It seems hard to imagine now, but as late as 1968 it was quite common for horror movies to be shown as cinema matinees which children could attend. Roger Ebert describes one ill-advised occasion when Night of the Living Dead was shown to an unsuspecting and very young audience.
If George A Romero had stuck to his original plan, then the movie might not have been very shocking. He had intended to make a horror comedy about benevolent aliens befriending teenagers. However if he had this movie instead, then it would probably not have been nearly as memorable. Instead Romero opted for a horror movie that would astound contemporary audiences, and lead to complaints about its violence and gore.
Indeed Night of the Living Dead was a shock to me when I first saw it at the tender age of 30, and I had nightmares about it for a long time afterwards. The opening of the movie with its wobbly organ music, amateur actors and low-tech camera work suggests that the movie will be another trashy low-budget affair that will provide glorious humour for affectionados of trash.
After all the only people in the late 60s who were still making black-and-white movies were serious directors trying to be arty or poverty row moviemakers who were unable to afford to shoot in colour. George A Romero, the director of Night of the Living Dead, belonged in the latter category, and the decision-making in producing the film was decided by the need to cut costs.
Hence we have a cast of actors that nobody had seen before, and which most people have not seen since. We have a bare minimum of sets. The costumes were bought from second-hand shops. The blood was chocolate sauce, and the gore was entrails and ham donated by a butcher’s shop. The music was taken from existing movies, and not an original score.
The movie was made on $114,000 budget, although it went on to gross 150 times that much. Since then the movie’s copyright has lapsed, and it has entered into the public domain, another factor that has added to its popularity.
While the viewer may not be aware of the facts surrounding the making of the film, the opening images on the screen give us some idea that this is not going to be a production marked by lavish special effects. It is hardly surprising that I settled in for a night of amusement which left me unprepared for the intense horror that was to come.
Some viewers detect humour throughout the film, but there is also a seriousness of intent in the way that the film is made. The movie opens appropriately in a graveyard. A brother and sister are putting flowers on their mother’s grave. The brother is petulant about having to make the journey there. His sister Barbra (Judith O’Dea) is nervous and neurotic, her nerves set on edge by a thunder storm and the lonely cemetery.
There is no hint that anything is wrong except that the radio has been off the air for two hours, but they leave the car before they can hear any broadcasts. When a strange looking man lurches towards them, Barbra’s brother teases her: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra”. Unfortunately he is right. When the man gets near enough, he suddenly attacks her.
The scene is searing and ends with her running from the cemetery after her brother is possibly killed by the man. Just six minutes into the movie, we have already witnessed the first attack. Already it defies our expectations and freezes our ability to laugh at it. The scene is filmed with tilted camera angles that throw things off kilter and add to the sense of nightmare.
Barbra escapes into a creepy, shadowy house where she discovers that the owner is dead, and that there are more strange figures lurking outside the house. The phone does not work, and the stuffed animals on the walls add to the disconcerting effect. While she is there Barbra is joined by a young man called Ben (Duane Jones), and a few other people are hiding in the cellar. It seems that the dead are coming back to life and devouring the living, and everybody is seeking a place of shelter from them.
Before long the house is surrounded by living dead ghouls (the film does not call them zombies), and the besieged characters are fighting to keep them out of the house while they wait for the authorities to rescue them, or for some means to escape. The tone of the movie grows darker and darker as their situation becomes increasingly desperate.
I will leave it for the film studies experts to discuss how far Night of the Living Dead was a pioneering movie. It may not be the Citizen Kane of gore that some fans like to think, but it was certainly highly influential in changing the course of horror movies.
The identity of the movie zombie was changed forever. From now on there would be few movies of the old kind where zombies were revived by voodoo to act as slaves. Romero created a new kind of zombie – one that did not serve the living, but was a threat to all living people, driven by an inexplicable urge towards cannibalism.
Indeed there is no clear reason given as to why these attacks occurred. Instead Romero falls back on the old hoary explanation of radiation caused by the destruction of a satellite sent to Venus. How this radiation affects the dead and not the living is unclear, but it is only an unconfirmed theory, and we do not have to accept it.
Night of the Living Dead opened the way for the gruesomely violent horror films to come, although it is comparatively tame. It is not as sadistic or nihilistic as most modern horror movies, and the suffering of the heroes is less intense. Certainly there are scenes of the zombies eating flesh, making revolting slurping noises as they do so. However nobody is eaten alive onscreen, and the black-and-white photography lessens the impact.
What makes the movie so disturbing is the ideas that the story puts across. Firstly, the film takes place in somebody’s home. It is not a remote setting like a castle or a mansion. It is a house like the one that most of us live in, and it is easier to imagine our own house being besieged by zombies.
There is also something terrifying about what these zombies do, and how to stop them. They feed on human flesh. They devour their victims while still alive or freshly dead. The only way to kill the zombies is to destroy their brain or to separate the brain from the body, so this means that the most violent of methods must be used on them. Even a bullet to the chest does not appear to deter them.
To fight the inhuman monsters, we must become inhuman ourselves. The zombies were once living people. They are men and women of all ages, and they can be children too. Now already they are being referred to as ‘those things’, and the survivors stay alive by beating them over the head with implements, driving over them or setting them on fire. Indeed the viewer too becomes desensitised to the violence when it is applied to the mindless zombies whom we find it impossible to care about.
Worst of all they can be people that you knew. In fact all the characters who die during the zombie attack are weakened by ties of love or family. Barbra is dragged to her death by her brother, now a zombie. The daughter of the Coopers is kept in the cellar after being bitten by a zombie. She lies still for most of the movie, only to awaken from death in the most horrifying fashion. She revives to feast on her father’s body and kill her mother with a trowel.
Even the young couple die after the girl gets her coat caught in the car when it goes on fire due to carelessness with petrol. Her boyfriend tries to rescue her and the car blows up and kills them both. To add to the awfulness, we then watch as the zombies descend on the car and consume the bodies of this seemingly nice couple.
Indeed all the characters who normally survive a horror movie – the hero, the helpless heroine, the family and the lovers – will die during the last 20 minutes as the horror deepens in the most appalling manner.
Ben is the only character who survives the attack, and in this he is greatly helped by the fact that he is not held back by the presence of a loved one. Unhappily he outlives the zombie onslaught only to be shot by members of a redneck posse who mistake him for a zombie. The final agonising images over the credits are stills of the bodies of zombies (with Ben among them) being thrown onto a pyre and burned.
There is an irony here. The characters have been waiting for the government and army to rescue them, as so often happened in old movies, but this time the authorities are useless and even detrimental to them. They turn up when it is too late and proceed to kill off the only survivor. The situation seems to be under control at the end of the movie, but that is of little comfort. Since Romero had intended to make sequels, then perhaps this restoration of order is an illusion anyway.
Right up until the end we can still believe that a few of the characters will survive, as the narrative continually slides between despair and hope. In this manner the design of the narrative is similar to that of Shakespeare’s best tragedies. (Before I get outraged protests at this remark, I should emphasise that I am not saying that Night of the Living Dead is comparable to Shakespeare – only that the movie employs a similar narrative technique.)
This structure works as follows. Each time that an event happens that offers promise for the survivors, another countering event happens that makes their situation seem more hopeless. Consider the ups and downs of the narrative structure for yourself:
Down: Barbra’s brother is killed and she is attacked
Up: Barbra escapes her assailant and finds a house
Down: There is a dead body in the house and no phone, and her attacker is prowling outside
Up: Ben arrives, and she is no longer alone
Down: More zombies appear, and Ben tells Barbra that the problem is widespread. Barbra has a mental collapse and is not much help to him
Up: Ben decides to kill the zombies outside
Down: As he does so, more appear. The radio indicates a widespread academic
Up: Several people emerge from the cellar who may be able to help
Down: They are led by Cooper, a selfish man, and the humans argue among themselves whether it would be safe to bolt themselves in the cellar or stay above ground where they can escape the house if attacked. (Curiously, Cooper is correct, and the cellar proves the safer place.)
Up: They hear that there are safe centres that they can go to, and they decide to get gas from a nearby petrol pump and go to one of the centres
Down: The attempt to get the gas proves to be a disaster. The truck explodes, killing two people and leaving the rest isolated. From this point the story rapidly spirals downwards as the zombies attack the house and nearly everyone is killed
Up: The zombies magically retreat from the house at dawn, and Ben emerges alive
Down: A militia sees him staring out of the house window, and one of them shoots him, thinking that he is a zombie
The effect of this narrative is to constantly disconcert the viewer. We are lulled into a false sense of security, only to be jolted out of it each time that something goes horribly wrong. Further calming deception is added by the movie’s realistic documentary-style unravelling of the facts whereby information is gradually revealed by means of eyewitnesses, radio and television.
Many of the tropes of the zombie movie have been used so many times since that it is hard for us to feel the sense of surprise that a virgin audience might have experienced as they listen to the broadcasts. The problem seems to be no greater than a few isolated ghouls until Ben appears and tells a story about other zombies encircling a diner.
After Ben gets the radio working, reports come in telling us that all of the Midwestern states are affected and perhaps beyond. At first the identity of the attackers is unknown, but eventually the radio reports that the victims have been partially devoured by their murderers. There is an added grimness to these scenes because Barbra is listening to the broadcast soon after seeing her brother murdered.
Finally a television is got to work, and further reports appear. For the first time, we learn that the attackers are people who recently died and have come back to life. There are also hints that it is dangerous to keep people in the house who may have been infected, our first warning that the Cooper’s child may be a threat.
Night of the Living Dead works very well when considered as pure horror, but is it about something more? Since the movie came out, people have been quick to look for a broader meaning for the zombies. The film has been seen as a symbol for capitalism, the Cold War, the war in Vietnam and the battle for civil rights.
Personally I am sceptical about these theories. I do not think that the movie is an allegory, but I admit that it is bathed in the atmosphere of its age. In a time of Cold War, we see a movie about a threat from within that comes from people that you know, and which may be a product of radiation. At a time when the news was reporting atrocities in Vietnam, we have a film where people die in more graphic and gruesome ways than we are accustomed to.
Also while the movie may not be about the civil rights movement, it is influenced by that environment. Romero made the controversial decision to use a black actor in the lead role, and the script was intentionally not rewritten to take account of that. Ben does not make statements about the rights of black men, and the posse that kills him are not consciously motivated by racism.
Alas, the movie’s attitude towards gender is less enlightened. The lead female character is a helpless victim who only revives from her state of shock at the worst possible time. Another female character gets in the way of the attempt by the men to escape in a truck, and she ultimately ends up costing the lives of herself and her partner. There are no great female role models here.
Romero learnt his lesson in subsequent movies. He puts a stronger female character in the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, and the lead character in Day of the Dead is a woman. Later Night of the Living Dead was remade with a script by Romero. In this version, Barbra does not slump into a state of shock, but is the strongest character in the film.
Whether or not Night of the Living Dead was the turning-point in modern horror, opening the way for a new world of downbeat, visceral and harrowing movies, is uncertain. However it was certainly the best example of the films that turned the tide, and it has been endlessly imitated ever since.
Indeed Romero himself returned to the subject on many occasions, most notably in the sequel, Dawn of the Dead. To my mind, his first attempt was the best. I have seen many horror movies, but none have haunted my dreams as much as Night of the Living Dead.
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