Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Night of the Living Dead

The first modern zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968) introduced the world to the idea of zombies as undead, cannibalistic monsters instead of the sugar-mill slaves of Voodoo overlords. It's a dark, graphically violent, intense, and taboo-shattering horror movie that remains one of the most important films for the trends it established in the genre and independent cinema.

Night of the Living Dead came out at the height of the turmoil of the 1960s: the political unrest, the countercultural movement, the race riots, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. The world, especially in America, seemed to be falling apart, and society was changing. Night, like the later entries in director George Romero's series, captures the zeitgeist of the decade it was made in. Zombies are often used to represent revolution, and in Night, the zombies are a new society literally devouring the old society.

The plot of Night has been re-used countless times: a group of people try to survive the night as they are besieged by monsters. The tragedy is instead of working together, these characters bicker, argue, backstab, and ultimately are unable to act cohesively, thus ensuring their doom. The film has plenty of scenes of zombies clawing through boarded-up windows and emerging en-masse from the shadows, but man proves to be his own worst enemy.

The film broke a lot of taboos. Plenty of movies since have gone farther, but when Night came out, the scenes of cannibalism, as undead ghouls tug on intestines and chew on severed arms, were as shocking and grotesque as it got in 1968, and even the today, seen in the stark black and white photography, it retains its power, almost like watching a newsreel or documentary. The low-budget nature of the movie becomes an advantage, giving the film an authentic feel, and with most of the drama inside the farmhouse, there is genuine, claustrophobic tension.

Night refuses to play favorites and is merciless towards its characters. Everyone, kids and adults, are in danger and can be killed at anytime, or worse, they can turn on you, whether they've panicked and tried to lock you out of the sanctuary as the zombies get closer or they've joined the living dead and want to take a bite out of you.

At the center of this group of catatonic victims, panicking mothers, and assholes is Ben. Played by Duane Jones, Ben is the calm voice of reason and authority who tries to help everyone and keep it all together. The fact he's played by a black actor, itself a shattering of movie convention of the time, adds a greater resonance to the movie, leading to an unforgettably dark and ironic ending that brings to mind nothing if not a lynch mob.

Romero worked dark humor into his later zombie work, and while Night is more or less a straight up thriller without the tongue-in-cheek style of his other movies, he gets in some sly, subtle touches. The opening in the cemetery, where Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russ Streiner) visit their father's grave, is justifiably famous. The mean brother teases his sister about how "They're coming to get you, Barbara," but the joke's on him: they're coming for everyone.

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