Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Great Movies That Made Going to the Movies Suck #3- Night of the Living Dead

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Simon Appears Courtesy of Four of Them

Oh, zombies. Where would our political aggressions be without them? Long a staple of pop culture, spawning five tangents of merchandise, some of which makes sense only if you're on especially bad pot. We love them, I think, because they are the ultimate excuse, both legal and moral, for murder.

However, Night of the Living Dead, Romero's breakout film, and many consider his masterpiece, is not the first appearence of the zombie. Technically, it was practioners of Voodoo in Haiti, 1800s on. In the 1930s, a folklorist named Zora Hurston went there, researching folklore, and met a woman who, by all accounts, had been dead and buried in 1907. And so it began, ya'll.

I won't bore you with more historical nonsense from Wikipedia. The thing is, Night of the Living Dead wasn't even the first movie to feature zombies. This honor went to White Zombie, a 1932 horror starring Bela Lugosi, which in itself was inspired by a book exploring undead voodoo themes published a few years earlier. Other films developed the more apocalyptic themes of the zombie, such as sci-fi Things to Come, several EC Comics which inspired Romero, and, of course, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.

So, one could argue, Romero was hardly revolutionary in his concept. What he did do, though, was perfect, popularize, and reinvent the zombie, and the horror genre, forever.

I could list the thousands upon thousands of straight-up zombie flicks, followed by the zombie comedies, parodies, and rip-offs. But I won't (yet). Let's start, as always, with the social aspect. The film stars Duane Jones as Ben, a man caught in the midst of an outbreak of dead men walking, referred to as ghouls, things, and cannibals, barricaded inside a deserted farmhouse with an ever-growing (then decreasing) number of fellow survivors. See, Jones is black. And he's starring in a movie. As an entirely competent, assertive dude with nobody making any issue, or mention, of his race. This, you can imagine, was something of a big deal.

Oh, sure. 1968, you'd think this thing wouldn't cause such a fuss. But this, you'll consider, was the first time a black man fronted a movie as a non-ethnic role. Jones may not be quite the househole name, but he paved the way for Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Lawrence Fishbourne, and Morgan Freeman.

Then, of course, there was countless political theories taken from this, and indeed all Romero films thereafter. Some compared it to the Vietnam war, the Cold war, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther Kind Jr., etc. Others criticized the partriarchal undertones, the general uselessness of the women, particularly lead-by-proxy Barbra, who spends the majority of the film sitting around, whimpering and drooling. Still more commented on the newfound nihilism of the horror, with not one main character making it to the end. It introduced a new level of unease within film, uncomfortable and bleak. This was the first time people were faced with a situation, on celluloid, anyway, and told that they most likely won't make it out of this situation, if it were them.

Ben's death, especially, is generally considered a flourish, a quick, brutal, pointless action, shot in the head by the Marauding Zombie Slayers, a bunch of rednecks who mistook him for a zombie, when he was standing at the window of the farmhouse the next morning. We were given false hope that hey, at least he made it, in an ironic way (he spends much of the movie arguing with another man over whether or not they should hide out in the basement, and ends up surviving the night by baracading himself there). Then, bam!, sorry Ben. Oh, well.

That's not to mention the countless movies that have followed--the sequels, and remakes of the sequels, B-movies, the reinventions by Danny Boyle and Edgar Wright, subversions and aversions, with every student filmmaker submitting their takes for midterms, and thousands of casting fliars handed out to track teams.

Paranoia--jesting and genuine--now runs rampant. In the back of your mind, can you really say you haven't worried about every cough you hear, every 'cold', that any person could drop one minute and come up the next, grabbing for your arm? Do you really not have a bat within reach when you go to sleep some nights, anticipating you'll have to go Sarah Polley on your sleeping husband? People have studied into the possibility of such an apocalypse? It is the least likely, yet most feared. If you rebuilt society, there'd always be the fear of a resurgence. It promises that you'd have to kill your loved ones, a grim future awaiting.

So, surely, 'Night' is perhaps the most influential film of all time, an impact spanning media, crossing into real life. A new kind of horror, one that's actually, y'know, scary.
ed. This may be as good a time as any to note that, even though I've been putting it off for a couple weeks now, my review of Attack of the Vegan Zombies will be up sometime soon.


  1. You're so right, Simon -- what "Night of the Living Dead" did so well was instill a sense of paranoia that, decades later, we haven't managed to shake.

    It also contains one of the most devastating film endings I've personally ever seen. Every time I see the movie, I'm dreading it.

  2. Damn this was a great write up and one hell of a movie to beat. Sure there were just DREADFUL films that were created in it's wake but there are also some fine imitators and homages (namely the Dawn remake and Shaun of the Dead respectively).

    "So, one could argue, Romero was hardly revolutionary in his concept. What he did do, though, was perfect, popularize, and reinvent the zombie, and the horror genre, forever." Very well stated!!

  3. What's your thoughts on fat-moving zombies? Personally, I don't like them, but I'm a traditionalist I think.

  4. I suspect you mean fast? Personally I'm okay with them because they added an interesting element to 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. They do serve a purpose in terms of suspense but really, zombies are such faceless creatures that, unless the film is actually about something, it hardly matters what their speed is.

  5. It depends on location, I think. If you're trapped in a cabin in the middle of the woods, the urgency is gone, replaced by claustrophobia. Slow-moving zombies would be appropriate then. Fast zombies are best when the hero(s) are on the move, says me.

  6. Si'! Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" is about vampires!! The movie is about zombies.

    And Sidney Poitier preceded my Main Man, Duane Jones.

  7. Yojimbo-Romero has also continually insisted that her hired Jones, not because he was black, but because he was the best actor which means, if true, all the stuff about race is second to the point. For me this movie will always be a reflection of Vietnam era sentiments.

  8. And he WAS the best actor, by far.

    I was merely pointing out that rather than "paving the way" for Sidney Poitier, Sid had made his own road (and subsequently won an Oscar for "Lillies of the Field" in 1963)starting 'way back in the late '50's. Jones came later in '68. Don't take anything away from Poitier: "They call him "MISTER" Tibbs."

    And Matheson's book of "I Am Legend" had the protagonists as vampires, not zombies.

    I'm just sayin'...