Oct 31, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 30: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Can you have a better horror title than Night of the Living Dead? I don't think so. It screams pulp/midnight movie and untold horrors - they're dead yet still alive! That can't be good for anyone and in this case, it most assuredly is not.

The line for the craft services table
My previous Horror Movie a Day entry was also released in 1968, Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. Released in the same year, these movies couldn't be more different if they tried. Rosemary's Baby was a slick, Hollywood studio production with a significant budget and big names behind and in front of the camera. Night of the Living Dead was an independently made, low budget ($114,000), gritty black-and-white feature shot in Pennsylvania with unknowns. It put George A. Romero, screen gore and zombies on the cinematic map. Both are classics for different reasons.

With so many zombie movies having been released between now and 1968 - not to mention now there is a weekly Cable TV show where walkers still rule (called Ghouls in this film) - it is hard to imagine a time when audiences were unfamiliar with zombies. I try to imagine sitting in that darkened theater with an audience and experiencing elements like unstoppable, brainless, flesh-eating killers and watching as they gobble up intestines and other internal body parts of their victims for the first time. Yes, on-screen, unashamed cannibalism - good times!

Human brains taste more like steak than they do chicken
This is the film that started it off, and did so in a gritty, terrifying manner. The picture was received with an uproar of outrage but also became a huge hit and is considered one of the best horror films ever made.

Seriously, whoever took the last can of coke has to answer to me.
By now we know the successful formula well. A group of strangers trying to survive the zombie apocalypse are brought together while trying to fend off their undead attackers and figure out what is going on. The film opens in the only location a movie about the living dead should - a cemetery - as a brother (Russel Streiner) and sister (Judith O'Dea) visit their father's grave. The brother complains and pesters the sister while we see a figure roaming around in the distance. Modern viewers will instantly know that the figure is a zombie, but in 1968 when that figure attacks it was probably a shock. The movie kicks into high gear quickly when the brother is overcome and seemingly killed and the sister is pursued by the aggressive zombie (it moves fast and even knows how to pick up rocks to smash windows so she is not even safe in her car) to an abandoned farmhouse. More zombies join the chase as O'Dea discovers a mutilated corpse in the house and goes into shock. She is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones) who is also being pursued by the undead. He is a man of action and while O'Dea slips into a useless catatonic state, he fends off the zombies and boards up the house.

How badass do I look in this lighting?
Jones continues to fortify the house and soon discovers a family - not a happy one by their demeanor - barricaded in the basement along with a pair of teenagers (Keith Wayne and Judith Riley). The husband (Karl Hardman) is anxious and angry (this guy totally voted for Nixonm he IS the silent majority) and goes on the offensive towards Duane telling him he is taking all the supplies and that they are safer in the basement. It becomes a battle of the alpha males as Jones claims that by staying upstairs they at least have a fighting chance. Hardman's hostile attitude quickly pushes the teens and even his own wife (Marilyn Eastman) over to Jones' side. Hardman and Eastman also have a daughter who is injured, and again we as a modern audience know what will happen to her, but given the freshness of the genre to 1968s audiences, I am sure her final shall we say 'recovery' sent them into hysterics. It still gave me chills even though I was fully aware what was going to happen.

I'm hungry!
The majority of the action happens within the house as the strangers band together reluctantly to fend off the zombies and plan an escape. A television broadcast reveals the nation on high alert as the zombie apocalypse spreads, and chaos and anarchy reign. These broadcasts are where we learn the 'rules' we all know like how it only takes a blow to the head to finally bring a zombie down, etc. There is also an added element of scientists believing that the zombie virus is the result of a contamination brought back to earth by a space probe returning from Venus.

Hug it out!
This picture was released in the turbulent 1960s, so the scenes on TV of armed citizens taking to the streets to stop the menace were familiar to moviegoers at the time. There are so many social commentaries going on here, it's tough to nail down any one of them as a dominant one. The fact that the primary protagonist is an African American was groundbreaking, and his final fate (which I won't spoil, just in case) is shocking. The family is nowhere near the happy unit we're used to seeing with the father a hostile jerk who seems to care only for himself. He has a sick daughter downstairs that nobody seems to care too much about even as they tend to her. Then there is the feminist issue. The women are discussed openly as a liability and when it comes to looking after the sick child, the women are ordered downstairs by the men to do so. In reality, O'Dea in her shocked state is the only liability as Eastman and Riley effectively stand their ground. Riley even runs out with the men as they plan an elaborate escape.  The in-fighting among the survivors complicates matters and during a sequence where one of them jeopardizes another then makes an about face to help him out, he is still beaten senseless for his betrayal. In most horror films, the two would have nodded at each other and let it go as they continued their fight for survival, but not here. A metaphor for racial tension reaching a boiling point? I'd say yes.

You'd be this angry too if you went bald at age 13
I believe that the second season of AMC's The Walking Dead was a full homage to this film as almost the entire season takes place at an isolated farmhouse that looks very much like the one here. The final zombie onslaught - including a vehicle that goes up in flames - is virtually identical.

We may be flesh-eating killers, but at least put on a pair of pants!
Even with all the countless sequels, remakes and copies of Night of the Living Dead, I find this picture to be still effectively scary and the social themes relevant. The closeups of zombies eating intestines and brains are still potent, and perhaps even more so thanks to the rough black-and-white photography. I think the fact that the zombies have less makeup than they have as the decades have progressed is way more scarier given that these look like normal human beings dressed in suits and regular clothing (ok, so one is naked seen from behind). It enhances the idea that it can happen to any of us at any time.

I was a zombie's lunch
The movie slipped into the public domain at some point, making it very accessible (I watched it via Netflix streaming this time around). It was also added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry. While I can't go back in time and experience it with fresh eyes and a not-jaded audience used to graphic horror on their movie screens, I can still imagine the reaction as this picture was as groundbreaking as the shower sequence and themes presented in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho were to screen horror 8 years earlier. Things haven't been the same since.