Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Night of the Living Dead
(George A. Romero, 1968)

“They’re dead, they’re… all messed up..”

When I initially scribbled out a top 20 horror films list, I put “Night of the Living Dead” in the top spot without even thinking about it – an instinctive reaction that I’ve just gotta go with.

I wish I could surprise everybody with a passionate essay explaining why “The Navy vs. The Night Monsters” or “The Howling III: The Marsupials” is the greatest horror movie ever made, but I’m afraid that’s not gonna happen. At least not today.

Obviously there are many, many different ways of reading “Night of the Living Dead”. In fact I have a little book sitting right here on the shelf, published by no less an institution than the BFI, which is entirely concerned with setting out the film’s production history, cultural context, historical importance, critical interpretation and yadda yadda yadda. So I could always have a quick flick through and crib some stuff from there, but frankly I can’t be bothered. Right now I’m not really interested in trying to weigh in to the voluminous discourse concerning the film’s racial, political, social, psychological significance. I tend to feel the role of social commentary in Romero’s work is overplayed and overanalysed anyways, often to the detriment of the films’ more immediate virtues as cracking pieces of cinema, so let’s just say that like any truly great text, whatever you’re looking for in “Night..”, you’ll probably find it. Any message you can manage to pull out of the thing is both entirely deliberate and entirely accidental. It’s clear to me that Romero and his gang were channelling contemporary issues and anxieties on an almost unconscious kinda level, so let’s leave the arguments of what is there and what isn’t for another day and move on.

Because frankly, better questions might be how and why “Night of the Living Dead” has managed to attract this level of attention in the first place, and why it continues to fascinate and obsess us nearly fifty years after it crawled out of Pittsburgh. On a personal level, I can only say that NOTLD is one of the small handful of films that I can happily watch again and again and again. Every moment of it is engrained on my mind; watching it is a comforting ritual, a sort of weird catharsis - the cinematic equivalent of sitting in the dark listening to a doom metal album on headphones, or whatever. I can lose myself endlessly in the grainy, toneless black & white, the caverns of weird, echoed library music, the familiar, hopeless brutality, but most of all the creeping sense of entropic doom that obscures all else. (I love the way that film itself moves forward with the same grinding, foreboding pace of the zombies themselves.) It is ‘horror movie’. The effect it has on my lizard brain is as pleasing and inexplicable as that of ‘comic book’ or ‘rock n’ roll’.

Perhaps just due to over-familiarly, every aspect of NOTLD – every facial expression, line of dialogue, weird, blaring noise – seems perfect to me, from the bullet holes on the cemetery sign in the credits sequence (signs of sporadic human/zombie conflict already in progress, or just a happy accident when the crew turned up to shoot the scene?), to the chilling still photos that end the film. Honestly, it’s like some kind of holy scripture – I know that objectively speaking the film is far from flawless, but the idea that even the smallest element of it could be changed seems absurdly offensive to me (I’ll spare you the tale of how I accidentally bought a DVD of the retouched/rescored John Russo version of the film a few years back and was consumed by an unprecedented fit of nerd-rage).

From the disgusted/condescending newspaper critics who marked the film’s initial release through to bold sacred cow killers of the present day, many have railed against NOTLD’s ubiquitous popularity over the years, complaining that the production is amateurish, the acting dreadful, that Romero’s compositions are sluggish and uninspired, and so on. (For a thorough critical beat-down, see the 1968 Variety review, quoted here.) All I can say is, the film’s ‘amateurism’ is very much in the eye of the beholder. I can understand the criticisms, but personally I’ve always seem NOTLD is a truly exceptional piece of filmmaking. Those who predicate quality on the basis of lavish production values and nuanced, brow-furrowing performances may indeed choke on the film’s rough edges and chaotic mise en scene, but to me that choking is precisely the point.

“Night of the Living Dead” is weird, visceral, assaultive and unrelenting – it is punk filmmaking that wears its shoestring, regional production values with pride rather than trying to hide them. As such, it speaks to me far more powerfully than any of rather airless new-Hollywood ‘landmarks’ that followed in the subsequent decade. Along with many other people I suspect, NOTLD really hit me upside the head when I first saw it. More than anything else, it is responsible for helping me define the kind of cinema I really love, for opening the floodgates to a whole new world of incredible stories and images, completely disconnected from the stifling push and pull between arthouse pretention and blockbuster banality.

Getting a bit more abstract, I definitely see NOTLD representing as a kind of defining UR-text for the whole horror genre. Every history of the genre recognises the film as a singular line in the sand, usually either beginning or ending their study with its release - love it or hate it, “Night..”s status as a game-changing event is difficult to deny. More than simply marking ‘the birth of the modern horror film’ though (as suggested by Kim Newman’s great “Midnight Movies” amongst others), NOTLD’s transformative influence can be seen to extend further in both directions: an accidental crossroads of mighty pop cultural power, forever connecting the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ (or maybe the ‘dead’ to the ‘living’ if you want to get completely preposterous about it).

Feeding into “Night of the Living Dead”, we have: the theremin-haunted sci-fi monster movies of the ‘50s, the funereal/gothic tropes and dutch angles of ‘classic’ horror, the shock tactics of HG Lewis, a cynical up-ending of the Howard Hawks small-cast survival drama, and a mammoth dose of the wider ‘cinema of anxiety’ that built slowly through the ‘60s in the form of “Psycho”, “The Birds”, “Repulsion” and so on.

Feeding out from “Night of the Living Dead”, we have: the birth of the ‘midnight movie’ circuit, the industry’s realisation of a potential market for graphic violence and doom-laden pessimism, and a shot in the arm for regional/independent producers everywhere. We have “Last House on the Left”, “I Drink Your Blood” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.“Eraserhead”, David Cronenberg and Abel Ferrara. Increasingly graphic violence in the ‘70s works of Bava, Argento, Fulci et al. “Cannibal Holocaust” and that whole scene. “Zombi II / Zombie Flesh Eaters”, “Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue”, and every other zombie movie in existence. “The Hills Have Eyes”, “Assault on Precinct 13” and Romero’s own “The Crazies” helping cement the whole formula for ‘survival horror’ narratives. Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, “Reanimator”, and, well – you get the point.

To take a line from the kind of voodoo hokum that Romero & Russo’s new conception of the zombie forever relegated to horror movie history – whether you’re moving forward or looking backward, you’ve got to pay your respects at the crossroads.

To bookend a whirl through the horror genre with quotations from “Night of the Living Dead” has become just as much of a cornball gesture as the sight of shambling ghouls on the horizon, so….. I won’t if it’s ok by you.

Thanks for reading, and sorry that my big December project has lasted most of the way through January – normal (eg, sporadic and random) service to be resumed shortly!


MrJeffery said...

great, landmark film. i can watch it over and over again too and i always feel that it picks up new subtext, whether romero intended it or not.

Kev D. said...

I think it's time for me to get a decent version of this film on DVD... the one I have is of the worst possible quality.

Prof. Grewbeard said...

re: disgusted/condescending newspaper critics who marked the film’s initial release-

i was eight when i read Roger Ebert's infamous review of the film in my parent's subscription copy of Reader's Digest in 1968 and just his description of the film scared me so badly that i was afraid to be alone at night for a week, thanx Rog! i will refrain from using the word "ironic"...

Gregor said...

Excellent series, thanks for all the interesting recommendations.

I’d say for Romero, the social concerns harmed his films a bit, because by far my favourite of his works is Martin. I think it’s because the eponymous Martin was a white bloke that Romero made him a more interesting character than the female/black heroes and the stupid white men in his more well-meaning films. That is ‘interesting’ as in maladjusted, dangerous and a pit pervy, but interesting nonetheless. Having said that, I think it is admirable that Night of the Living Dead did have an African-American hero during civil rights and segregation.

I was thinking I’d try to come up with a list of my top 25 favourite horror films, but failed. Partially because the choices were so obvious (Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man), and narrow (all Corman’s Poe films).

Still, my no.1 horror film isn’t very popular or well-known: it is Incubus starring William Shatner. Have you ever seen that?

Ben said...


No, I've never seen 'Incubus' actually - sure to be interesting... certainly looks like one of the more eccentric films to have made it to the screen over the years.

And yes, 'Martin' is brilliant. If it wasn't for my 'one film per director rule', that one, 'The Crazies' and the first three '..Dead' films would all be riding high on this list - for those five films at least, I think Romero was pretty untouchable.

I'm not sure I take your point about Romero's using black/female protagonists for 'well meaning' reasons however - in all the aforementioned films, I think he was simply trying to represent an honest cross-section of people he wanted to build into useful/interesting characters - not all his white male characters are obnoxious and not all his black/female characters are admirable; aside from the novelty of casting Duane Jones in "Night.." I don't think he ever made race or gender a big issue (until perhaps "Day of the Dead" in the '80s, in which the small group of 'heroic' characters are implicitly targeted by the macho militaristic guys due to their gender/race/nationality).


Yes, I can relate to that! I sometimes think if you were to do a survey of horror movie obsessives, you'd find most of them were over-sensitive kids who were terrified of just about everything in the world up until the age of 11-12ish.

I often make ill-thought-out gags about how kids should watch horror movies to 'toughen 'em up' etc, but it's easy to forget I think how thoroughly something like 'Night of the Living Dead' could devastate an impressionable young mind... as such, I think the point Ebert was making in that review is completely fair!

Gregor said...

I rewatched Messiah of Evil and appreciated it a lot more second time round.

Incidentally, another film that would be on my top 25 list (sorry if this is a topic you're finished with) would be Spiderweb: a short film based on Death and the Compass by Jorge Luis Borges.

I just mention it because it is a black and white low budget offbeat film that you might not have heard of. Also, a while back I read your review of one of Marins films and there is a scene in Spiderweb which made me think of your comment about the cheap but creepy set design in Coffin Joe's films. In spiderweb a guy in a jokeshop devil mask and white tuxedo is standing staring into space in the middle of a wild sambo party (which I appreciated all the more after reading it was filmed in Egham, Surrey). After a while without speaking he goes to the telephone and is accosted by two blokes who look like Russian ballet dancers and abducted whilst a bloke in a horned helmet sings a calypso/reggae song about the amorality of the cosmos.

For some reason it was one of the scariest, creepiest things I've ever seen.

I actually got it as a freebie with Alex Cox's Death and the Compass though I think Spiderweb is far better.

As for your last comment, I had identical comments with two friends my age about Watership Down. The 'kids film' that everyone saw in the 80s where anthropomorphic rabbits are torn to shreds every five minutes. If anything devastated my impressionable mind it was that cartoon: not Terminator or Red Dawn.