“Yeah they’re dead. They’re all messed up”
Seminal zombie flick Night of the Living Dead can now be crossed off my list of films to see. Here is a tale of the undead that is still copied and paid respect to today some forty years later. Even writer/director George Romero continues to add installments to the saga with his most recent entries gracing theaters as recently as last year. It’s interesting to note that this film—the most notorious of the sub-genre—never uses the “Z” word. Much like 28 Days Later, the label simply isn’t uttered. Whereas it was intentional with Danny Boyle since his creatures were rage-infected humanity, here it might be because the word just wasn’t part of our lexicon yet. Instead we are treated to slow moving “ghouls” leaving “partially devoured” victims in their wake. It really is just low-budget terror entertainment more than anything else despite having always heard about its great social commentary. You can definitely make parallels to the “Red Scare” and communism, but in the end it’s all a film to instill fear in the young and laughs for the unaffected.
I jest about the laughs as this is not as poorly acted as one might presume. Sure there are moments of cringe-worthy deliveries and over-acted moments, but for the most part everyone is restrained enough to allow the themes of survival, heroism, and humanity’s penchant for destruction to resonate. From the get-go I will admit to being worried—especially with Judith O’Dea’s shrill screams for her brother to stop scaring her (“Johnny!!”). Russell Streiner’s Johnny is also too indifferent and tough when juxtaposed with his nerdy wardrobe in a performance that seems forced until he starts having fun with his sister by adopting a creepy Vincent Price-like voice with ease (“They’re coming to get you Barbara”). I actually think the amateurish acting helps lend some character to the film being that it’s such a cheaply made piece (cost-wise rather than production-wise as the film is very well made), especially with Romero shooting most of it in close-up. It’s as though he wants us to see firsthand the oft-times unsuccessful attempts at naturalism.
But this beast wasn’t made for accolades nor has it become a cult phenomenon never to be forgotten because of them either. The sheer simplicity of it all is what really stands out when the credits roll. At the center of the tale is this inexplicable outbreak of the recently dead being brought back to life with a hunger for human flesh that ultimately turns their victims into ghouls too. An interesting scene viewed by the leads on TV that shows the government’s thoughts on a cause tries to anticipate some reasons, but nothing really sticks. Scientists believe the destruction is a direct result from a satellite beacon returning from Venus that was shot down as it entered our atmosphere with extremely high levels of radiation.
The military, however, is skeptical that the cause is alien—possibly the most obvious comment on the Cold War. Horror films have always proven the strongest commentators on politics and societal distress because of the inherent fear they cultivate. Film has the ability to give the evils and monsters out there waiting for an opportunity to strike physical and emotional form. With Night of the Living Dead we are being overtaken by radioactively triggered automatons stumbling into our homes and looking for blood. Could this be the mechanical and emotionless face of communism seamlessly integrating its way into our capitalist society? A wave of fear questioning whether people who look just like us are actually the enemy? Maybe.
The ghouls are knocking at our doors, trying to get in and growing in numbers as each minute passes. They are a force created by our own technology, inventions to try and expand our hold on the world. Devices built to help commence our conquering of space have now come back with a disease set to hit against the ego that’s necessary to take those steps. It afflicts our brothers, sisters, and friends. And once they’ve been turned they show no remorse or kinship, only a lust to turn you too. Huh, maybe I’ve changed my mind during the course of writing this review. I guess there is a lot more social commentary than initially posited.
To get back to the surface, though, I enjoyed what Romero does with the story of three small groups trying to survive against the onslaught. He gives us the semi-locals—Tom and Judy—both young and unsure of their place yet doing what they can to help despite letting emotions get in the way. There’s the older, stubborn Harry Cooper entrenched in his views that his need for self-worth shields him from correct and intelligent moves while his wife and ill daughter are caught in the middle as thus stick with Cooper whether they know he’s wrong. And then there are outsiders Barbra and Ben caught in the mix as true wild cards. Barbra is catatonic for most of the film, but her eccentricities cause immense unease and some of the best tension offered. As for Ben, Duane Jones is the epitome of “manly man” hero. His take charge attitude is perfect because he’ll never back down to Karl Hardman’s overly brash Cooper nor allow the wild Barbra to get under his skin, smacking her if necessary. Ben is the one with a head on his shoulders who’s looking for survival at all costs. He tries to help as many as he can, but he’s also unafraid to leave them behind if they don’t want to jump onboard.
When all is said and done, Romero has crafted something that I’m sure was odd yet wholly unique back in 1968. This is the backbone to every zombie story you can think of, starting a trend that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. Utilizing the media as a main character—the newscaster becoming a voice of reason—plays with our implicit trust in the words heard on TV/radio. That voice is accessible to everyone as an authority figure assumedly well-versed and positioned to speak on a subject he/she might not actually know anything about. That’s the scariest aspect of the story. Our heroes do what they are told not because it’s the right thing, but because it is the popular choice. I will say that the ending is superb in execution and tonal perfect for what had been going on. This is America as a land of cowboys shooting first and asking questions later. Ah, McCarthyism at its finest.