Zombie War #1: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

If you’re gonna take on the zombie genre one film at a time, you’ve gotta start at the, well, start. Here we go…George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead!

Synopsis (A synopsis is essentially one long SPOILER. Duh.)

A blonde (slightly dippy) girl (and her snarky brother are accosted by a zombie (not that they know what the hell he is) when they visit their father’s remote cemetery. He’s killed and she flees (after a requisite damsel-fall) to an even-remoter abandoned farmhouse where she promptly goes catatonic. A truly heroic black man (the truly-excellent Duane Jones) arrives, also on the run from the multiplying undead (not that he knows exactly what the hell they are at this point) and he is generally competent, rational, and all-around sympathetic as he boards up doors and windows, dispatches a few zombies with a handy tire iron to the head, and gives some backstory, all the while trying to get through to blondie who remains dazed and thoroughly un-useful for the most part. Ben (Jones) finds a rifle, a radio, a TV, and probably, if he’d had enough time, the cure for zombie-ism, but he’s interrupted by the house’s other residents who’d been hiding,

The coolest protagonist in horror movie history.

somewhat less heroically, in the cellar. There’s a truly, dumbly sweet couple of young lovers and their polar opposites, a married couple who loathe each other with every fiber of their being, possibly because Harry, the husband, is the most hateful little weasel in screen history. I’m just guessing. Oh, and there’s also the Loathington’s unconscious daughter, who has been bitten by a zombie (dum…dum…DUMMMM.) At this point Harry’s unspoken racism, general contrariness, and small penis (I’m just speculating) causes him to oppose Ben’s rational plans at every turn; Ben wants to use the truck he came in to load everyone up and head for the nearest rescue station they’ve heard about on the TV he found, while Harry wants everyone to crouch wetting themselves in the basement, presumably until they starve to death. Ben wins out and he and the dumb couple head for the gas pump out back in the truck, a decent plan undermined by dumb guy’s inability to fill a gas tank without setting the truck on fire. With the knucklehead couple first blown up, then eaten, Ben sprints back to the house, only to find that Harry has locked him out in an envy/panic/hate dick move. What a dick. Ben (understandably) beats the crap out of Harry, which isn’t hard, and then shoots him. The zombies storm the house, blondie snaps out of it just in time to help and then be immediately eaten by her reanimated brother (who still has a smirk on his zombie-face). Wifey goes, too, when she’s stabbed to death by her reanimated daughter, and Ben, overrun, is forced to take refuge in the cellar. He kills the daughter, who’d been eating Harry’s arm, and then Harry, who’s come back as the weaseliest zombie in Pennsylvania. Trapped and alone, Ben waits for the end. The zombies overrun the house…and then just sort of mill around for a while until the sun comes up, when they sort of wander off. Switch to a heavily-armed, alarmingly redneck-y rescue party who are seemingly well on top of this whole zombie nonsense. They approach the house and when Ben, who looks out of a window after emerging from the basement and, mistaken for a zombie by the trigger-happy yokels outside, is unceremoniously shot in the head. His dead body is dragged outside on a meathook and burned on top of a pile of dead zombies. Man.

Review

I have such affection for this movie (it, after all, is the genesis of this whole endeavor here) that dispassionate, objective analysis is a toughie. But, well, there are some issues. My main complaint is that it’s really not terribly scary. There’s one jump-out-of-your-seat-moment when Ben, passing a boarded up window, is suddenly grabbed by zombie arms, and the scene where Ben shoots a zombie in the chest, only to watch it stagger, stop, and then slowly raise its head and advance (a well-directed Romero moment there) is arm-pricklingly effective. Also, the slow succession of closer-ups on the radio while the out-of-it Barbara (blondie) listens to the rattled announcer incredulously report the seemingly-impossible details of the whole ‘dead rising from their graves and eating people’ thing is quietly eerie. And I genuinely love the ‘da-Dum-Dum-Dum’ music (a public domain score from Teenagers from Outer Space!) Sure, it’s tempting to say that, jaded as zombie-philes have become over the years, we just can’t appreciate how damned terrifying NOTLD was at the time, and there’s some truth in that. But I maintain that anyone watching it now looking for non-stop terror will be a little disappointed. That being said, Romero is to be congratulated for a lot. The performances from the

I would like someone to buy me one of these, please.

nonprofessional cast are pretty solid throughout: Duane Jones’ Ben is one of the most competent, likable horror protagonists ever and Jones’ sane reactions to his insane situation grounds the movie and makes us care. (Also, the idea expressed by some [including personal favorite film critic Danny Peary, of the ‘Cult Movies’ books] that a-hole Harry’s plan to stay in the basement is actually the correct one is nonsense; Romero’s point is that, if everyone had worked together, they had all the necessary tools and opportunities to get out of this just fine…at least for a while.) And while no one else reaches that level, no one’s a complete embarrassment, either- Judith O’Dea (Barbara/blondie) is a stereotypical damsel, but you can’t really blame her for going fetal (some people are going to in any crisis), and her desperate demand of “What’s happening?!” is actually pretty effective. Harry’s a creep, and a little over-the-top (he sounds like he belongs in a 20’s gangster movie at times), but he’s a classic horror movie a-hole. The black-and-white photography is often evocative, the set design of the house is solid (even if there’s one unboarded-up window in the living room through the whole movie, which still drives me nuts), and the ending is an all-time ironic horror bummer (see The Mist for another.) All in all, NOTLD is deserving of its reputation; you can really see how it captured the imagination of scores of zombie movie directors to come…for better or worse.

Zombie Crimes

Night of the Living Dead does pretty well overall. It is the grandaddy’s rotting corpse of the zombie movie pantheon, after all. And yet, there are some violations I’ve got to call NOTLD on…

#3. “Zombies do not feel fear (even of fire.)”

Yeah, Romero’s initial crop of the undead definitely fear the fire. Fire bad! When Ben waves a torch at them, when Harry (actually doing something sorta useful for once) tosses some molotov cocktails out the window, and at the burning pickup (until it’s time for bar-b-q dumb couple), the undead wave their arms, they avert their faces, they are basically weedy, even-more-uncoordinated Frankensteins. The initial graveyard zombie even swats at his flaming suit jacket like a drunk at a cookout at one point. The scary thing (as I have said before and will, ad nauseum, again) about zombies is their implacable, insatiable, impervious-to-anything-else desire to eat your face off. They will march through fire, through barbed wire, through spikes, and jagged glass, and rude language. They aren’t afraid of a damned thing.

#5. “Zombies do not (and here I’m gonna piss of the Romero faithful) remember anything about their previous lives.”

I’m gonna call a zombie crime on this one because of the Snidely Whiplash look on the face of

Mwah-ha-ha...

Barbara/blondie’s dead and reanimated brother when he, busting through the house’s defenses, spots her. Seriously, Johnny (for ’tis his name) is the hammiest, archest zombie in zombietown. He seems to be whipping a “Well, Barbara, remember when you loved me, your brother? Well now I, yes I, have become a zombie and now I shall enact ironic violence upon thee. MWAHH-HAA-HAA!”

#6 “Zombies do not learn. Not to use tools, not to fear weapons, or humans with weapons. Zombies are. They are reanimated corpses with only one, singleminded goal. That is what’s scary.”

Yeah, the very first zombie in zombiedom, when confounded from eating sweet, silly Barbara by a locked car door, first frantically, and immediately, tries to open the car door with the handle and then, when that doesn’t work, he looks around, grabs the biggest rock he can find, and smashes the window. Yeah, that’s not gonna work for me. Follow that later with a zombie snatching up another rock to knock out Ben’s truck’s headlights (which it was afraid of, for some reason- zombie crime #3 again!), and you’ve got zombie daddy himself George Romero committing some cardinal zombie sins, right at the outset. Ouch.

#7. “Zombies never stop, for any reason, until they eat you.”

Once the house is boarded up, and the zombies know the gang is in there, they should be hammering their way in their non-stop, incessantly, until they force the issue, dramatically. Instead, they seem to just glare at the house until it’s the director’s choice to whip them out for shock value. And then there’s the ‘morning after’ scene where they just give up on breaking down the basement door, um, because it’s morning, I guess.  More of a pacing issue, but I’m calling zombie crime anyway.

So that’s that. Please don’t think I don’t love Night of the Living Dead. But I’m on a mission here, and you only hurt the ones you love. Or eat their faces.

I still love you, zombie daddy...

React to me, fellow zombie-freaks!

 

For more bloggy, pop culture-y goodness, check out Dennis and Justin in Brannigan’s Law!

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Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 2:06 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Don’t forget the bug-eater is you are on the human-only diet.

  2. Hey Mike.
    Yeah, as to the bug-eater, I’m gonna give it a pass, largely due to reading Max Brooks’ ‘World War Z’ where he makes the compelling case that all animals (basically anything that movies) are fair game for a hungry zombie. Sure, they prefer our sweet, deliciousness, but they will eat anything in a pinch. It just makes a certain amount of sense to me. (Of course, I am making the rules.)

  3. Well what about the light/ heat element for the fire then.

    Let’s role with the ‘low brain animal drive’ only idea. All animals are either drawn towards or repelled away by heat and light. If they have some form of sight but their pupils can’t contract and focus then light is a repellent. So the only way that they wouldn’t have some sort of reaction to fire is if they can’t smell can’t feel and can’t see in any way.

    As far as calling it fear… fear is a higher brain function… but pain is a lower brain function. The drawn back posture, screams and moans might be pain. Ever strained your eyes really bad or went from a dark room to outside on a bright sunny day… now picture if your pupils don’t work… so its about 50-100x that painful and disorientating.

    Even patting themselves out.. we all know how a chicken continues to run around after it’s head’s cut off… that one lasted 18 months because it didn’t bleed out. Anyway more to the point… in more then a few documented cases they were prepping the chicken to be cooked… it ran into the fire.. and before it ran out (the body doesn’t like heat) it’s feathers caught fire and it would frantically try to flap or roll them out. If a headless chicken with little to no brain stem will flap itself out if it catches fire I think it’s fair to give the same credit to a zombie.

  4. Mike!
    Please don’t let the way I’m about to disagree with nearly everything you’ve said make you think I’m not grateful for your reading/commenting on my silly little article!
    I think it’s essential to think of the zombie completely divorced from not only human terms, but animal terms as well. They aren’t animals, because animals, no matter how fierce and determined, can be understood. They can be dissuaded by thoughts of their own pain, their own mortality- that’s something we, as animals, all have in common, and it makes us all, to a certain extent, understandable to each other.

    Zombies are…other.

    However they came into being, they are other than us. They feel nothing like pain. You shoot one anywhere but in the head and it might stagger back, fall over, or split completely apart from the impact…but then it, or whatever remains of it, will keep coming. They have no sense of self preservation, or fear, discomfort, or pain. They only have hunger.

    Two chapters in Max Brooks’ superlative ‘World War Z’ which really brought this home:
    1. The Battle of Yonkers. In an attempt to instill confidence that the government was still in charge despite the zombie hordes sweeping across America, the military organizes a massive display of might. It is a disaster. Armaments designed to riddle human enemies with shrapnel do nothing to enemies incapable of feeling pain, or fear. The few hit in the head stay down, the rest, mutilated but undeterred, swarm the terrified soldiers. Air strikes drop fire on the millions of zombies attracted form the ruins of Manhattan, but the ones actually killed are relatively few, and the sight of undead hordes walking through flames, in flames, only increases the terror. Barbed wire is meaningless to things unable to feel pain; some are stuck, the others just climb over them. It is this implacability, like a tide of violent murder, ever advancing, that is the true essence of fear in a zombie tale.

    2. A soldier awakes after blowing a strategic bridge. Dazed, he hears the ever-present moan of zombies, and a series of muffled thuds. Clearing his eyes, he sees that the thousands of zombies now cut off by the blown bridge are still advancing, seeing him on the other side of the now-impassable gorge. They are fixated on him as they walk right off the side of the cliff, falling to the canyon below. The ones behind don’t learn. They just want.

    Thanks for reading.
    Videoport Jones


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