In the bottom of my video cabinet, under old store bought DVD cases and VCR tapes, I have a stack of VCR tapes that I recorded over the years. I dusted them off recently and was pleasantly surprised to find Night of the Living Dead. Judging from the material recorded before and after the film on the tape, it would seem that I taped this one about twenty years ago.
I still retain an old VCR in my basement (since I do have an extensive library of tapes I have yet to transfer to DVD), so I popped the video in and hoped for the best. Despite the age of my tape and the inconsistencies of the original film print itself, the viewing experience was quite enjoyable. In fact, the bumped microphones, the slightly flubbed lines, and the head-pounding soundtrack only add to the fun. A character lights a match, and it sounds as if someone is lighting one right next to you. The film sucks us in this way, making us feel as if we are in that room trapped with the survivors.
The story still seems fresh to me. Looking at it from the perspective of the year it was made, it was daring for Romero to cast black actor Duane Jones as the lead character Ben. It is commendable that Ben is obviously a born leader, intelligent, sensitive, and compassionate – all the things his white nemesis Mr. Cooper (Karl Hardman) is not. Also, the lead actress, Judith O’Dea (Barbara), is perfectly cast as a neurotic girl who loses her brother in a cemetery and flees to a farmhouse to find someone to help her, only to discover the old woman murdered upstairs.
What is now a familiar trope (zombies trying to get at a few survivors trapped inside someplace) was a brilliant new idea back in 1968. Despite liking similar themes used in films over the years and now in the uber-popular TV series The Walking Dead, none can compare to Romero’s original film. The stark production values, the seemingly everyday people cast as the characters, the jarringly realistic news broadcasts, and the zombies themselves (many played by Romero’s friends from the Pittsburgh area near which the film was made) all add to a rather surreal documentary feel to the proceedings.
Knowing how the film would end, I still felt drawn into it and wanted the characters to succeed. Some of the acting is poor (Keith Wayne as Tom in particular), but Jones makes Ben a hero worth rooting for, O’Dea garners sympathy for Barbara, and Hardman makes Cooper one mean bastard. Put it all together and you have a recipe for all the films that have followed: the survivors who are fighting amongst themselves more than against the zombies outside the door.
The small group in that house is a microcosm of society at the time. Cooper and his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) obviously seem to have money, Tom and Judy (Judith Ridley) are simple local folks, Barbara comes from Pittsburgh and appears well-off, and Ben is an obviously well-educated fellow of simple means. Thus the stage is set for conflict, with Ben and Cooper going head-to-head numerous times. While Cooper never makes any racist comments (he calls Ben “that guy”), it is clear that he does not like Ben being in charge. Tom tries to be the voice of reason, and Cooper and Helen bicker constantly. When she tells him that he better work with Ben because they may not enjoy living together but dying together will be worse, you know Romero has ripped the fairy tale of happy suburban marriage to shreds.
One of the continuing conflicts in the film is Cooper’s assertion that “The cellar is the safest place.” Ben says “It’s a death trap,” and they go back and forth on this. It becomes an issue that eventually will cause Cooper to try and get the gun from Ben, and this will lead to a fight in which Ben shoots Cooper as things spiral out of control when the zombies begin breaking into the house.
Character development is key to the success of the story here, for we want these people to survive. In many subsequent films, directors gloss over the human factor to get to the blood and gore. A film series like Friday the 13th devolved from the power of the original into increasingly more nonsensical sequels, and the viewer is almost always rooting for Jason to get on with it, mostly because the people are throwaway characters waiting to be sliced and diced. Here we want to see the zombies killed and the humans survive, if they can find a way not to kill each first.
There are some visceral scenes that make the film rise to iconic status, among them Ben killing a zombie with a crowbar (and then yanking it out of its head), one involving Ben and Tom trying to get gas for a truck, Helen getting bludgeoned by her daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) who has turned into a zombie, and zombies feasting on the recently dead Tom and Judy (Judith Ridley) after the truck goes on fire.
For a film made for about $100,000 and with a cast of unknowns, its impact not only on the horror genre, but all other kinds of films as well, cannot be underestimated. Romero also brought in the now common theme of the importance and dangers of technology, with radiation from a failed space probe bound for Venus returning to earth as the cause for the “mutations” that wreak havoc all over the world.
Films with gigantic budgets, big-name stars, and tons of special effects do not come close to matching the intensity, grit, and palpable fear that this film generates. As I watched it I reveled in the hisses and popping on the audio, the over the top soundtrack (pieced together from sources such as TV shows and other films), the minimal special effects (chocolate syrup was used for the blood), and the dialogue that seems like real interactions between severely stressed out people. It all makes for a bumpy cinematic ride that is a delight.
The ending of the film (even after you have seen it many times) is still hard to take. While the police and volunteer citizens seem to have everything under control outside, Ben remains in the cellar (ironically it does indeed turn out to be the safest place) as the last survivor. He hears sirens and dogs barking and slowly ventures upstairs to look for his rescuers. One of the cops sees movement in the house and shoots Ben in the head. The sheriff callously says, “Put him on the fire!” We have to give credit to Romero for a bleak ending that resonates long after you have seen the film.
I remember when I first saw this movie as a ten year old boy on a late Halloween night. I was alone in my room watching on a black and white TV, and I couldn’t turn away from the screen. Though my parents were asleep in the next room, I felt fear crawl up my back and surge through my body. When it was over and I turned off the light, it was impossible for me to sleep because of the ending, and I heard all sorts of bumps and things crawling around in the night.
I must say that all these years later I still got chills watching this film again. It remains for me a dark, bloody, and ghoulish delight. It’s a perfect film to watch after all the trick-or-treaters have gone home, the kids are in bed, and you can sit down with a bowl of popcorn. Just hold onto the bowl because this film will make you squirm and jump, and isn’t that what a good scary movie is supposed to do to you?
Deep in the dark recesses of the mind, there is a place where we don’t like to go because it is too frightening for us. Certain films bring us down there and threaten to keep us from returning to the light. George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead is such a film, and it remains as one of the most chillingly adept exercises in churning the fears we try to repress. After all these years, I guess that is why I appreciate it so much.
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