Night of the Living Dead

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Night of the Living Dead. Image Ten 1968.
Night of the Living Dead. Image Ten 1968.

Before watching the movie:

I am really over zombies as a pop culture phenomenon. They’re here to stay because the only two kinds of enemies you can kill without offending people are Nazis and zombies, and you can justify modern-day or future zombies much more easily than explaining why there are Nazis in orbit around Regulus 9.

I’m more into vampires (kind of surprising, given my politics), but the thing is, I’m kind of attracted to the idea of being a vampire, while nobody wants to be a zombie. People want to be Survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. I want no part of that scenario. I’m not entirely happy with my civilization, but I like it much better than none at all. Also I’d die in the first ten minutes of the movie.

However, this is the seminal zombie movie, and even Mister Rogers enjoyed it. Like last week’s movie defined vampires in cultural consciousness, this movie invented what we think of as zombies. Without even using that word. It hijacked the word in our culture, and now it means George Romero’s undead monsters. So that has to be of value.

After watching the movie:

Adult siblings Barbara and Johnny arrive at a rural cemetery to pay respects to their father, when a strange, shambling man approaches and attacks them. Johnny is knocked out and Barbara is chased to an abandoned house. Soon Ben also arrives at the house looking for shelter if not gas for his truck, and boards up the doors and windows to keep the ghouls out. It also turns out there’s five more people in the basement: Harry, Helen, their sick daughter Karen, and young couple Tom and Judy.  Ben and Harry argue on how to proceed. News reports continue to trickle new discoveries on the baffling attack on a third of the country, and hungry undead are starting to break through.

It’s really refreshing how simple this movie is. It doesn’t assume the audience knows what these beings are, because they haven’t been done to undeath yet. It doesn’t try to top anything, because there’s nothing to top. It doesn’t even try to explain it (there’s one or two suggested explanations, but nobody knows). It’s just seven people besieged in a house with different ideas of what they should do. I don’t know how graphic it was in its day, but while there’s a lot of blood and some dismembering (mostly off camera), it seems very limited. The undead are more disheveled than disfigured. At least by today’s standards, it’s not shocking or disgusting.

As the first person to survive an on-screen attack, Barbara sounds pretty important. Unfortunately, the trauma of the whole thing sets her in a numb fog with occasional bouts of mania, and she’s pretty much dead weight for the story. Ben is the closest thing the story has to a hero. He has a clear idea of what to do and convinces most of the others to follow. He’s black and the movie makes nothing of it. In 1968. Of the other two adult-ish women, Judy pretty much follows Tom, but she’s occasionally useful, and Helen actively stands up to Harry’s arrogance and tries to comfort Barbara, to the point that I felt her presence more than Tom’s, so I don’t feel the movie completely disregards female input.

This is a story completely unaware of its historical significance. It’s a slightly cheap bit of shock and psychological horror, painting a practical picture of what happens when there’s an unusual threat in your area. The logical progression of the story reminded me slightly of the procedural nature of The Andromeda Strain, though there’s hardly any actual similarity. It’s just here to tell you a story and scare you a bit.  It’s a lot of fun, George.

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One thought on “Night of the Living Dead

  1. Mark Wood October 20, 2015 / 6:52 pm

    Sounds like the story is done right. The more you try to explain zombies, the harder it is to suspend disbelief (or giggles). Just let them be a menace that no one understands — that’s way scarier.

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