Day 8: Classics Revisited – Night of the Living Dead

After finishing up my post yesterday, I decided to get caught up on Fear the Walking Dead. Quick side note: we’re only two episodes into the new season, but it’s shaping up to be a good one (hopefully better than the last season of The Walking Dead). Anyway, while I was watching the zombie-gore and the evils of humanity that results, I realized I haven’t watched The Source in a long time. Granted, last Halloween we hosted a zombie-themed game-night where I curated a collection of zombie films that played silently in the background… but that doesn’t really count.  Add to that the fact that I really didn’t have it in me to play another round of Netflix Roulette and I decided that now, for no reason whatsoever, would be a good time to revisit the work of my spirit animal: George A. Romero. So, for the next three posts we’re going to go to use the way-back machine and watch his original Living Dead trilogy (I’ll talk a bit more about the second trilogy towards the end of my expedition).

Some of you may recall that one of the first posts on this blog (from over two years ago), told the story of my first encounter with Night of the Living Dead. I won’t retell it here (mostly to save my mother any additional shame), but if you’re so inclined you can go check it out. Instead, I want to talk about what this film means to me and why, when people ask me the completely unfair question “what is your favorite movie”, I unfailingly name this film… unless, of course, I don’t particularly feel like engaging the person, and in those cases, I go with Jaws (which, really, isn’t untrue… as Jaws is definitely more watchable to NotLD).

I’ve been obsessed with this film from a much too early age (again, go read my first post, if that spikes your curiosity). Apart from Star Wars it is easily the movie I’ve watched the most. It informs my love of movies in general, and the horror genre in particular. It bums me out that so few people of our generation have watched it… I’m sorry if that comes across as judgmental or that I’m trying to hold myself over other who haven’t seen it. Trust me, I understand why. How many of us have actually gone back and watched the classics? (Citizen Kane has been on my movies-to-watch list for nearly two decades). Plus, try convincing someone that a black-and-white movie from 1968 has something to offer a modern viewer… and maybe it doesn’t… maybe I’m looking at it through the eyes of a terrified eight-year-old. But, if you’re willing to give it a shot I really think there is something there for you… at the very least from a historical/academic perspective. This is the well-spring from which all modern horror movies (not just the current zombie craze) originate.

Prior to this film, the horror genre was the stuff of Saturday-matinees where children gathered for good natured chills-and-thrills. So, imagine what happened when theater owners had to deal with droves of screaming and sobbing kids streaming out of showings of a mid-afternoon movie that contained images of nudity, immolation, cannibalism, patri- and matricide as well as themes of racial tensions, sexism, and obsessions with the media. Actually, you don’t need to imagine it, the wonderful and missed Robert Ebert wrote about his experience at one of these screenings (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-night-of-the-living-dead-1968).

I could honestly write a book on this film, but instead, I’ll leave you with the two elements that jumped out at me from this viewing. These aren’t new to me, they’re just what seemed to hit me the hardest this time. First, I am always amazed at how contained and yet massive this movie feels. The main story is straightforward. A group of strangers are trapped in a farmhouse while a horde of zombies (or ghouls as they’re referred to by the characters) try to get in. In other words, at its core, it’s a movie about survival. On its own, it succeeds, but Romero juxtapositions the claustrophobia by introducing brief views of the outside world. First, we’re introduced to Ben’s origin story, then the survivors gather around a radio, where they learn that the creatures are not only killers, but cannibals, and then finally, they find a TV (which, many of the survivors are nearly ecstatic over), which informs them that these cannibals are actually reanimated corpses. This is always the part of the film that captured my imagination. There’s something about being trapped in a house while hearing and seeing the world crumbing outside that is truly terrifying (at least to me). It also ups the tension, since, the viewer is left asking where are they going to escape to if this is happening everywhere.

The other thing that hit me this time (and to be honest, it’s present early every time I watch this movie) is the portrayal of women. For a movie that is so far ahead of its time, boy did they miss the mark when it comes to the female characters. Barbara is perhaps the most problematic. She spends most of the film in a near catatonic state… and when she comes out of it, she’s the stereotypical hysterical women. Judy is constantly being comforted and mansplained to by Tom and eventually meets her demise because she flightily decides to follow him (sorry for the minor spoiler… I’m trying to avoid them as much as possible since I’m assuming most of you haven’t seen it). Helen is easily the strongest female character, but she spends most of her time defined by her role as a mother. I know many of you would write this off as simply being of its time, but that’s a copout… especially, for a movie that addresses racial tensions in such a subtle and thoughtful way. Here’s the golden-lining though: Romero was clearly aware of this, since he spent nearly every movie in the Living Dead series trying to develop strong female characters, who were often the protagonist. Maybe this is what we need to go through to get to Fran in Dawn of the Dead (more on that tomorrow), but oh man, it is rough at times.

So, if you haven’t watched Night of the Living Dead, now might be the time. Just try to watch with the knowledge that it was first out of the gate. Plus, then we can talk about the ending… I’ve had questions and thoughts for nearly thirty years.

I honestly can’t wait for the next two movie. Dawn of the Dead is a different type of masterpiece, and Day of the Dead somehow always feels new to me. See you tomorrow!

2 thoughts on “Day 8: Classics Revisited – Night of the Living Dead

  1. Re: Black and white barrier: the black and white barrier is a challenging one. I remember when I would not watch blank and white movies because they felt so unnatural. Over time, I eventually acclimated to them & grew to appreciate them (since there’s things you can do in black and white that you can’t do with color). I think the trick may be starting with genres you love and working your way from there. So if horror is your genre, you can start with Psycho & then work your way to Night of the Living Dead. I actually think these two films make an interesting pairing because it highlights NOTLD’s unpolished raw energy.

    Re: Citizen Kane: I definitely think you should give Citizen Kane a try. I think the most surprising thing about it I can tell you that you may not have heard is how it brims with youthful energy. You can really feel how a bunch of wide-eyed twenty-somethings went out to try to make the best movie they could and somehow managed something pretty great. Actually, if I may, I would say it shares that energy with NOTLD (which also has a similar exuberance).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this is an excellent point. For some reason, whenever I talk about the early history of modern horror, I always forget to give Psycho its proper credit… and I love the film! I think that I’m just mildly obsessed with NotLD. I also completely agree with your thoughts on black and white. I actually talk about this (a bit) in the post that will be up a bit later today. Part of a (minor) sticking point for me with Dawn of the Dead is the coloring issues.

      Okay, that settles it. I’m bumping up Citizen Kane and will make a point to watch it before the summer it done!

      Like

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