Thursday, October 30, 2014

31 Days of Horror: Night of the Living Dead

They're coming to get you, Barbara, and they are coming to get all of us in Night of the Living Dead.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 30: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Barbara and Johnny drive to the countryside to visit their father’s grave. It is a pleasant day, and the cemetery is mostly empty, except for one older man in the distance. Barbara’s discomfort with their surroundings is apparent, and like any good older brother might, Johnny begins to tease her.

“Barbara. They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” he says. About this much he is correct, and for the next 90 or so minutes of screen time, they come to get Barbara and anyone else unlucky enough to be in their path. They are the dead, brought back to a grim simulacrum of life by unknown causes, and their mass re-animation means no one is safe.

Some might say The Exorcist or Dracula or maybe The Shining, and there are legitimate cases to be made for all of them and many more, but for me, there is no other choice. Night of the Living Dead is the greatest horror film ever made. Until Pulp Fiction came along in 1994 and opened the floodgates on a thousand hyper-literate, highly stylized crime films, it would be hard to name another movie that influenced the future of its genre and film in general more than George A. Romero’s fright night masterpiece.

The zombie as known by the popular culture was invented in that Pittsburgh cemetery, and movies have not been the same since. Like how your parents said you can be anything when you grow up, zombies can be anything now – Nazis, strippers, heartbroken teenagers, classic literary characters – but with rare exceptions, they are all Romero zombies.

In whatever form they come, they are implacable, uncaring, and devoid of the thing that once made them human. You can stand and fight or you can run and hide, but most likely, you will be frozen with fear, and in the next heartbeat, you are one of them. You are a convert to their cause, and what anyone you love might recognize as you is gone, replaced by the coldness of your stare, the pallor of your skin, and the insatiable nature of your appetite.

But, influence is one thing. Films become influential because they are great, sterling examples of the best of their form. Night of the Living Dead is an unimpeachably brilliant thriller from start to finish with any number of social messages buried like gold pieces among the ghouls. It rewards repeat viewings by showcasing the kind of subtlety and nuance often missing from even the most austere dramas, let alone scary drive-in flicks.

Virtually none of the political commentary or cultural critiquing was intended by the filmmakers, but simply by doing what came naturally, a subversive work of art was born. As a general rule, only the best films are deemed dangerous enough to be banned – A Clockwork Orange, The Last Temptation of Christ, etc. – and in a country torn apart by Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and endless social upheaval, you better believe Night of the Living Dead was considered dangerous.

Our hero is Ben, a smart, resourceful black man played by Duane Jones, who had never acted before and would act only rarely after. Just casting a black man as a hero would have been considered shocking at the time, but Romero and his team just saw the right man for the job. Thank god they did because Jones’ performance is a vital breath of fresh air in a film culture that to this day is desperately lacking in strong black heroes.

He battles hordes of mindless drones, a ready-made metaphor for almost anything. Just take your pick – consumerism, television, political party loyalty, mobs of any kind, and basically all situations in which a large group of people comes together in thoughtless destruction. Joining Ben in the fight, to the limited extent they are able to help him, are Barbara, a young couple, and a family of three.

Of these side characters, the family and particularly the father is the most intriguing. Played by Karl Hardman, who performed multiple behind-the-scenes tasks on this film, Harry is a panicking, petty man interested in his own survival, the survival of his family, and everything else, in that order. In storytelling terms, he is a perfect foil for the calmly logical and eminently capable Ben, but if we dig deeper, we find a pointed jab at the patriarchal structure of American families and the myth of the “You can count on me” dad.

Some of this is there, and some of it is not, but all of it depends on your context for viewing. Because the zombies can be anything, anywhere, and anyone, the audience can plug itself into the terror, which means that no one will have the same experience as anyone else watching Night of the Living Dead. Whatever your deepest fears are, they are manifest in the form of zombies. You can run until you drop and hide until you cannot breathe, but they are coming to get you, me, Barbara, and everyone else. That is the gift of this movie, and the power of horror.

Tomorrow: (yells out the window) “Boy, what day is it?” “Why, today, it’s Halloween day.” And thus had Scrooge found his inner goodness. We wrap up the 31 Days of Horror with a swan song you will perhaps agree is appropriate.

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