NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD & The Birth of Zombie Nation
The horror genre can probably lay claim to more twists and turns than any other, but its most challenging, rewarding and downright devastating gift to us is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
Every film genre has its benchmark moments, game changing films which cause a seismic shift of re-evaluation, altering the way the films of that genre are produced and thought about from then on: Sci-fi has Metropolis (1927) and Star Wars (1977) (though many will argue that George Lucas space opera had ramifications well beyond genre cinema); the musical had 42nd Street (1933), Singin In The Rain (1952) and Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). However the horror genre can probably lay claim to more twists and turns than any other, but its most challenging, rewarding and downright devastating gift to us is George A. Romeros Night of the Living Dead from 1968. As much as I would hope this does not turn into a gushing eulogy (though I fear it might) I must make clear my bias - to my mind Night of the Living Dead is not only one of the great American films but one of the greatest films ever made. This may sound controversial but I hope to justify my claim in the following examination of its place within the genre, and its reaction to the turbulent times of its conception. Beyond the films brilliant ability to scare the pants off viewers lie the core reasons as to why I believe it to be a masterpiece; unlike any horror film to come before, it comes preloaded with a deliberate and cutting socio-political critique, directly engaging with the far from irrational fears and concerns of the time. So often horror films are seen as reactions to the anxieties of their period, the jagged, mentally unstable images of German expressionism are often read as an allegorical reaction of the horrors of WWI, while the paranoia inflected invasion films of the 1950s most notably Don SiegelsInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), purportedly tell of the fears surrounding McCarthyism, communism and the Cold war. Distinctly the film Night, is a product of its politically aware times, Romero later commented that the tumultuous times found their way into the picture as a result of the atmosphere on the set, discussions and debates about what was happening in their country. In short Romero attests it was the Sixties. With Night Romero had not just invented the modern zombie movie but a new breed of astute, socially and politically aware horror films, sparking a golden age for the genre in the 1970s. At its most base level this is a truly terrifying, inventive and truly bleak horror film. The deceptively simply tale begins with Barbara (Judith ODea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) visiting their mothers grave in a secluded cemetery in rural Pennsylvania. Shot in grainy stock, of a vérité style, we are given no breathing space as almost immediately Johnny is attacked by an unknown assailant. Johnny is knocked unconscious by the lumbering attacker, who then sets his sights on Barbara, pursuing her in an agonisingly drawn out chase to an isolated farm house, where hiding she discovers the half eaten corpse of (presumably) the houses owner. Fleeing in fright Barbara finds that a group of people similar to her attackers have menacingly gathered outside, advancing slowly but inevitably towards the house, but in a flash our key protagonist Ben (Duane Jones) arrives and gets Barbara back into the house barricading them in. We soon discover there are others hiding out in the house as well, a family: Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Carolyn Eastman) with their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who has been badly bitten by one of the marauding creatures, and teenage couple Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). From here Romero restricts the film to this house with fleeting glimpses of the creatures outside, it becomes less a creature feature in the vein of Universals monster cycle of the 1930s, and more a tightly orchestrated siege thriller akin to Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (1959). It is a wholly unsettling mixture of gore and tension unlike anything seen before in the horror genre, Romero situates terror as far from the European traditions of Dracula and Frankenstein, and the threats from outer space that pervaded genre films of the 1950s, taking the monstrous and locating it in the backyard of American everyday life. Though this uprooting of traditional setting was pioneered by Hitchcock in 1960s Psycho, Romero here brings an unflinching realism and pioneering penchant for unadulterated and gruesome special effects, removing any trace of gloss and glamour, any stars and any comfortable resolution to allow the audience a comfortable nights sleep. The casting of Duane Jones as the films lead was a revelation in itself- although the prominence of Sidney Poitier had meant black actors were becoming a more common sight on the silver screen, it was still relatively unheard of at the time. But while Poitiers work had themes of racial injustice at its core, they were never so blatant in their condemnation of racial prejudice; perhaps the scariest thing about the film is not the flesh eating ghouls but the relentlessly vicious rednecks and their feral looking attack dogs. The films powerful ending, unmatched by anything else in horror before or since, is one of the most heartbreaking and affecting both in its stark brevity and potent political message. When discussing the films political aspects this is, quite rightly, an area of major focus, civil rights is defiantly at the top of the films agenda, but there are plenty more playful comments on the time found in the film. One of the films best set pieces comes late on, Karens bite has incurred spontaneous transformation into a zombie, when her mother Helen come in to check on her she is mercilessly dispatched by Karen with a rusty trowel, she consumes her with a dead blank stare on her face. Romero would later comment on the subtext of the scene, that it reflected the youth movement of the time, he became obsessed with idea of a new generation devouring the old, a reflection of the times, and of one of the most un-discussed elements of Romeros work, his love of black comedy. Beyond this the film has gone on to be interpreted as allegory for the Vietnam War, and an examination into the collapse of the patriarchal nuclear family, the strongest relic of conformist 1950s society. One could continue pontificating and musing over this densely packed and rich work of Horror cinema and indeed some have, but I will only highly recommend this film as the ultimate choice for your Halloween nights viewing. It spawned a great many imitators and some terrible reinterpretations, but if you want a genius, visceral fusion of relentless horror and artistic ambition, then look no further than the original and the best.