Night of the Living Dead

Thursday, October 25th, 2007 Horrorthon Posts / Horrorthon Reviews

They’re coming to get you, Barbara!

1968 (*****)

How can a movie this bad be this good? The last two entries in my “Masterpiece Series” (Alien, The Exorcist) are premier examples of big-budget, Oscar-winning, meticulous Hollywood artistry and craftsmanship with A-list actors, groundbreaking special effects and some of the most renowned and accomplished photography, sound and technical innovation ever applied to filmmaking. Night of the Living Dead (1968)—made independently in black and white with looped mono sound for $114,000 (from a script written in three days), starring mediocre non-actors (including one of the producers in a major speaking role) who ad-libbed their dialogue, shot almost entirely in a borrowed Pennsylvania farmhouse, and scored with stock music cues from Capital Records’ library—was chosen by the Library of Congress to be entered into the United States National Film Registry due to its “historical, cultural and aesthetic importance” and selected by New York’s Museum of Modern Art for inclusion in its permanent film collection.

After this most recent viewing (and after dwelling on Hitchcock’s vastly superior black-and-white compositions in Psycho) I’m forced to admit that Night of the Living Dead has production values so low that it would not be out of place to see robot silhouettes in the lower right corner of the screen. None of the actors has any skill, and the filmmakers don’t seem to own a tripod, let alone a crane or a dolly. There is no source sound. A modern viewing is further hampered by obscure copyright issues: since the movie is in the public domain, it’s practically impossible to see a legitimate 35mm screening; nearly every home video copy is reproduced from inferior 16mm dupes, and only one of the several DVD editions is a legitimate digital transfer from the original full-size answer print. It’s not the definitive zombie movie (or even the definitive George A. Romero zombie movie); those honors belong to the subsequent, vastly more ambitious Dawn of the Dead (1978), in which Romero himself does this movie the ultimate “sequel/follow-up” indignity of pretending it never happened.

And yet…and yet. Despite shortcomings that would seemingly cripple or destroy any movie, Night of the Living Dead remains brilliant, timeless; a masterpiece of the first order. Even when so badly reproduced, the visuals have a raw, documentary simplicity that borders on lyricism, and the (largely-handheld) camerawork is forceful and effective in a brutish, kinetic way that generates overwhelming immediacy and realism. I refer you to octopunk’s excellent review from last year’s Horrorthon, which describes the movie’s texture as “a film noir playground” in which “every shot boasts either this moody style or a Twilight Zone sharpness…It’s eye candy, all right, but a strange pepper-flavored candy you find in Japan.” The story, the concept and the characters are so pure and clear that all the inadequacies somehow melt away as you watch—the movie is as deathless and enduring as the undead ghouls (the word “zombie” is never spoken) that prowl and stagger so hauntingly across its milky-white, bleached-out fields and roads.

Of course, this is the movie that invents the “zombie” concept from whole cloth. Romero and co-screenwriter John Russo glued the “living dead” concept to the “cannibalism” concept purely for the taboo shock value, inadvertently creating a mythos that stands alongside the towering Victorian archetypes of Vampires and Werewolves in its endless, repetitive fascination and dogmatic consistency. And the zombie idea is one for the ages. It’s a perfect horror archetype: primal, terrifying, revolting, tactically unstoppable (the zombies always win) and deeply suggestive, lending itself to endless interpretive critical thinking that enhances, rather than blunting, the speculative fear that the concept provokes.

But (as I said above) a person seeking the “definitive” introduction to Romero’s zombies should probably look elsewhere. That’s just not what makes this movie so good (although it’s admittedly the indispensable ingredient). Night of the Living Dead succeeds brilliantly on its bold deconstruction and reversal of horror conventions. Unlike even the relentless Alien (which intersperses the killings with calm, nearly cerebral character scenes), Night of the Living Dead creates what critic Stanley J. Solomon calls “an atmosphere of constant panic.” Unlike nearly every horror movie, in which the identities and characteristics of the people in danger has governance over what happens to them, the people in Night of the Living Dead all suffer no matter how nobly or ignobly they behave. Unlike nearly every suspense/horror story, Night of the Living Dead doesn’t present characters who rise to the occasion or learn from their mistakes: the movie frightens because it dispenses with the convenient fiction that ordinary people “find a way” to cope with extreme situations. Instead, we’re shown a far bleaker (some say “nihilistic”) vision of ordinary people rendered incoherent and helpless by their extreme duress.

Barbara (Judith O’Dea) loses her brother to a graveyard zombie in the first five minutes, and, after an adrenaline-fueled run to a nearby house, is so utterly useless for the rest of the movie that another character yells at her and strikes her repeatedly, trying to shock her out of panic-induced catatonia. (Barbara is a marked contrast to Sarah Polley’s protagonist in 2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake, who experiences a near-identical chain of events and yet manages to keep her wits about her and emerge as a leader.) The trapped characters turn on each other (as happens in Spielberg’s stunning War of the Worlds basement sequences) but nobody “heroically” prevails; they just come to blows and then to gunshots with nothing resolved. The master scheme to escape the house ends in fiery ruin as every human element and technical aspect of the plan fails utterly. Loyalty and familial love, usually the saving grace of horror-story characters, here leads three main characters to their grisly deaths. Night of the Living Dead strips away the convenient fiction (governing nearly all horror/suspense movies) that people will somehow manage to master horrific (or apocalyptic) situations. The alternative—a chain reaction of cowardice, bickering, failure and ineptitude—opens a door to a level of fear well beyond the reach of more conventionally-structured horror stories.

Countless zombie movies (including five by Romero) have deepened and broadened the scope of the basic concept, but The Blair Witch Project (1999) may be the only legitimate modern heir to this movie and its unique, jarring approach. Yet Blair Witch is a stunt; a trick played on the actors and the audience with dubious, inconsistent and unrepeatable (although effective) results. Night of the Living Dead is the real thing: an outdated, unadorned and unapologetic nightmare that can still chill audiences to the bone.

BABE ALERT: Judith Ridley (below, twice) is so freaking beautiful that I’m convinced she would have become a major breakout star, if only she was able to pronounce all twenty-six letters of the alphabet.