Thursday, October 1, 2015

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (USA, 1968) - Black & White, Director(s): George A. Romero
MPAA Rating: Unrated
[UK: 15]
Approx. 96 min.

Z-rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Cheese Factor: 2 stars out of 5

I can't think of a better way to kick off Halloween 2015 but what can I really say about this movie that hasn't already been said? George Romero's indie horror flick became a major financial success, redefined zombies as we knew them, and revolutionized the horror genre. The film's influence can still be felt today as zombie culture is more popular now than ever with zombies making their way into books, TV series, comics, video games, toys, and more. My nephew even has a zombie joke book that came with a severed finger eraser!

from Zombie Funnies

Night of the Living Dead is about a group of people holed up in a farmhouse trying to survive a zombie outbreak. An interesting fact about this famously influential zombie movie is that they never actually use the word "zombie" anywhere in the film nor do they explain what's going on. One theory offered by an expert involves radiation from a space probe returning from Venus but nothing is ever officially confirmed. If the dead suddenly started coming back to life and eating people, no one would be able to explain what was happening. The only thing they do know for sure is destroying the brain is the only way to stop them. Another interesting fact about these early "zombies" is they're afraid of fire like The Monster in Frankenstein. Modern zombies are typically so mindless, they'll walk through fire and be completely unaware that they're burning.

Another thing that added realism were the news reports, America was seeing the horrors of the Vietnam War through the news every night and this was eerily echoed in the movie where the only information the characters had came from news reports on the radio and TV. The fact that the movie was shot on 35mm black-and-white film also made it feel like a newsreel documentary. Night was controversial for its time, featuring a black hero while the rest of the cast was caucasian. George Romero says the actor, Duane Jones, was chosen simply because he gave the best audition but film historians have interpreted this as social commentary on racism. Jones even punches a white woman (Judith O'Dea) in the face, which I imagine must also have been extremely controversial at the time.

Social and political commentary aside, the reason this movie works is its simplicity. The movie is set in an ordinary place with ordinary people trying to survive, the drama and the tension comes from normal people put into a desperate situation where communication has broken down. They squabble over which room they should barricade themselves in, whether or not to leave the house, and what to do next in order to survive. Anyone who has attended family gatherings for the holidays knows how difficult it can be for large groups of people to agree on anything, throw survival into the mix and diplomacy goes right out the window. The selfish people will only be concerned about self-preservation, those who are terrified may shut down completely, and those who want to take charge may have conflicting ideas for survival.

Nudity: There's a single nude female zombie shambling about outside the house. You can see her ass on two occasions and her breasts in one scene, obscured by shadows.

Gore: At the time of its release, Night was criticized for its shocking violence and explicit gore. The MPAA's film rating system was not in place at the time, so children were allowed to see this movie and were terrified by the depictions of cannibalism. Many credit its violence for ushering in the splatter film subgenre since prior horror movies typically featured rubber masks and cheesy sets. The effects may be a bit dated now, especially with the amount of gore in modern zombie films or even its own sequels Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead.

Awesome: Very. Movies that featured "zombies" before this (White Zombie is often cited as the first) were about living people turned into slaves by a voodoo witch doctor. Night of the Living Dead was the first time we saw the dead coming back to life and hunger for human flesh (Although these early zombies ate bugs too!). All of modern zombie culture, from Resident Evil to The Walking Dead, descends from this film. Boarding up doors and windows is something you still see today in the zombie modes of Call of Duty. While it might seem a bit tame by today's standards, Night of the Living Dead is an undeniable classic. The Library of Congress even selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1999 for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".