Night of the Living Dead (1968)


If you're looking for a monster who makes the perfect killing machine, who feasts on the living indiscriminately without heart, conscience or soul--you can't go wrong with Nazis.

Oh, wait. That's video games.

In the movie world, you can't go wrong with ZOMBIES. The living dead. The reanimated bodies of the deceased, ravenous, bloodthirsty, unthinking, unnatural BEASTS risen from the grave to seek the flesh and/or brains of the living! Lock your doors, board up your windows, and for Pete's sake pretend you don't have flesh!

Zombies are right up there with summer camp serial killers, William Shatner impersonators, janitors who kill you in your dreams, and guys with pins sticking out of their faces - they make the perfect Halloween monsters. Besides, Frankenstein's monster has the capacity for human emotion, werewolves only come out one night a month, and Stephanie Meyer has pretty much single-handedly ruined vampires forever.

Now we all know from a scientific viewpoint (or by Cracked.com, anyway) that an army of zombies bringing human civilization to its knees would be a physical implausibility. Rotting flesh is a magnet for worms, weevils, maggots, and even wild animals, the lack of brain function would deny them the ability to identify mountains, cliffs or even stairs, and of course, being dead and all, they wouldn't have a functioning immune system, central nervous system or even bones that could mend themselves. Generally, the wisest thing to do during a zombie invasion would be to hide out in a tall building or a less densely populated area and wait for their food supply to run out.

Of course, that hasn't stopped some zombie movie makers from working around such complications. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, for example, created ravenous ghouls from a highly contagious disease spread from an infected monkey. Peter Jackson's Braindead (or Dead Alive, if you prefer) also used a monkey, but was also spread by New Zealander Howard Sprague's mother.

Meanwhile, nobody has even bothered to tell horror movie icon George A. Romero, as he's been making movies ending with "of the (Living) Dead" for years.

And as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is considered by many to be slasher movie elite, so is George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead considered by many to be the ultimate zombie movie. Even though the word "zombie" is never used throughout the entire film, there's plenty of them in there.

It began in a cemetery somewhere in western Pennsylvania...

Two siblings, Barbara and her groaning, moaning, less-than-enthusiastic brother John have traveled three hours to this cemetery at their mother's request to place some flowers on their father's grave. Or, rather, she places the flowers on his grave while her brother keeps pissing and moaning about having to drive three hours to arrive at 8:00 in the evening which looks more like the middle of the day to mourn a dead guy, and then starts freaking her out by chasing her around the tombstones teasing her about how something is coming to get her.

Well...then...something comes to get her. A strange, voiceless man comes out of nowhere, bashes Johnny's head on a headstone and chases Barbara all the way to an isolated farmhouse further in the middle of nowhere, where she in a near-catatonic state and an African-American gentleman named Ben barricade themselves inside as some of her pursuer's friends show up and begin to stand around the house waiting the two of them out.

The rest of the film pretty much takes place in or around the house and focuses on disaster movie principles of a group of survivors trying to escape this calamity, while radio and television give us expository reports of a people being killed and eaten by otherwise normal-looking dead people who have developed a taste for human flesh. As to the cause of this zombie infestation, TV newscasters say experts are reportedly at a loss, though one hypothesis claims extraterrestrial radiation found on an exploratory satellite that was blown up on its way back from Venus. Frankly, in my opinion, a virus would have been more plausible.

"After the break, we'll discuss the recent zombie epidemic and how it's all because of Obamacare!"

Meanwhile their little circle grows to include a boyfriend/girlfriend pairing and a bickering married couple whose daughter was bitten, all of whom come out from down in the basement about forty-five minutes into the film and then start arguing with each other, because what's a survival story without members of their main cast constantly at each other's throats, acting all "every-man-for-himself"?

Our heroes finally start arguing long enough to formulate a plan to escape the house by hurling Molotov cocktails out of the second story window to distract the ghouls while the boyfriend and girlfriend attempt to frive the blak guy's truck to a nearby fuel pump to fill up the tank, only to accidentally set the truck on fire and blow the young couple up in a fiery explosion. Which gives us the most iconic and infamous scene of zombies disassembling their flaming corpses and eating the delicious candy inside.

Even with zombies banging down your door, you can't miss Laugh-In.

Relations between the remaining survivors break down after that, particularly after the electricity goes off and the zombies start breaking in. The loudmouthed father turns on Ben and in the scuffle gets himself shot and falls down the basement stairs; by the time the mother retreats down there, her daughter has started feasting on his flesh and pauses for a moment to stab her to death with a garden trowel.

In this zombie universe, their brains haven't rotted enough to know that garden trowels are sharp and that rocks break car windows, apparently. I'm also willing to guess that they know how to cut off the electricity.

Barbara doesn't fare any better - she gets carried off by the swarm, one of whom looks like her brother while Ben is forced to fight the rest of them off alone and spends the night down in the basement.

The next morning, local law enforcement and the neighborhood rifle-wielding mob have the zombie epidemic pretty much under control, as they wander the field nearby capping off the last few walkers. Ben wakes up, comes out of the basement and peeks out the window only to be shot between the eyes and burned with the rest of the bodies, providing possibly the most eyebrow-raising conclusion to a movie that came out about six months after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

I like this new direction The Family Circus is taking. "NOT ME!"

Apart from some scenes of entrail consumption and gratuitous garden utensil violence, the original Night of the Living Dead would be considered moderate by today's horror movie standard. It doesn't entirely subscribe to the "less is more" philosophy demonstrated by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but not unlike that film, it does sacrifice some outright shock value for an atmosphere of suspense, desperation and survival. Some filmmakers rely on atmosphere when big-budget special effects are a luxury they can't afford, and Romero does a good job establishing atmosphere here. No jump scares, no on-camera dismemberment, no buckets of blood pouring out of some guy's arm-stump, just good old fashioned feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia.

Something also should be said for the film's progressiveness. As I emphasized earlier, this movie came out at a time of heavy racial tension in America, so it was pretty unheard of for someone to cast an African-American actor as the male lead, let alone as the most competent character in the entire cast. Compare that to most horror movies these days, where the black guy is a token character who gets killed off first.

Night of the Living Dead isn't recommended for anyone who enjoys horror movies with more blood spatter, but is definitely required viewing for classic horror buffs and zombie fans in particular.

Is that gluten-free?

No comments: