Thursday, August 11, 2011

Get to Know a Horror Classic: Night of the Living Dead

Boo, motherfucker! That line would account for about 85% of the scares in I horror movie if I'd written it. But while I have absolutely no business creating a horror movie, that doesn't mean I can't appreciate ones made by people who know what they're doing. I've already alluded to that fact a few times before, but after reading Shock Value last week I feel like taking a tour of some of the classics I've never seen. And maybe I'll take the opportunity to revisit some great ones from when I was a kid.

This week, I'll start with the zombie movie that led the way for all other zombie movies, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. Made in 1968 in Monroeville, Pa, only a few hours away from where I currently sit, Night of the Living Dead isn't terribly new by today's standards. A small group of people are surrounded by a swarm of ghouls who want little more than to chow down on them. But before Night of the Living Dead, this scenario was unheard of, and it paved the way for a whole host of zombie movies (about 50% of which seem to have been made by Romero). What I wanted to know, though, is how does the movie stand on its own, rather than as a piece of horror movie history?

Well, the first thing that has to be said is that this movie it looks very dated. Even though it was made well after color was put into widespread use, its shoestring budget forced the use of black and white, so it looks like something out of the 40s or 50s as opposed to the late 60s. While this was a flaw for me at first, it actually made the harsh violence that much more shocking when contrasted with the old-style feel the movie has. If someone glanced at the screen, they might expect this movie to be a campy flick about giant radioactive ants or some poor guy stomping around in a crappy rubber suit. Instead, they'd get this:

That is a brutal piece of film work. Sure, there have been gorier scenes since, but the very concept is extremely dark. Firstly, Romero essentially killed a kid, which is usually taboo, even in horror. Secondly, the undead child then proceeds to kill both of her parents. And Romero has no qualms about drawing out the mother's murder, keeping the viewer believing that someone would come down and save her at the last second. Instead, the undead child repeatedly stabs her over and over again. Definitely not something for the feint of heart.

Speaking of harsh, the ending is definitely not geared for folks who want the good guys to win. Ben is not only maybe the only black protagonist in a 1960s movie not played by Sidney Poitier, he's also one of the only black men ever to make it to the end of a horror movie in the history of horror movies. But unfortunately, he only survives the zombie attack to be mistaken for one of them and shot in head by a gaggle of hillbilly zombie killers.

The shot takes place at around the 4:15 mark, but what's worse is the build up. If I'd seen this without knowing what was going to happen it would have been tense, but I think it's even worse knowing what's coming. You want him to make it so badly, and he'd be just about to do that if not for Jethro and his posse. So the fact that Romero teases you with the possibility of a happy ending only to pull the rug out from under you is a real kick in the gut.

Night of the Living Dead is not without its drawbacks. The acting is wooden in a lot of areas and there are a lot of scenes that drag on for way too long (how long can we watch a guy board up windows while a catatonic woman babbles to herself?) but all in all it's still a worthwhile watch, especially when you consider you can see it for free pretty much anywhere since Romero didn't have the foresight to copyright his work. I'm hoping that's a mistake he corrected when he made the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, which I'll likely get to in a later post.

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