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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 15: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

night-of-the-living-deadDirector: George Romero

Writer: George Romero, John Russo

Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley, Kyra Schon

Plot: Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are visiting their mother’s grave outside of Pittsburgh when they are attacked by a lumbering dead man. Johnny is killed and Barbara flees, surrounded by a flock of the dead who have somehow regained animation and seem to hunger for other human beings. Barbara finally finds herself in a near-catatonic state, trapped in a house, barely escaping the swarming dead. When Ben (Duane Jones) arrives, fleeing the ghouls, Barbara has been shocked into muteness. To their surprise, they find more survivors – a family and a young couple have been hiding in the cellar of the house the entire time. Ben gets into an argument with Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) about whether it’s safer to try to fight in the house or to hole up in the cellar, and eventually the Cooper family bolts itself downstairs while the young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) stay up top with Ben and Barbara.

Downstairs, Cooper and his wife (Marilyn Eastman) repeat Cooper’s argument with Ben, this time with their ill and unconscious daughter  Karen (Kyra Schon) lying between them. Ben and Tom decide on a plan to help them all make for a rescue station, but they will have to brave the undead outside to get to a shed with gas pumps. Tom and Judy die in the attempt and Ben is almost killed when Cooper is afraid to open the door and let him in.

Back inside, Cooper reveals his daughter’s illness came about when she was bit by one of the creatures, while on TV a mob of armed men discuss their efforts to kill the ghouls… a shot to the head is the surefire way to do it. Cooper takes advantage of the situation to go for Ben’s gun, but Ben wrestles it away and shoots Cooper in the side. The invading zombies grab Mrs. Cooper, and her husband staggers back down into the cellar, where his daughter has died, reanimated, and kills her father. Barbara snaps out of her shock and saves Mrs. Cooper, but she too rushes downstairs where her daughter is waiting, and hungry. Barbara is grabbed and pulled into the swarm of zombies by her own dead brother, Johnny, leaving Ben alone to fight off the rest of the horde. Karen emerges from the cellar, but he escapes through the cellar door, kills the re-animated Mr. and Mrs. Cooper, and holes himself up for the night. When morning comes, the zombies have gone and Ben exits the house. A group of roving hunters has shot them all, freeing our hero… until one of them mistakes Ben for another zombie, casually puts a bullet in his head, and throws his body into the funeral pyre with all the rest.

Thoughts: This is one of those films that flat-out defines a genre. George Romero didn’t invent the concept of the zombie, and in fact the word “zombie” is never actually used during the movie, but Night of the Living Dead has shaped the way that we envision this particular menace from beyond the grave ever since. Prior to 1968, cinematic zombies were either of the Haitian voodoo variety (people who had their will stripped from them, forced to do the bidding of a living master) or the occasional alien-controlled mindless husk. It was Romero that took the Haitian concept of the body brought back to life to the extreme of having his heroes battle actual, lumbering corpses, and it was Romero that first gave zombies their hunger for human flesh. (Flesh, mind, you, not brains. That comes later.)

Once again, we see how effective black and white is for these horror films. The scenes – particularly at night – stand in sharp contrast. The characters live in a world of white, while the darkness seems intent to close in on them, and ultimately consume them. The colorized versions – even the particularly good colorized version from 2004 – loses so much of the atmosphere as to make it totally ineffective. The scenes where they zombies gobble up what’s left of Tom and Judy – even thick, ropy intestines – are by far more gruesome than anything else we’ve seen so far in this little horror project. The bar was raised as to how graphic on-screen violence could get, and although Romero certainly had to fight detractors, once that particular Pandora’s Box was opened there was no going back. Even the credits sequence is disturbing – a series of still photographs showing the hunters using hooks to drag Ben’s body to the bonfire where the zombies are being destroyed for good.

Romero and Russo have an interesting structure. With most horror films, you’ll start with a large group of characters, then whittle it down one or two at a time as people are picked off by the monsters. In this case we start with a “sole survivor” in Barbara, then add to the group one or two at a time. Once we reach full strength, with the Cooper family and the teenagers joining Ben and Barbara, the whittling can begin again.

Much of the film has become legendary. The amount of gore depicted on-screen – both in the death scenes and just in images of bodies lying around – was far beyond what one expected from a movie in 1968. Little things – Johnny’s “They’re coming to get you, Barbara…” have lapsed into the public consciousness. If you say that with the right intonation (“They’re coming to get you, Baaaaaaar-ber-aaaaah…”) people who haven’t even seen the film will recognize the line. That idea of a small group of survivors in a boarded-up house, trying to hold off the horde… here’s where it comes from.

Even the way zombies move in this film are what we base every zombie walk on today… slow, shambling, and relentless. This movie is the reasons purists like my girlfriend refuse to accept films like the 2005 Dawn of the Dead remake as a true zombie film – because “Zombies don’t run!” And there’s some truth in the basic idea here. As easy as it would be to escape or kill a single zombie for any able-bodied adult, what makes zombies truly terrifying is the way they just keep coming, the way they march on through any injury short of the destruction of the brain itself, and the way they can start to swarm upon you.  The “zombie apocalypse” idea is here, but it’s in its infancy. This is a small film, focusing on a small group of survivors, but we get a radio news commentary that informs us that the phenomenon is happening across the eastern part of the United States, and growing more widespread. Later filmmakers and authors (including Romero himself) would run with this idea and make our zombies just one of the ways the world ends… not with a bang or a whimper, but with a low moan and a gnashing of teeth.

One of the things that many zombie movies – certainly the best ones – have taken from this film is the way there’s no attempt to explain the supernatural. The dead are rising, and there’s a little lip service paid to it in the form of a short newscast reporting on “radioactive contamination,” but there’s certainly no sort of definitive explanation for why the dead have chosen this particular moment to rise. In truth, the “why” doesn’t really matter – there are monsters, they want to eat you and turn you into one of them, so who cares why they’re doing it? Just run! Zombies (thanks largely to this movie) have become such an all-pervasive aspect of culture that there’s really no reason to muck about with explaining it. Just get straight down to your plot, your characters, and if necessary, your social commentary.

Speaking of which, Romero also gets credit for making the zombie film a commentary on society. Many of his films – and dozens of imitators – have tried to use zombies as allegory for everything from consumerism to the military-industrial complex to the war on terror, all citing Night of the Living Dead’s commentary on racism as their justification. And it’s easy to do – the character of Ben is smart, competent, but utterly helpless to save all of the white people around him who either die thanks to foolish mistakes or self-destruct out of fear or distrust. And then poor Ben, sole survivor, dies at the last second, shot down by a gun-toting white man who thinks Ben is just another zombie. Commentary, right? Except that, to hear Romero tell it, it was never intended. The role of Ben was never written specifically with a black actor in mind, it just so happened that Duane Jones was the best man for the role. The social commentary that people have salivated over for decades is largely a case of people projecting their own issues on to the film. Still, it’s a credit to the film that such projection is even possible, and so convincing when it happens.

Because of a ridiculous blunder on the part of the film’s original distributors – a failure to place a copyright notice on the print – the movie is in the public domain. So it’s really easy to find a copy of it on DVD. But there are very few really good prints of it out there. If you’re hunting out the DVD, do yourself a favor and try to get the “official” one, approved by Romero. And stay away from the “reimagined” 30th anniversary edition released by John Russo in 1999. The less said about that version, the better.

Tomorrow, it’s taken us until 1972, but we’re getting to some of the goriest films we’ve seen yet. Is blood really necessary for suspense? We’ll talk about it in our look at the original version of Last House on the Left.