies to lift the genre from kiddie fare to more adult horror, but it is one of the few horror movies that achieved the intellectual potential normally associated with top notch science fiction. Plus, it's a really good movie.

** spoiler alert **

Filmed on a $114,000 budget by a Pittsburgh-based advertising man with no prior experience in the movie industry, Night of the Living Dead became one of the all time classic horror movies. It’s grossed more than $42 million ($690 million in 2008 dollars), spawned numerous sequels and given birth the horror sub-genre of zombie movies.
The Plot
Night of the Living Dead begins in a cemetery where two young people have come to visit the grave of their father. As they return to their car, a small number of individuals stumble and meander toward them. Barbara (Judith O’Dea), the sister, is spooked by this. Her brother Johnny is not, and he teases her with the now famous line: “they’re coming to get you Barbara.” And they do. Soon Johnny is dead and Barbara is running for her life. Barbara stumbles upon a seemingly deserted house. When she finds a corpse inside, she attempts to flee the house, but is stopped by Ben (Duane Jones), a black man. Ben warns her of more zombies outside the house and begins boarding up the entire house. Soon they are joined by others, including a couple that is hiding their sick daughter in the basement -- she’s been bitten. The rest of the movie involves this group of people trying to decide what to do now that the dead have risen and are walking the earth.
The Movie’s Place In History
Night of the Living Dead deserves its place in history. The movie is creepy, even by modern standards, and well acted -- even though the actors improvised most of the dialog. It was also ultra cutting edge. Indeed, at the time, horror movies were essentially aimed at children. The monsters were fake, there was no gore, the heroes acted like dime store John Waynes, and the government swooped in to the rescue in the nick of time. This one was different. The gore (though practically non-existent by modern standards) was harshly criticized at the time. The monsters were real. The danger was real. The theme was harsh, and the acting dramatic rather than melodramatic. This was the stuff of nightmares and the end result was a movie that was not suitable for children -- and many critics were outraged.

The movie also took a huge risk in making Duane Jones the hero. Indeed, Jones was one of the first blacks to play a lead role as a hero in a movie aimed at white audiences. It was not at all clear that white audience would accept a black hero, except in movies that specifically addressed race -- like In The Heat Of The Night. But they did. In fact, in many ways, this movie expressed Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” sentiment better than other movies of the era because the other characters did not make Ben’s race an issue, i.e. they simply accepted him as a person. Interestingly, Jones bears most of the credit for creating the role because he refused to play the character in the way it had originally been conceived, which had been of a much lower class.

This movie also deserves its place in history because it created the zombie movie genre, which continues to turn out a near-copy of Night of the Living Dead each year.
Why Zombies Are Terrifying?
So what makes zombies terrifying? For one thing, they present a high level of danger. They are difficult to spot in a crowd, because they appear basically human. They are relentless, they do not need sleep or rest like we do. Simply wounding them won’t stop them and they only need to bite (or scratch) you to defeat you. And they have math on their side because their numbers increase exponentially. This puts the entire human race in danger once you have one zombie. (Also, while we used to find comfort in their slow speeds, 28 Days Later took that away from us when it introduced fast-twitch zombies.)

But more fundamentally, zombies frighten us because they represent the destruction of the thing we cherish the most -- our individuality. Being self-aware, the one thing in the universe of which we are absolutely certain is our own existence. Along with this comes the sense that we are unique, something we prize highly -- even people who follow the herd in all aspects of their lives still think of themselves as unique individuals. Further, we believe that we are more than the sum of our parts and that this extra bit -- call it a soul or spirit or simply "I" -- will live on after our bodies fail. The prospect that this might not be true terrifies us. And this is where zombies strike. One bite from a zombie can take this all away, it can destroy the very thing that makes us what we are. That terrifies us because it represents a kind of total and permanent death that we fear more than anything else, i.e. zombies destroy the part of us we thought could not be destroyed, and make us face the prospect of non-existence.
Nature of Evil
Finally we come to the nature of evil question. Are zombies evil? Actually, no. The force that created them can be evil, but the zombies themselves are not evil by most moral definitions because they don’t have free will and they lack any intent to do evil. Instead, they are acting purely on instinct, like sharks or the alien in Alien. We may not like what they do, but we really can’t call them evil.

Interestingly, zombie movies are not actually about zombies, they are about the relationships of the people who are running from the zombies. That makes zombie movies rather unique in the horror movie world. That’s also what keeps zombie movies fresh (or should): the fact that any number of dramas or social commentaries can be played out within a zombie movie. For example, The Night of The Living Dead has been said to be about either racism or the Vietnam War (though I don't actually buy into either theory). Shaun of the Dead, apart from being parody, is also a social statement about the zombie-like state of modern culture. And if you want an example of something that is essentially a zombie story, but hardly qualifies as horror, look to the Borg episodes (pre-Borg Queen) in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In Night of the Living Dead, the zombies seem to have been created by a natural force, i.e. there is no evil mastermind behind their rampage. None of the characters really qualify as evil either. But collectively, they manage to achieve some evil things. Indeed, it is rather clear that the humans have a tremendous advantage over the zombies. They are smarter and faster and they are securely locked in. The zombies have no ability to break down doors or walls, to use tools or fire, or to trick the humans outside. Thus, if the humans worked together, they could make the house secure until help arrived or other arrangements could be made. But they don’t work together because a raft of human emotions get in the way. Some are afraid, others are angry. One guy doesn’t like taking orders even though he clearly lacks the sense needed to pull through this crisis with his own faculties. And when the characters get angry or scared, they start sacrificing or endangering each other to protect themselves. Thus, the evil here is what happens to normal people when they find themselves under extreme pressure, i.e. when society breaks down. In effect, we become the monsters.


Writer X said...

Great movie! Love your analysis. This is definitely popcorn-and-watch-it-from-underneath-a-blanket worthy. Plenty of tension, without gore, and makes you wonder whether you should doublecheck underneath your bed after you watch it. People working together to fight against the zombie collective. This is a true horror movie.

StanH said...

A great midnight movie in the ‘70s, one of the favorites. My son who is 22 loves this movie, pretty cool that it’s got legs forty years hence.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Its always interesting when an older movie can compete with modern films, and this is one of those!

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Nice imagery, the zombies under the bed! I keep seeing them in the voting booths!

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, P.S. Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. Are they still writing zombie books do you know?

Opus #6 said...

I don't think I am old enough yet to watch this film.

Writer X said...

Andrew, the zombie collective books are hot hot hot, particularly in the young adult and women's commercial genres. Zombie love stories. Zombies taking over cities. Zombies becoming mainstream. You name it, there's probably a zombie book angle that's been written (or soon to be published). Ever heard of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES? Very popular book. Also, the movie ZOMBIELAND was quite the hit recently, too. I expect we'll see more zombie movies because of it.

Art imitating life? Seems the zombie angle is here to stay for a while.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I have not heard of "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies", but the title alone intrigues me! I think I know what I'm reading next!

AndrewPrice said...

Opus 6, LOL! It's more tense than scary.

Gordon Winslow said...

When I was a teenager, I popped this in the VCR. My very socially conservative Mom chose that moment to come from the other side of the house and plop down on the couch next to me.

Strangely enough, she was drawn into the narrative very quickly, and despite the gore, ended up liking the movie a lot. She still brings up the incident now and again, two decades later!

Consumer advice: NOTLD was in the public domain for many years (I believe director Romero has successfully regained the rights) so be very careful when renting or buying a DVD. There are two remakes (the first of which is decent), a colorized version, various bastardizations, and loads of poor quality bargain-bin releases put out by any number of companies. Make sure you pick up the authorized release.

I could write for hours on this movie, but I'll end with this: star Duane Jones was later in a fascinating and overlooked art-horror film called Ganja & Hess. It's well worth tracking down. Here is a link with some info--it's to the company that released the restored DVD:

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - As I read your review, I couldn't help but contrast this movie to 1955's Tarantula, about a genetically produced giant tarantula spider who escapes from the island lab and crosses the country besmirtching the land and terrorizing the poulace. It finally took that new fangled weapon the nuclear bomb to defeat it. That movie starred the great Leo G. Carroll (see "North by Northwest" and "Topper" fame) And I thought that movie had a message . . . after all, like the zombies, the spider didn't go evil on us, he just went spider.

MegaTroll said...

Cool, cool movie. I watch this every Halloween. Nice break down of Zombiedom too. They really are very creepy.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think it's the same thing. When a "monster" is just acting on instict, it's hard to call the monster evil -- even if it is a giant spider!

In terms of contrast, I think that's the best way to look at it. The older "horror" movies really were aimed at children -- with monsters and ray guns and the comforting government man coming in at the end to save the day. This movie changed that and really opened up the modern horror genre. The critics, as I said, were outraged by this movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, Thanks! Good time to watch it!

AndrewPrice said...

Gordon, You're right about the loss of copyright and the really bad copies floating around out there.

I have never seen Jones in anything else, but I would like to. He impressed me a lot as an actor in this one. Thanks for the tip. I'll have to check that out.

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