NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
"They know we're in here now."
A while back I got into a conversation about the John Ford movie The Searchers, which pretty much circulated around the idea of how well a movie ages is a testament to its original quality, and that holes that seem clear as day now, were masked by originality and just a little bit of awesome. To be honest I think you could lay out a similar argument against Night Of the Living Dead. Some things are a little creaky, some things show their age and maybe not all of the acting is what it should be. But there's something so consistently innovative about it, and it might be the ultimate example of a movie rising so completely above its station to the point where it doesn't just exceed it, it transcends it. The first modern horror movie, that redefined the genre in so many ways its not even funny and not even time can take away the anger and the audacity at the centre of it.
The funny thing is of course is that Night Of The Living Dead kind of starts out exactly how one would think it would and I think most of the people who come out against this film do so based on this opening fifteen minutes or so. Yes the film opens with a deserted country road set to creepy pre-synth music, yes the opening sequence is set in a graveyard and features a helpless woman being chased by a monster of the night, so far, so 1950's drive-in that no-one really pays attention to. But the thing that stands out about this, and this being probably the weakest section of the movie, is that much of the camp, the old horror movie atmosphere where everything is heightened just enough to let you know its a movie is gone. It feels fucking real and doesn't stop. After the attacker/zombie kills Barbra's brother Johnny in a moment that just happens, no frills no fuss, it immediately snaps you out of the conventional horror movie you thought you were watching. When Barbra runs off into the countryside, there's no intrusive music, no jump scares, no distractions. Night Of The Living Dead doesn't take you to a horrible place, it brings that place to you and doesn't let you go.
"We'll see, We'll see who's right when they come begging to let them down here."
It gave birth to the modern horror movie because it brings realism to the mix, it and its sequels are the most potent and thoughtful examination of what an outbreak of zombies would actually do to the fabric of society, how we would respond to it and how it would affect everyday people, rather then cops and soldiers. And once we get to the farmhouse, this dynamic is explored in full, in all its revelatory power. Characters are not heroes or villains, but all struggling to stay above water and the fear they all feel eventually manifests in anger and violence. And eventually their downfall. Its a fantastically bleak outlook, and in many ways is the first horror to pose the notion that extreme situations don't always bring out the best in people so effectively. Particularly the war between Ben, a young black mechanic, whose race is never mentioned but felt immensely, and Harry, a middle-aged family man whose daughter lies dying in the basement. Each believes himself to be the most capable, which in Harry's case is just arrogance as he's pretty much the Jack Lemmon character from Glengarry Glen Ross. I think the character of Ben, perhaps mostly through the performance of Duane Jones whose talent lends a real humanity and authenticity to proceedings, is the most resonant. Its a performance of such understated, assured dignity set against a character that is best an anti-hero, another virtue of Romero's complex universe. At one point the guy shoots someone in cold blood, yet he is still a character you entirely root for. There are no easy answers in this film, and if anything the message of this movie is that humanity doesn't need zombies to destroy itself, they just speed up the process.
Its a testament the quality of this to how little I've thus far mentioned the zombies, but this film works as a horror film in its own right, without all that awesome subtextual shit us bloggers love to preach about. But the movie's tone, which is that off removing horror cliches and create a universe where anyone can die, characters you thought were important get wasted and the most despicable characters don't necessarily die the worst deaths. If anything the nastiest stuff happens to the innocents, a mother is killed by her child with a trowel, a sweet young couple get immolated and then consumed on mass by the living dead and Barbra, well. It redefined horror by making it something beyond scares and gore, the horror is in the tone and in the message. The trite sense of horror movie karma is entirely gone and it makes it one of the most striking films, and for me that hasn't been lost. The zombie scares sure. It ain't no 28 days later. But its more then that. The sixties was probably the first generation to understand the world through its television sets, and having the horror invade these sacred pillars of comfort and information is almost the most horrifying thing in the film, the ongoing newscasts as stations gather more information on the epidemic, from the outbreak of what they describe as 'mass murder' to the revelation that the dead are re-animating, to the poignant depictions of governments officials dodging questions and redneck national guardsmen taking to the countryside with their guns, news reporters in tow.
"Yeah. They're dead. They're all messed up."
All great horror ends in tragedy of course, as otherwise it's just a theme park ride, in the final images of Night Of The Living Dead are amongst the most resonant of any film I can remember seeing, horror or no. I won't spoil it, but it packs a powerful punch. The film is a great work, because to an extreme unlike almost anything else, its a film about human beings and how they fail each other. As well as a pretty sick and awesome horror movie. Yes it looks a little cheap, and not all of the acting is top notch, but as the movie encapsulates you you'll find its strengths too much too ignore. That was my experience at least. If a movie is judged by its ambition then Night Of The Living Dead is a masterpiece. If its judged by its merits, it can't be too far behind that yardstick either.
By LOUIS BAXTER