Monday, October 4, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: Night of the Living Dead (1968)



Because I'm from the greater Pittsburgh area, I do believe I am required to like George Romero. Thankfully, I'm happy to do so. An affection for zombies is also a mandatory condition of my address as well, and while I much prefer the other brand of the living-challenged (read: vampires) I do, in fact, have some love for those cadaverous wraiths Romero is so fond of.

On Halloween night each year, while others are out trick-or-treating or partying hard at some random costume party, I'm easing into my couch with a spirit or two of my own (the liquid variety, natch) to turn out the lights and watch Night of the Living Dead (1968). And while other people claim one of the other Dead films as their favorite, I'm old-school. Black and white. Lumbering zombies. Little if no humor. Dense blondes with trauma-induced stupidity. Street smart heroes with an actual brain instead of a whole lot of one-liners.
Behold the classic.

So many of the masses attempt to find something new to scare the pants off them to celebrate the holiday...and though I like discovering fresh horror, I'm quite happy to enjoy my old stand-by come October 31st. (Though this year I'll be jumping for joy to make it a zombie-filled Halloween with the premiere of The Walking Dead on AMC - yay!) To me, it just isn't Halloween till someone's throwing another one on the fire, so to speak.

For those born under a very large, constricting rock, Night of the Living Dead starts out with Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) making a long trek into the rural outskirts of Pittsburgh to place a wreath on their father's grave. Once there, Johnny teases Barbra about being frightened of the cemetery, uttering the famous line "They're coming to get you, Barbra!" and pointing to a disheveled man who is staggering around the tombstones, coming their way. Turns out, they are coming to get Barbra, and the Lerch look-alike attacks her. Johnny comes to her aid but miraculously is a total misfit when it comes to fighting, and is dropped, bashing his head against the side of a grave. Down for the count!

Barbra runs, losing a shoe, falling down a few times, and not gaining any ground - as most horror movie female victims do. She makes it to the car but manages to wreck it into a tree after being accosted by said zombie (who makes quick work of the distance Barbara puts between them, for sure). Jumping from said car, she runs (if you can call it that) to a nearby farmhouse.

Soon after, our hero Ben arrives and starts boarding up the house (with no help from nearly catatonic Barbra, who I would have kicked to the curb by now) with anything he can find. They have a discussion (well, Ben does all the chatting while Barbra sits there dumbfounded) about whether or not anyone has a car, how she came to be at the house, and just what the devil these "things" are. Soon, Barbra starts prattling on about saving Johnny and blah blah blah - I honestly just want Ben to throw her outside into the yard, which incidentally is filling up with the living dead PDQ.

Meanwhile, there is a family of three and a couple who have taken cover in the basement. Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman) are caring for their ill daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) and are hiding out with a young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). Their idea is to stay concealed in the cellar and hope things are resolved briskly.
Good luck with that.

By the time the upstairs duo finally meet up with the five people hiding in the basement (who get a scolding from Ben because they never came upstairs to help zombie-proof the house), tension is riding high and arguments begin over how to act and what their next move should be. Making things even worse is the fact that Karen has been bitten by a zombie. Do I really need to add that zombie bites are toxic?

Quite honestly the zombies themselves aren't really frightening. To me, it's the idea of the dead actually coming back that is so scary. Sure seems like you could outrun those dudes in their hospital gowns and split-down-the-back suits, right? More chilling yet is the radio broadcasts. Here's where the tension is unbearable for me. When you hear newscasters explaining that the dead are coming back to life and consuming the living, it's not going to be your finest hour. It made it all the more realistic for me the first few times I saw it because the newscasters were talking about local places that I knew - places I'd been and still go to. I can imagine anyone in western Pennsylvania got a little distressed way back in 1968 when the film came out. It surely would have had a War of the Worlds effect on me, if I hadn't been in diapers at that time.

So I will have to admit one of my favorite things about the film though, is the name-dropping. As I said, being a native of the area, it is always so awesome when they start showing those names of towns all over the television screen, like Butler and Ford City, both of which I am quite close to. Seeing Bill "Chilly-Billy" Cardille as the newscaster just makes me smile as well.

Anyway, when our gang decides they can't just sit around and wait to die, they start being pro-active and making plans. That being said, the best laid plans don't always work out...and these were not the best laid plans. Ben and Tom decide to drive the running-on-fumes truck Ben came in to the nearby gas pumps on the property, but they get a bit overrun by the moving lawn ornaments who want nothing more than to eat their livers (with or without the Chianti, I'm sure). A major mishap occurs when Harry throws a Molotov cocktail out the window to distract the zombies (once again, fire is the leading deterrent for the any varietal of undead) and sets spilled gasoline on fire. And what happens when there's fire at the gas pumps? Well, some of those zombies are having barbeque, that's what.

With that plan foiled and Karen inside chomping on her mother, the outlook here is fairly grim. The rest of them hole up in the house and continue to fight off the menacing and determined ghouls. As it is, Ben ends up back in the basement and listens as the zombies make their way into the house. The ending of NOTLD is a bleak one, yet still somewhat unexpected. But then again, how can it not be with the dead reanimating and eating the living? It all comes down to this: that shit's just wrong. But damn if it doesn't make for compelling storytelling.

Night of the Living Dead is such an incredibly important and influential film, not just in the zombie sub-genre, but for horror in general. There are many firsts associated with this one, not the least of which being Duane Jones (Ben) being one of the first black "heroes" in a film.
In addition, showing the graphic scenes of intestinal consumption, albeit in monochrome, hadn't really been done in such a blatantly obvious way either. How I love to see those crazy zombies pulling guts out and chowing down.

This film set off a chain reaction that is still quite relevant today. People are just utterly obsessed with zombies. I've never been a colossal fan of them, truth be told. I think it is because they are just too inhuman for me to relate to. I prefer a monster that has some humanity in there somewhere, something that gives them just pause before they rip your head off. My favorite monsters are such, like Frankenstein or the Wolfman - they still have a thought process that gives them some empathy. (The exception to this rule, as far as zombies go, may be Bub from Romero's Day of the Dead, 1985.) Generally though, the collapse of the human psyche at death causes zombies to basically just be mindless killing machines.
But hey, that in and of itself is what makes them so scary. And Night of the Living Dead is really the pinnacle of the zombie genre, and certainly one of my favorite films.

1 comment:

Kid Sis said...

Thanks for the shout out Christine! Team Commune loves ya!