Wednesday, October 5, 2016

31 Days of Horror: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)

Welcome horror fans, to Day 5 of the 31 DAYS OF HORROR! We are back with another film in our lead up to Halloween, and today we will be reviewing the film that kicked off the modern zombie genre: George Romero's 1968 classic, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. It doesn't look like much today, but if there were a list of horror movies that absolutely, positively must be seen by any self-respecting horror fan, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead would be somewhere on it. The film made number eight on Slant magazine's Top 100 Greatest Horror Movies list, and rightly so. Night has influenced modern horror in ways that few movies have done since.

The first film in Romero's Living Dead saga, continuing with 1978's Dawn of the Dead, and currently ending with 2009's Survival of the Dead, Night gives us an intimate glimpse into the collapse of society as the dead began to rise and attack the living. Beginning with protagonist Barbara (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny being attacked in a cemetery, and Barbara's escape to a nearby farmhouse, Night follows a group of survivors in their ill-fated attempt to resist the zombie assault.

While previous zombie movies presented the zombie phenomenon in its original Haitian voodoo context -- still-living people put into a trance by a magician and made to act against their will, as in 1932's White Zombie -- Night of the Living Dead began the trend of the zombie as a reanimated corpse. It's easy to overlook this today, walking corpses being so ubiquitous in modern horror culture, but this is where it began. As such, a lot of the rules and standards for presentation of the walking dead hadn't been established yet. The zombies in Night are not the nightmarish riots of mutilation and decay that we are accustomed to today; they actually look very similar to the zombies of the pre-Night era: ordinary people in a trance. If the film never told us the people we see shuffling around the screen were dead, we'd probably never be able to tell. But new concepts are seldom debuted fully formed, and so the film shouldn't be judged too harshly for this in hindsight.

Because Night of the Living Dead was produced in the politically turbulent 1960s, much has been made by film historians of the supposed political and social commentary present in the film's story. For example, it's generally accepted that the zombies in Night of the Living Dead represent the forces of Communism, with the farmhouse and the small band of survivors within representing America, struggling in vain against an overwhelming influence. There's an excellent discussion on Night's commentary on American society, up on Sequart magazine's website, written by Rafael Alvez Azevedo, for the interested reader. While Romero himself doesn't deny that the film is heavy with symbolism for the age in which the movie was made, he has also downplayed any message that viewers may take away from the film. "[It] was 1968, man … Everybody had a 'message'," Romero is quoted as saying in Azevedo's essay. "The anger and attitude and all that’s there is just because it was the Sixties."

So we can debate the symbolism in the movie as we will; picking apart the message and intent of a piece of art is part of the fun of experiencing it. What gave Night its impact, though, is that it joined a trend just emerging at the time that was changing the rules of horror. No longer was the nightmare only occurring in some exotic locale, like an eastern European castle, or the jungles of darkest Africa. For the first time, horror in the movies began to invade the mundane. In the horror movies of the 1960s, the things that terrified us were allowed to strike at us where we lived. Again, we're used to this today, but this had a profound impact on audiences at the time. Read Roger Ebert's account of the reaction a crowd of Saturday matinee children had to the movie for a great example of this. Night challenged everything we knew about how horror movies were supposed to work: there was no escape, there was no solution, and most importantly, there were no survivors. Even now, though I know how the movie ends, there's still a part of me that thinks maybe this time things will work out differently, and is still affected when they don't.

Night of the Living Dead has been remade twice, in 1990 and 2006, respectively. A quick IMDB search shows that a film by that title was also released in 2014, though it's unknown whether the similarity goes beyond the title. The 1990 version, which was produced by Romero and directed by Tom Savini, features Tony "Candyman" Todd as hero Ben and portrays Barbara as a much stronger and more resilient figure, and is largely faithful to the plot of the original. The 2006 version, meanwhile, is crap. The story is a bastardized shadow of its former self, and changes all but the most basic points of the story we know, even going so far as creating a whole new character, who adds nothing to the story, played by Sid Haig.

Night of the Living Dead shows its age today, but it set the tone for almost every zombie movie that has come since. The movie has its disappointing details, such as Barbara spending most of the movie in a catatonic or hysterical state after she gets to the farmhouse, but few movies can match Night's sense of claustrophobic, slow-burn tension. If you haven't seen this movie yet, correct that. Night of the Living Dead still has it where it counts, even nearly fifty years later. You can even watch the movie in its entirety on YouTube, if you're so inclined.

Robert's Score: 9/10

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