Romero Retrospective: Night of the Living Dead


The following post was finished last Friday, almost immediately before the tragic events of the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami.  After much deliberation, I have decided to post it for a few reasons.  Firstly, I believe that in times such as these, it is sometimes necessary to maintain a mental balance by taking our minds off of the horrific images on our television screens and in the newspapers.  The medium of film, particularly horror cinema, has always had the potential to distance us from various issues and let us view them in a different light, allowing us to internalize them further.  Secondly, I want to post this for personal reasons, as it was something I was doing in the peaceful time before the quake.  It’s amazing how different the world here in Japan is between then and now, and this post is a reminder of that difference.  I realize that some may not agree with me in posting this, and so I ask those people to come back to it later.  At any rate, my posts will be infrequent, as power outages and shortages of essential supplies will make survival my first priority.  I will also be doing my own small part in assisting the relief efforts through donations and conservation of resources.  For those abroad who wish to support Japan in this time of crisis, please see my dear friend La Carmina’s blog for some information about charity events.  Also check out my friend Norman’s blog for a report of Friday’s quake as experienced in Tokyo.  Everyone, be safe.

Romero Retrospective: Night of the Living Dead

As I mentioned in my previous posts, February 26 – March 4 saw the Tokyo International Zombie Film Festival, a sanguinary parade of some of the greatest undead to ever shamble onto the silver screen.  Due to scheduling conflicts I was only able to make it for the grand finale, the Tokyo premiere of Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Helldriver, and so I decided to clear away the cobwebs from my vault and take a look back at some of the classics of zombie cinema.

And where else to begin but with the “Grandfather of the Zombie” himself, George A. Romero?  And so, my next few posts will take a look back to my homeland, particularly my home state of Pennsylvania and the city of my alma mater, Pittsburgh.  In this “Romero Retrospective,” I intend to take a brief look at each of his major zombie films, and express some of my thoughts and opinions on their standing in the world of zombie cinema, the first being his seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968).  There is little to say about these films that hasn’t been said before, so I intend to look at them from a more personal perspective as a fan of the genre and the director himself.  I hope that these hastily scrawled posts might also serve as an introduction for those who may have missed some of these bloody gems among the cluttered ossuary that the zombie genre has become today.  Please rest assured that I consider the viewing of almost all of these works to be indispensable toward a holistic understanding of zombie film, and horror cinema in general.

Now, before I begin, I have to make a small disclaimer that will apply to all of my posts, past and future.  I am most certainly not a filmmaker.  I have taken several classes on film and its analysis at university, and I have a slight background in drama/theater, along with a deep and abiding respect for the people who bring the films I love to life (or back to life, as the case may be).  Perhaps my only other qualification is a steady diet of all things dark and scary since my childhood, and my sole purpose here is to introduce these works and my thoughts on them for your enjoyment.

With all that out of the way, follow me into the crypt for the maiden article of my zombie retrospective. Take off your shoes, because you’re about to step onto (un)holy ground as we take a look at the first of George A. Romero’s Living Dead films, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.

The Good

It almost seems an exercise in futility to try to explain just how important this film is in the history of horror cinema.  Chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry as a film deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant,” Night of the Living Dead goes beyond B-movie horror to achieve status as a true masterpiece of cinema, frequently being cited in “Best Movies of All Time” lists by various publications.  Romero took the ideas of Richard Matheson’s famous novel I Am Legend, and appropriated them into his stark tale of social breakdown, where seven survivors stranded in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse fend off hordes of the ghoulish creatures that feed on human flesh.  Filmed in black-and-white 35 mm film, the entire experience is one of pseudo-documentary realism and superb pacing.  Taking up this film and watching it again, I was floored to find that I still found myself on the edge of my seat.  The plot, atmosphere, camerawork, and chiaroscuro lighting all work in together beautifully and build up flawlessly to the shocking and nihilistic conclusion.

Although originally panned by some critics for its graphic content (it slipped into theaters almost immediately before the MPAA ratings hit the scene), the reaction was generally positive, and praise of the film only accumulated as it went to further acclaim and financial success around the world.  When I first saw the film, I was struck by the fact that the lead (Ben, played by Duane Jones) was African-American – quite a bold move for 1968.  The tragic ending of the film echoed strongly in the context of recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and the grainy newspaper reels and scenes of military and police action surely must have brought visions of the ongoing Vietnam War into the minds of American viewers of the time.  Also, taboos such as matricide and cannibalism were presented unflinchingly for one of the first times on the silver screen.

One of the things that I truly respect about Romero is that he really stuck to his guns.  Before the film’s release, he was urged by several people to tone it down and edit some of the film’s more gruesome scenes.  His refusal resulted in rejection by some distributors, but the ultimate effect of his staunch, uncompromising attitude was something that altered the landscape of horror film forever.  Later zombie films, such as Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) and Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985) can trace their roots directly to this masterpiece, to say nothing of the slasher genre that took many of its cues from Romero’s classic.  Its long-lasting effects on our culture are undeniable, being referenced or outright parodied in everything from The Simpsons to South Park

The Bad

There really aren’t a whole lot of negative things that I can say about this film, and that is a testament to the magnificent vision of its director and everyone involved.  If I would have to say one thing, I might bring up one criticism that is frequently leveled against NOTLD involving the character of Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and the two other main female characters.  A hysterical basket-case through most of the film, Barbra is often cited as being a typical, and somewhat misogynistic, portrayal of women in horror cinema.  Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman)  is a disgruntled yet submissive housewife, and Judy (Judith Ridley), like her boyfriend Tom (Keith Wayne), is basically a cardboard cut-out.  The real dramatic action occurs between the two rival “alpha males,” and Barbra ends up as a snack platter for the ghouls, including her undead brother.  This is really a minor complaint though, and something that was later corrected in the remakes of the film (particularly Tom Savini’s 1990 version).

The Undead

Field Reporter: Are they slow-moving, chief?

Sheriff McClelland: Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.

This is where I discuss the OH MY GOD!  What’s wrong with your faaace?!?  Ahem, this is where I talk about the rotting revenants who (usually) serve as the primary antagonists of the film.  If it weren’t for those lovable, re-animated pus-bags, it wouldn’t very well be a zombie film, now would it?  As mentioned above, the work was attacked by film critics of the time as being wantonly gruesome, and while it is indeed true that this movie helped bring about an era of “splatter films,” it is certainly quite tame by today’s standards.   In fact, the poor sap you see here may not even be one of the ghouls at all, simply a farmhouse owner who met an unknown but gruesome end before the beginning of the film.

While the “raccoon eyes” and mortician’s wax may not be frightening anymore, one must realize that, until NOTLD, zombies were only imagined on film in their more traditional sense of being the slaves of a Voodoo witch doctor, controlled by potions and black magic to do his bidding.  Standing at the head of such early zombie films are, of course, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), its sequel, Revolt of the Zombies (1936), and I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943).  It was Romero however, who blended the idea of ghouls with Matheson’s vampire-like creatures and developed the flesh-eating resurrected corpses (the word “zombie” is never used in the film) that have come to be called zombies today.  The head-shot rule was likely first introduced here, and the image of shambling, slow-moving dead remains the standard for the genre, in spite of the recent deluge of films starring the so-called “sprinter zombies” (popularized by the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead).

In conclusion, all I have to say is that, if you haven’t already (or even if you have), go out and see this film.  You won’t regret it.  Thanks to some copyright blunders it’s public domain, kiddies, so you don’t have any excuse.  Check it out on YouTube below.  They’re coming to get you, Barbra…


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