Monday, August 15, 2011

Night of the Living Dead (1968): It Keeps Coming Back!

It seems all I've been posting about here lately has been zombie pictures, so I guess it's fitting that tonight I rewatched the one, the only, the original, "Night of the Living Dead".  I remember seeing it twice as a child; once was on television right when "Dawn of the Dead" was about to premiere in theaters, which would make me 8 years old at the time.  The other time was when my mom took me and a friend to see an outdoor movie in a local park, and it turned out to be this one.  I'm not sure which screening came first, but I do remember being transfixed by the film each time, specifically by how explicit the violence was, and the overall downbeat tone. 

Even though most of what happens in the movie occurs offscreen and we only see the aftermath, there was an aggressive edge to it.  You get the impression that Romero would have shown you everything if he'd been able to make it look effective. But "Night of the Living Dead" combined its early gore effects with a certain level of pseudo realism that was missing from the campy, color grossout films being made by Herschell Gordon Lewis, and an unflinching attitude that went beyond anything that was typical at the time. Ben, the hero, bashes in the heads of several ghouls in the beginning, using a tire iron. At one point, he embeds the sharp end in the skull of a zombie, and it falls back to the carpet after he pulls the tire iron back out.  Even though the penetration has occurred off screen, the illusion is very effective. It still looks upsetting today, as does the grossout scene where a group of zombies fight with each other on-screen over a pile of intestines.

Another thing I love is the way Romero was able to make the murder of Helen Cooper so compellingly surreal and brutal at the same time.  Her death is the one zombie attack in the film that never fails to freak me out, the nightmarish pinnacle of the film. You know the scene, it's when she goes back into the basement as a last resort and the little girl zombie kills her with a handy cement trowel. When I was a kid I used to always wonder why Helen never tried to defend herself with her hands, but as an adult it becomes a little more clear to me that she's in the moment; she's just seen her husband shot dead in front of her, scores of zombies are beginning to burst through the barricades, and she has now discovered her young daughter is not only dead, she's devouring what's left of her husband.  When the little girl advances on her, Helen just kind of collapses in shock and lays there, letting her own little girl slowly hack open her ribcage, an agonizing death, all the while emitting those unearthly death screams as it happens. It's a moment of true horror, a subversion of the family unit in a way that wasn't often seen with such chilling detail.  It happens with Barbara, too; of all the zombies that have inexplicably come to this rural farmhouse, the one that confronts Barbara is her own brother, Johnny, who drags her off into a crowd of ghouls to be devoured.  Barbara has remained disassociated throughout almost the entire film until that very moment; seeing Johnny seems to bring her out of her shock long enough to realize she's about to be killed, and she screams for Ben to help her, too late.  I always shudder at the way you can see her face for a split second right before they pull her all the way down and, presumably, rip her apart while she's still alive. These weren't strangers committing acts of random violence, these were the family members of their victims. Romero & Russo weren't only interested in showing a brutal murder, it was also a total mindfuck.

The cynical, downbeat quality of "Night of the Living Dead" breaks some serious ground for 70s Doom, as other filmmakers began to emulate such things as the explicit use of gore, the zombie subject matter itself, or the unapologetically gruesome tone. Even though it was two years shy of the mark, "NOTLD" is there in spirit, if not in body; the fact that nobody survives is made even more bitter by the fact that the film's death-or-death situation seems to have been reigned in by the conclusion. Contrary to popular discourse, the movie does indeed offer a clear explanation of why the dead are returning to life; in a script like "Night of the Living Dead", it's hard to imagine that the presence of "mysterious radiation" from outer space and a sudden coincidental emergence of zombies were not fully intended to be directly related. Besides that, the talking heads on television have noticed the radiation is decreasing, which gives hope that the outbreak might be controlled and contained, which is the ultimate damnation of our small group of non-survivors: if they'd just managed to hold it together a little while longer, they'd have lived to see the end of the emergency.  Instead, they're all dead at the end.

The moment any movie's end credits begin is often the moment where people stop paying attention, but that's one of the most disturbing aspects of "Night of the Living Dead".  Hidden in plain sight during the end credit sequence is a series of horrifying still images of Ben's body being dragged away by possee members weilding meat hooks, to be thrown on a bonfire with other bodies and set ablaze.  Knowing that just moments before, he was the only survivor of the film, and a random act by an overly enthusiastic possee member leads to him being shot dead and viciously violated.  This wasn't done to him by zombies, but by ordinary, living human beings, with shotguns and meat hooks.  Now that's a scary concept.