“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!