Thursday, May 29, 2014

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

USA, 96 minutes
Director/photography/editor: George A. Romero
Writers: John A. Russo, George A. Romero
Music: Capitol / EMI Hi-Q stock recordings
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman, Keith Wayne, Russell Streiner, Marilyn Eastman, Judith Ridley, George Kosana

If anything is famous for being famous it is Night of the Living Dead and its rules of the road for zombie movies. These unique new monsters had been around before, or anyway the word had—I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and White Zombie (1932) at least are well worth tracking down. But you won't find a whole lot of lurching around by beings with rotted flesh, let alone intimations of viruses from outer space and such. Before Night of the Living Dead, zombies were a product of voodoo and strictly a Haitian affair. They also more represented minor problems for law enforcement, as opposed to the onset of apocalypse.

The deeper levels and fine details of the fantasy narrative, in fact, are still mostly nascent in this flagship production: the undead here have no particular taste for brains, for example, although the pseudo-scientific explanation advanced is that the brains of corpses have been "activated" by radiation. Authorities really don't know. That's part of the horror. But the cultural connecting point—that wonderful sense that masses of people around us no longer function the way they were intended, but instead only cling to materiality and sensations they once knew, ignoring everything that conflicts with a narrow world view (as exemplified in popular phrases such as "Fox News zombie")—is not explicitly emphasized at this early point.

Truth to tell, it's not really such a scary movie anymore, except insofar as zombies scare us because we recognize the rote mindlessness. I'm not sure Night of the Living Dead ever was that scary. But its sordid atmosphere still penetrates like miasma, it is unmistakably creepy, and it has high levels of soul-deadening desolation (Yeats: "The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed on the world"), which is most obvious in its ending, as purely nihilistic as it is cheap. The low-budget appurtenances all work in the favor of this movie—the weird, unprofessional photography (that's director and editor George A. Romero operating the camera), the less than competent acting (to be kind), the choppy editing, the almost complete lack of production design. All these elements, artifacts of the low budget, along with novel monsters in the zombie phenomenon itself, serve to make Night of the Living Dead an unforgettable, unnerving, and often unpleasant experience.

In fact, looking more closely, I think it's clear Romero knew what he was doing, however intuitively. This has been borne out by later developments in the franchise (where most consider the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead to be the crown prince of this particular peerage). Indeed, Romero's partner on Night of the Living Dead, co-writer John Russo, chipped in his share of critical developments too. A lengthy legal dispute followed between Russo and Romero, ultimately producing a settlement that, among other things, gave Romero rights to a time reference and the word "dead" (e.g., Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead), while Russo won the term "living dead" and in 1985 scored another classic of the subgenre with Return of the Living Dead, which features perhaps for the first time the aforementioned desire to consume brains.

The fundamentals for all of it are found in Night of the Living Dead, of course, but two relatively deliberate aesthetic choices clarify (for me anyway) just how acutely Romero (and Russo) worked this material. They leave me feeling Night of the Living Dead remains the strongest entry for both. The first choice was casting African American Duane Jones to play the hero Ben opposite Barbra (Judith O'Dea), a mousy blonde woman in a trench coat who spends the movie cringing and shuffling in a semi-stuporous state. Later, barricaded inside a farmhouse, Ben also comes into conflict with Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), a stereotypical angry white man. More: The movie is set in western Pennsylvania where Romero lived at the time, and was produced during the "long hot summers" of the '60s, when racial tension was high. Racial politics are never mentioned, of course—they don't belong in horror movies, generally speaking—but the simple expedient nevertheless imposes an outsize tension. They don't have to be talked about.

The other element I love is the music, which was pulled off of stock recordings first used in the 1959 movie Teenagers From Outer Space (according to and also used in the movies The Devil's Messenger (1961), The Hideous Sun Demon (1959), and TV episodes of Ben Casey and Naked City (according to Wikipedia). Romero has thus made the music itself into a kind of zombie—created for another use, made into something it was never intended to be, and lurching in place in its new setting. In experiential terms, the music is familiar in unsettling ways, cheesy as hell, and works fine in every scene.

I like many other things about Night of the Living Dead too, such as the way it uses media and media reporting to fill in the narrative details and create a sense of ongoing disaster. Nearly 50 years and a slew of zombie movies, sequels, remakes, and reboots later, Night of the Living Dead might look a little shabby. In terms of basic filmmaking it has any number of flaws— poorly conceived scene to scene, poorly shot, poorly performed, etc. But it lives on, and it's coming to get you, slowly.

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