From the perspective of 2019 it is extremely difficult to imagine a zombie film being either shocking or subversive. Zombie films have become the equivalent of the courtesans Roman fathers would take their sons to; allowing indie directors to pop their cherry and become a man. Or at least get an IMDB page.
All these low budget directors churn out zombie film after zombie film. Each one is as terrible and derivative as the last. The only truly unique zombie film I’ve seen in the last ten years is Deadgirl, which was about two boys who find a female zombie chained up in an abandoned and decide to take abuse her. Zombies have been done to, erm, death, as has every conceivable take on the genre. There are even zombie unicorns.
Fifty years ago, however, a whippersnapper by the name of George A Romero was fresh from working on Mr Rogers‘ show and set out to make a movie inspired by Richard Matheson‘s novel I Am Legend. The result was Night of the Living Dead, one of the most influential horror films of all time. NOTLD represents the transition from supernatural voodoo zombies to the (now) ubiquitous undead flesh eating zombie.
Though the process wasn’t yet complete, as the zombies here are referred to as ‘ghouls’ or ‘the living dead’. Indeed, these ghouls look healthier than their later counterparts, are faster, and possess more intelligence. But if we take NOTLD as the start of Romero’s zombie apocalypse, then these beings would later devolve into the zombies we recognise. Which is to say that they come resemble the blokes who go into their local Wetherspoon’s for a pint at 10am.
|“I’m a massive prat, Barbra.”|
Night of the Living Dead begins with brother and sister Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea) visiting their father’s grave in rural Pennsylvania. Johnny is an absolute nob end and teases his sister, who is spooked by the graveyard, delivering the famous line “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” Sadly this proves to be true, as Johnny is attacked and killed by a mystery tramp (Bill Hinzman) who then pursues Barbara. Serves you right Johnny.
Barbara, who has the defensive capabilities of a pet rock, flees to a nearby farm house. There she whimpers a bit, discovers a horrible mutilated corpse, whimpers some more, tries to flee and discovers more of the ghouls coming for her, and encounters a man named Ben (Duane Jones) who is also fleeing the ghouls. Ben, an African American who has looked into the belly of the beast, is the exact opposite of Barbara. He’s resourceful, calm, and handy, and exists before the ‘black guy always dies first’ rule came into effect. Unless you’re counting the Deep South’s race relation policies.
The two barricade themselves in the house and explore. Well, Ben searches the place whilst Barbara descends into catatonia for the rest of the film. Romero was years ahead of the curve with his depiction of African Americans, but not so much with his female characters. Ben finds a rifle and dead weight in the form of Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and teenage couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley).
Our makeshift party attempt to hold off the ghouls whilst tensions rise over how best to handle the situation. Harry is the white alpha male who plonks his dick on the table to show his dominance, and refuses to take crap from some black bastard. Even though Ben is the only remotely capable character in the film. Naturally they die one by one. Not that you’ll care: only Barbara and Ben have any real development.
The whole East Coast of the United States descends into an orgy of violence, meanwhile, as the dead continue to rise apparently due to a radioactive space probe. Unruly rednecks and their guns roam the countryside and attempt to reclaim it. This results in one of the most bleak endings in all of cinema, with the militia ‘mistaking’ sole survivor Ben for a zombie and shooting him dead.
Night of the Living Dead presents the skeleton frame of all future Romero zombie films, and zombie films generally. There’s the slow ramping up of the threat, a vague apocalypse, characters not knowing what is going on save for the one quasi-capable character; the characters become trapped somewhere and must hold out, tensions rise, humans are the real evil; everyone dies one by one, and there’s social commentary bubbling under the surface.
Unlike Romero’s later films, I’m not entirely sure the ghouls in NOTLD themselves represent anything specific beyond the usual social anxieties and existential threats such as looming nuclear war. They don’t appear to represent one single thing, unlike Dawn of the Dead which has a very explicit anti-consumerism message. Or Cell, in which the zombies represent Stephen King‘s lack of understanding as to how modern technology works.
The ghouls look more like down and out types than zombies. Somewhere between old, old-school voodoo zombies and the sort of hardcore bath salt junkies who shamble around nude and eat people’s faces. It’s all a bit tenuous. Perhaps Romero was playing with the fears of the time regarding the new socially liberated hippy generation? Ugh hippies, that’s worse than zombies, man.
But the film’s social commentary on race couldn’t be more obvious. Black actors simply did not get to play the lead role in a film featuring an otherwise all white cast. They certainly were not allowed to play the articulate and capable hero who slaps the hysterical white woman and dominates the take charge white patriarchal figure. Ben does exactly all of those things in this film. At the time, the only film to show this much balls was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner starring Sidney Poitier, which depicted interracial marriage in a (gasp) positive light.
Romero stated that the casting of Jones was not due to a desire to make any comments about race. This seems unlikely given the climate of the Sixties – torn apart of civil rights and race – but I suppose he’d know. NOTLD therefore doesn’t make a huge deal of the Ben’s race. It’s not painfully oversimplified like, say, Get Out which equates social commentary to “omg white people, right? Give me an Oscar now.” Like the world’s laziest comedian whose joke is the punchline. Instead with NOTLD you need to take the savage ending and the cynical attitudes towards Ben and place them within the context of the film’s era, to truly appreciate the message.
Night of the Living Dead was the film which kickstarted the zombie genre as was know it today. It’s my least favourite of Romero’s initial trilogy. Not because there is anything particularly wrong with the film: it holds up remarkably well after 50 years (that’s practical effects for you). Well, except for maybe the cheesy Sixties era amateur acting. But Romero really got into full swing with Dawn of the Dead (1978) and mastered the zombie subgenre with Day of the Dead (1985).
Of course, that’s just Romero’s own film series. You see, Romero and co-creator John A Russo didn’t secure the proper rights to NOTLD. This meant that anyone could release and make money off this film. So there was Russo’s own alternate continuity, The Return of the Living Dead (1985), which spawned 4 sequels. Rise of the Living Dead a prequel directed by Romero’s own son which (thankfully) hasn’t yet been fully realised. And the film has been remade several times, most notably in 1990 by Tom Savini. Yes, that Tom Savini.
As a side note, check out Zombie Nosh starring the first zombie – Hinzman. It’s just a sequence of set pieces which allow an aged Hinzman to rub up against young girls.
Still, there are parts of NOTLD I really enjoy which are unique to this film alone. For one the amateurish, grainy black and white cinematography lends provides the film with grungy documentary appearance. This helps to enunciate the grisly violence and keep it relatively grounded, especially when compared with the more colourful gore which would appear later in the series. The scene with a zombie Karen stabbing her mother to death is pure Psycho, and is nothing short of disturbing.
I also like that it’s set during the very start of downfall of civilisation. That makes it fairly unique as zombie films go. They’re usually set well into the downfall or just after. It’s an interesting thought that whilst Ben’s party and the militia are fighting off the zombie hordes, someone a few miles away could still go to the shop and buy a pint of milk. I’m reminded of the original Mad Max in that respect. At the end of this film it seems as though humanity might just pull through. As we’ll see later, the brutality and lack of co-operation between groups of humans allow the zombies to flourish and eventually win.
That NOTLD is set at night and the ghouls are these strange figures which appear out of the darkness, really makes the whole thing seem like one long nightmare. Ghouls are not proper zombies in my opinion. But the first ghoul, with his ripped clothes and gnarled appearance, is frightening as hell. A parody of humanity. Add this horrifying figure with the ropey practical effects and creeping orchestral music and you have a nightmare.