Night Of The Living Dead (1968 USA)

Along with “Carnival of Souls” and “Dementia 13” this movie stands out as one of the definitive black-and-white horror films of the bygone drive-in movie era. Night ranks among the scariest horror films, partly for raising the bar on gore. Yet raising the bar far higher has made later horror movies far less scary. By the 1980s, horror movies were gore-splattered freak shows with expensive puppets, and now they’re freak shows with digital characters that seem to belong in video games. “Night of the Living Dead,” by contrast, looks like a very cheap documentary. One that cost a mere one hundred and twelve thousand bucks.

George Romero’s “Night Of The Living Dead” marked the implosion of the white, middle class American nuclear family. Indeed, it portrays the collapse of post-war patriarchal authority into mad hysteria. The sexual, political and social “revolutions” of the 1960s were not so much rebellions against tyrannical paternal/political despots, but carnival style revelations that the emperor had no clothes. That 1950s suburbia offered nothing but hypocrisy and fake decor. As such, Romero has his nuclear family holed up in a farmhouse: the impotence of the father mirroring the clownish impotence of various authority figures on his television screen – until the unit collapses under the weight of its own stupidity and children-turned-zombies avidly consume their own parents. As is always the case with Romero, the zombies are actually the good guys, the new zombie order literally consuming the outmoded old. The zombie horde then become a darkly humourous vision of hippie communalism, who are the preferred refuge of the children of the white middle class. This is one possible viewpoint.

Confused? You shouldn’t be. I’m just digging for as many subtexts to mask the extremely simple plot that unfolds before your eyes…anyway, back to the rebellions of the 1960s–they went nowhere, hope fading and forgotten. Hippies and campus radicals from middle-class backgrounds grew up to be yuppies, and their influence on the larger culture was mostly a matter of an easily saleable “lifestyle.” Once the social upheavals of the 60s had passed, consumerism turned out to be the real winner. So it’s entirely appropriate that Romero’s second zombie movie, “Dawn of the Dead” (1979) takes place in a shopping mall. Here our heroes live a fantasy of commodity abundance and unhinged consumption as the zombies draw inexorably closer, the mall reminding them of their happiest pre-death moments. In this world there is no satisfaction, only lack, the zombie’s unquenchable lust for flesh mocking the consumer’s unquenchable desires to buy material stuff to fill that aching hole in their soul.

Although the music is stock material, it was well chosen for its fear effect and downright eeriness. The man walking stiff-legged among the cemetery monuments (Bill Heinzman) not only imitates the great Boris Karloff very well, but he even resembles him. One of the problems with the film, however, is that it fails to sustain the intensity of its opening scenes and loses its punch along the way. To review the cast: the leading lady’s catatonia is annoying. The black leading man looks uncomfortable whenever he has large chunks of dialogue. The two young lovers are extremely ill at ease. The angry father hits one note and hits it loud. The mother often hesitates slightly after her cues. The TV people, however, come off as natural and often comic, especially the simpleminded sheriff and the real-life Pittsburgh newsman. In general, Night Of The Living Dead is less about monsters turning against people. Its about people turning against people — there is no real community formed, no solid efforts to work together to face the threats head on. They are very divided throughout the whole film, and more of them are killed by human error and mistakes rather than the undead themselves.

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Comments

  1. A thought-provoking review (I didn’t realise how much subtext there was), thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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