It’s a strange time to watch a zombie film, during a pandemic.
A zombie apocalypse is a little too close to a globally spreading virus for my liking.
But it’s October and I’m a thrill-seeker, OK?
If you stop to think about it for a while, it’s bloody terrifying. The similarities are frighteningly homogenous.
- The human reactionary element
- Shortage of medical care
- Risk of spread
- complete pause on normal social activities, such as grabbing a beer at your favourite pub without giving your phone number, address, national insurance number, details of three extra contacts, number plate, pin number, and the last shred of that same freedom that won us the world war… but I digress.
The Night of the Living Dead, 1968 is considered to be a cultural marker in the filmic canon of zombie movies. Made independently by Image Ten production company, George A. Romero’s directorial debut has developed a life of its own; inviting many conversations about societal change, racial issues and the human condition.
The film begins with siblings Barbara and Johnny visiting their father’s grave. Johnny is mostly obnoxious (it becomes clear he will die pretty early on). He blasphemes against the dead and mocks the religious. He pretty much completely undermines the institution of religion, representing the rise in the secular society in the 1960’s, in the first ten minutes. Johnny holds the new wreath they’ll place on their father’s grave. It says ‘We still remember’ – Johnny scoffs and claims ‘I don’t even remember what the guy looks like.
Johnny practices some sibling taunting, teasing Barbara for getting scared as a child. It’s clear the guy is very bored, he doesn’t want to be there and has happened upon a memory to entertain him for the remainder of their time at the grave. Barbara being the tightly wound fragile female is so bothered by this taunting and tells him to stop, telling him, ‘you’re ignorant!’ Later in the film, she’ll recall this moment to Ben in a completely different way. It was a funny little moment you see, where she laughed at Johnny and told him to stop, when in reality, she wasn’t so much enthused, as basically crapping her pants. This could be due to a trauma victim response – muddling up the details, or it could be her being annoying as hell.
Karma meets Johnny in the form of a zombie (who might have risen from his own grave in the cemetery). The two get into a scuffle after the zombie attacks Barbara. The stoic hero, Johnny steps in and gets his head whacked onto a gravestone, and dies. Barbara barely blinks an eye and flees the scene looking out for numero uno. Then follows a rather peculiar display of mundane ‘common sense’ – she runs away, then gets into the car. Without the keys, she manages to get the car to roll down the winding hill, all the way down to smash into a tree – effective. The uber intelligent and skilled zombie smashes the window with a rock he picks up from the floor with his human-like hand-eye coordination and reaches in, Barbara is shocked. She then exits the car and runs some more.
Finding a farmhouse, Barabara seeks safety inside where she eventually meets Ben.
I’ve always wondered why Ben doesn’t say anything to Barbara upon first meeting. ‘Hey, I’m Ben, don’t fear! I’m not a ghoul/zombie/flesh-eater (Whatever you want to call it), Let’s get inside quickly!’
In this shot, Barbara slowly backs away from the zombie, but Ben is walking toward her as well, so it’s could be that she is both scared of the zombie and of the black man. Ben doesn’t say a word, stares at her, grabs her and gets them both inside.
There are many moments in the film which strike me as practicing arthouse mise-en-scene. Moments that, in my mind would benefit from some outward shrieks, exclamations of fear. I satisfied these thoughts by wondering whether the erratic brass soundtrack accompanying these scenes was thought of as a replacement.
So anyway, Ben gets to work boarding up the house with an, apparently endless supply of spare lumber, exercising a calm rational. Barbara enters a catatonic state, unable to help Ben at all. The group begin to form properly when two other couples arise from the basement. A middle-aged couple; Helen, Harry and their zombie infected daughter Karen and a teenage couple Tom and Judy. The film then begins to fully explore the human psyche concerning survival and collaboration.
Now, a discussion on The Night of the Living Dead devoid of the topic of race is rare. This piece isn’t any different. Even though Romero on many occasions, has explained that the casting of a leading black protagonist was not overtly intentional; Duane Jones was simply the best actor to audition for the role of Ben, it’s still a huge topic of discussion amongst cult film fanatics and scholars to this day.
I am aware of Romero’s progressive liberalistic outlook, so I do trust this statement. However, I think it’s important nonetheless to recognize the importance in casting a black man for the lead role in a zombie film, in which he kills numerous white zombie’s and is the hierarchical alpha male of the group of white ‘survivors’.
During Barbara’s unstable outburst with Ben, suddenly remembering Johnny is out and about in the zombie farm, Ben tries multiple times to calm her down as the elevation of panic emanating from her resembled a ticking time bomb. She finally loses it and hits Ben. Ben returns this hit, even harder. 21st-century viewers have to imagine would it would have been like for an audience in the ’60s to witness a tall, handsome black man striking a white woman, even if it was to snap her out of her panicked outburst.
The film came just before the MPAA code meaning it was safe for general audiences. This isn’t so shocking to a modern day viewer I suppose, the the film itself isn’t ‘scary’, it’s more what it represents and the threat of the decline in humanity.
Famed film critic Roger Ebert wrote a piece on this film in 1968, which mostly examined the audience reaction at the time of release. I find Ebert’s piece very important as it’s clear the film and its distributors were oblivious to the endless effect of power it had. The film was shown in the cinema’s at matinee time for teenagers.
Although it still stands that horror is a genre that is mostly devoured by a younger audience, the chaos of the horror genre mimics the adrenaline of adolescence I suppose, but with some ‘old’ horror, I believe there lives much more social commentary than the modern stuff. There has to be more substance than a big budget, with special effects and gory, blood-soaked jump scares that make my heart skip a beat – it’s great ‘n’ all but… is there anything underneath that?
Roger Ebert expressed a good level of concern for the kids he witnessed at the matinee screening of the film, saying ” I’d want to know what the parents were thinking of when they dumped the kids in front of the theater to see a film titled “Night of the Living Dead.”
Audiences today have been bombarded with extreme levels of horror since The Night of the Living Dead and are therefore much more prepared for traumatic scenes, however, I also believe the power of the horror genre has capabilities in telling moralistic tales.
What’s great about the zombie thing is that both ‘entities’ in the film are selfish. The human characters are out for themselves mostly. They have little or inconsistent consideration for each other.
If all the humans worked together to efficiently block the house, practiced strategy and logic, they could have all lasted a bit longer and maybe even survived. Instead, they separated and therefore became more vulnerable.
The zombies are also more effective together. We see this when Barbara gets metaphorically swallowed by the zombies when she’s distracted by seeing her brother, Johnny in zombie form. Barbara managed to get away from one lone zombie at the beginning of the film though.
The zombies connect and act uniformly, I know their aim is to eat chunks out of humans, but still – it’s a shared goal.
Characterization and variety is a point of analysis. Two alpha males struggling for hierarchy, the meek diplomat sitting in-between the two, the timid, incapable women. Women really don’t have a great light shining on them in this film. Barbara is an unfortunate display of the archaically feared ‘hysterical woman’. Although Helen does scold Harry at some point for being ignorant towards collaborating with Ben upstairs where the television set is.
The film should definitely be watched with a lot of consideration for the time in which it was made. The same goes for Jordan Peele’s Get Out which tells the story of an young African American man uncovering a bizarre and disturbing secret about his white girlfriends family, their inherent racism and how they deal with this prejudice.
Get Out stars Black Mirror’s Daniel Kaluuya and Girls’ Alison Williams. Peele has described The Night of the Living Dead as a great source influence for Get Out. The two films share the same essence, one consciously and one subconsciously. That is the portrayal of a black man’s experience in a white environment.
2017 gave us Jordan Peele’s directorial debut; Get Out staring Black Mirror’s Daniel Kaluuya and Girls’ Alison Williams. Peele has described The Night of the Living Dead as a great source influence for Get Out. The two films share the same essence, one consciously and one subconsciously. That is the portrayal of a black man’s experience in a white environment.
The Night of the Living Dead has no other black group members, no black zombie’s no black police officers or officials- whether Romero consciously cast Duane Jones or not, the absence of a single other black actor is what makes the conversation of race so necessary regarding this film. Get Out, 2017 presents leading protagonist Chris meeting his white girlfriends’ parents for the first time. Early in the film, Chris asks his girlfriend if her parents know that he is black.
The fact that this is even a point of concern for Chris shows how Peele wanted to present a black man’s reality and the liberalism of racism in America. It places the film in the 21st century and defines the biggest change between Romero’s ‘…Living Dead and Get Out – this being that Peele has a few decades as an advantage for creating film in a racially aware climate that wants to tackle issues of race through art.
The ending of Night of the Living Dead is something that still shocks first time viewers today. The whole way through, you’re rooting for Ben to survive and it looks as though he will.
Throughout the group survival period in the farmhouse, there are intermittent news reels shown on the television set of gun toting police officers who are calm and confident about eradicating the threat of these ‘ghouls’. This can almost be read as a threatening element, popping up on the screen every now ang again, only to finally end with Ben’s death. A shot to the head but a white man. Ben was armed, aiming a gun out of the window – I know zombies in this film were smart enough to throw rocks at car windows, but could they aim guns?
Surely there is nothing more relevant than this aspect of the film, for today’s audience – especially considering the rise of BLM in America due to numerous senseless black deaths at the hands of police officials.
Why I respect Night of the Living Dead is not only the film itself but the life it’s garnered as a separate entity. The film’s ability to open conversations and analysis, it’s controversies and funny, yet unfortunate copyright mishap – (the original name was Night of the Flesh Eaters, on which the copyright was placed. The name then had to be changed due to availability and everything involved forgot to apply the new copyright, making the film Public Domain. With no intellectual property rights, the film it all adds to the life of this film. Anything that achieves longevity, surpassing multiple generations is special.