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“Seeking human victims”: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

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(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 3

11. Night of the Living Dead, dir. George Romero

The hero is cool under pressure. He is able to assess the situation and take action. He is a motivator, a communicator, a leader. He is caring, intelligent, handsome, strong, and brave.

He is also wrong.

Night of the Living Dead is a great horror film for a variety of reasons. The tremendously atmospheric black-and-white photography is one of them: All expressionist shadows one minute and verite-style documentaryisms the next, it imbues the title characters with a simultaneously obscure and vivid nightmare quality that their counterparts in the film’s sequels (even in the excellent Dawn of the Dead for all its satirical brilliance and undeniable terror) sorely lacked due to their depiction in living color. The eerie opening scene is another: a long drive through an empty road into a cemetery, where our erstwhile protagonist mocks his dead father and utters one of the most memorable unwitting prophecies in horror-film history. And the gruesomely simple premise is still another: With minimal explanation the dead have come back to life, and they’ve come to eat you. The film itself lurches forward with a similar basic-instinct urgency, throttling us after mere minutes and never letting go until that unforgettable ending.

But perhaps the most important reason for this horror film’s greatness is also the one you’re least likely to notice at first, or even after a second viewing. The film is such a white-knuckle onslaught of suspsense and disgust that we may focus on the zombies and the conflict they engender. But that’s a focus almost as single-minded as that of the zombies themselves. What’s really frightening here is that in the end, all our logic, all our admiration, all our sympathy is revealed to have been directed at the wrong person. The right person, of course, did not look or act right–angry, loud, belligerent, defensive, vindictive, self-righteous, cowardly, even craven, he was essentially right in spite of himself. But right he was, and that upends our worldview as much as any zombie.

Appearances are not trustworthy. That’s a very radical message, one that the film embraces in a positive fashion in its unmistakable anti-racist undertones: Racism, after all, is the belief that appearances can always be trusted, because we’re absolutely certain of the truth of those appearances. But the movie also promulgates that message in the most disturbing ways imaginable. It goes to great lengths to convey the fact that the zombies look just like us (“They are us,” as Dr. Logan puts it in the film’s second sequel, Day of the Dead). And it goes to even greater lengths to prove that we are our own worst enemies, that even the best of us can be completely wrong about everything, and the worst of us tragically right.

In Adam Simon’s superlative documentary on the independently-made American horror films of the late 1960s and the 1970s, The American Nightmare, one of the speakers says that Night of the Living Dead conveys more about the turbulent end of the century’s seventh decade than any other film, even (or especially) the ones that explicitly addressed that turmoil. I wasn’t there, but watching this tale of normal people run amok, where black is white and night is day (at least thanks to the continuity errors in those television broadcasts) and hero and villain and monster are thoroughly juxtaposed, my fear is that he’s right–and that he continues to be right even now.

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