Sunday, August 3, 2014
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
(October 1968, U.S.)
To gain a fresh perspective for my post of George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, I, of course, not only watched the film again (for perhaps the millionth time!), but I also watched the latest episode of "The Sixties"; an ongoing documentary mini-series on CNN, which specifically targeted the year 1968, commonly associated with unrest and the United States counterculture of the 1960s. Those who might have lived through it or who simply know their history well enough will know that this was a particularly bad year in which anything that could happen, did happen. In 1968, the war in Vietnam had reached it's worst level of loss and casualty, as well as its violent turmoil back in the U.S. with those who were marching and protesting to end the war. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and Richard Nixon was elected president for his first term. So while it seemed that American society was literally tearing itself apart during the year of 1968, a low budget black and white horror film about the dead returning to life and feasting on human flesh must have (at the time) seemed either perfectly timed or a really sick-ass joke! Perhaps things simply couldn't get any worse, so why not just have the dead rise and wreak havoc!
Regardless of timing or motives, it cannot be denied that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is truly one of the most horrifying motion pictures ever created. From the moment the film opens, you're immediately hooked with that incredibly menacing musical score as we watch an ordinary looking car with two ordinary looking people inside driving along an isolated dirt road into a deserted cemetery. Even if one knows nothing of the film and its content, you know already that something is very wrong from not only the music and the isolated cemetery, but also by listening carefully to the car's radio station just before Johnny (played by Russell Streiner) turns it off and the sound of menacing concern in the radio announcer's voice caught in the middle of a breaking story. Romero wastes no time in establishing that that something seriously wrong is happening here in rural Pennsylvania, because only moments after Johnny teases his sister Barbra (played by Judith O'Dea) by proclaiming, "They're coming to get you, Barbra!" is she suddenly attached by one of the living dead who tries to take a bite out of her. Johnny saves her, only to be killed moments later by a blow to the head. Barbra runs for her life and barricades herself inside an empty house. This is where the film establishes its plot in which a group of scared human beings will defend themselves from the increasing number of the living dead who want to get inside the house and strike! The leader of the group and subsequent hero of the film is an African-American man named Ben (played by Duane Jones); a real bad-ass in his own right who, despite being just as afraid as the rest of the group, always seems to have the right plan and knows just how to strike when attempting to kill one of the flesh-eating ghouls. And of course, when you have a character who always seems to know when to do the right thing, it seems only fitting that we have an opposite character who's always fighting everyone and everything with endless negativity. This would be Mr. Harry Cooper (played by Karl Hardman), a man you'd take great pleasure in hitting from the moment you meet him, just to shut his big fucking mouth.
Filmed and released two decades after the golden age of black and white horror films, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD uses the lack of color effectively to display the physical horrors of the dead and their need to feed on the living to stay alive. Black and white, by its own right, is a frightening film element. To watch the classic Universal monsters in color would not be as effective, even today. Watching the horrible ghouls feast on the bones and flesh of two kids killed in a truck fire is truly shocking and unnerving, even without the color of running red blood. To even watch, for a brief moment, that quick shot of the lady who owns the house at the top of the stairs who's had half of her face and head eaten away is blood-curdling, particularly because it's in black and white and also because it incorporates the art of light, darkness and shadow, even as it's sprawled across (what's left of) her face. Add to all of this the above-mentioned menacing musical score, and you've really captured the heart of horror and living (and dead) terror!
As horrifyingly visual as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is, it's equally important to note just how imperative the task of listening to this film is, as well, and I'm not just referring to the music. Romero, in my opinion, uses perhaps the most effective use of radio and television broadcasting to fully bring the horror of what is happening in the outside world to life. While these people are trying to figure out how to get out of the house to a safe haven, the radio and TV are constantly going. Not only are they kept informed, but we are too, as the audience, and what we're hearing is not good. Step-by-step, story-by-story, we're coming to fully understand the apocalypse that's taking place over much of the United States and that we, as living human, are apparently helpless to stop it. It's one thing to know that your not safe, but it can truly hit home when the radio and TV serve to confirm those fears. This is not just background broadcasting, either. The camera gets close to both radio and TV, and every word of every announcer and the horrible facts they're reporting can be heard in perfect clarity. This is just another perfect confirming element used to scare us into believing in what is happening. Bear in mind also, that except for a rather passing explanation of a possible link to radiation from outer space, no real viable reason for the rising dead is ever given. Much like Hitchcock's lack of explanation in THE BIRDS (1963), we're left only with our imagination and all the terrifying possibilities we can come up with.
Taking into account again for a moment that this film was released in 1968 may give one pause to consider that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is not only a great horror film, but perhaps also a strong political film, as well. Am I reaching for shit here? Perhaps. But re-consider the endless turmoil of the year in question and perhaps it's not so far-fetched that the release of a film when the dead take over the United States seems only fitting. Consider also the civil rights movement of the decade and the film's counteract of having the hero as a black man. Consider also that the same black man is the only survivor of the night by the end of the film and is brutally and unjustly gunned down (mistaken for one of the living dead) by a pack of redneck witch hunters with rifles and then tell me that this film is not politically motivated for the year 1968! Just sayin'!
Finally, on a more personal level, I have to say that putting aside vampires as a general definition of the undead and also citing I AM LEGEND (2007) as an exception, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the only "dead" film I own in my collection. I mean, really, how many times can the same story of the same subject be recycled and retold over the decades?? Romero's definitive film still remains the first and the best of the entire genre for me. I realize today that AMC's "The Walking Dead" is highly popular and the original film versions of THE EVIL DEAD (1981) and Romero's own DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) are considered classics by many fans of horror, but even so...remember you're dealing with a film fan and a blog writer who's incredibly stubborn and closed-minded when it comes to recycled movie material. And besides, speaking of the latter film mentioned as an example, the living dead in color in a shopping mall just isn't that scary to me. But hey, that's me!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Radio Announcer: "Because of the obvious threat to untold numbers of citizens due to the crisis that is even now developing, this radio station will remain on the air day and night. This station and hundreds of other radio and TV stations throughout this part of the country are pooling their resources through an emergency network hook-up to keep you informed of all developments. At this hour, we repeat, these are the facts as we know them. There is an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins. The murders are taking place in villages and cities, in rural homes and suburbs with no apparent pattern nor reason for the slayings. It seems to be a sudden general explosion of mass homicide. We have some descriptions of the assassins. Eyewitnesses say they are ordinary-looking people. Some say they appear to be in a kind of trance. Others describe them as being misshapen monsters. At this point, there's no really authentic way for us to say who or what to look for and guard yourself against. Reaction of law enforcement officials is one of complete bewilderment at this hour. Police and sheriff's deputies and emergency ambulances are literally deluged with calls for help. The scene can be best described as mayhem. The mayors of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Miami, along with the governments of several eastern and Midwestern states indicated that the National Guard may be mobilized at any moment, but that has not happened as yet. The main advice news reporters have been able to get from official sources is to tell private citizens to stay inside their homes behind locked doors. Do not venture outside for any reason until the nature of this crisis has been determined, and until we can advise what course of action to take. Keep listening to radio and TV for special instructions as this crisis develops further. Thousands of office and factory workers are being urged to stay at their places of employment, not to make any attempt to get to their homes. However, in spite of this urging and warning, streets and highways are packed with frantic people trying to reach their families or, apparently, to flee just anywhere. We repeat, the safest course of action at this time is simply to stay where you are."