Sunday, November 17, 2013

They're Coming To Get You, Barbara!

Year: 1968
Director: George A. Romero
Cast: Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Karl Hardman
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

For some strange unfathomable reason, my horror professor has taken to screening films that are tentpoles of the horror genre, so I'd feel absolutely blasphemous just sticking them into a Splatter University series of mini-reviews. Fortunately for you, this means you get my valued opinion on a variety of the most important horror movies of all time in full review format!

I have admitted before that I am less fond of George Romero's output than most, but it's impossible to deny that the world as we know it could not exist without Night of the Living Dead. It's hard to imagine a society that doesn't live under the constant threat of undead revenants what with the massive popularity of The Walking Dead and the rise of what I like to call "zombie chic."

But before 1968, the zombie as we know it was nothing more than a collection of electrical charges in the imagination banks of Romero's delicious delicious brain. The word "zombie" had been slung around for some time, but always in reference to the undead voodoo slaves of the tropical islands. Which were exactly as boring as they sounded, as evidenced by Val Lewton's dire I Walked With a Zombie.

The entire concept of the flesh-eating, disease-spreading, undead-shuffling zombies was introduced in a fairly innocuous low budget B-movie monster flick that nobody really expected to succeed. But the film captivated audiences with its unprecedented gore, unique reimagining of a classic (and pretty dull, even for the time) movie monster, and unrelenting pace. The film opens with a girl (Barbara, played by Judith O'Dea) being chased through a cemetery by a bizarre old man and doesn't quit until the credits roll.

Pictured: Barbara

Now, the pace has slowed down somewhat in the wake of Dawn of the Dead, The Evil Dead, and the 907 million zombie flicks that have come and gone in the succeeding years, but at the time, man. At the time.

Unfortunately for NotLD, this is 2013 and we do have access to at least 12 better movies about zombies just on the first page of Netflix. But it's important to remember this film's contributions to the genre (ie. the entire fact that it exists at all) and it's still a fairly solid movie on it's own.

Filmed in black and white to keep the chocolate syrup gore as realistic as possible (and because it's cheaper - it's not all artistry up in here), Night of the Living Dead is a clever monster movie that twists the tropes of the genre in order to provide keen social commentary. 

No, not the racism thing. That's bunk and everybody needs to get over themselves. The protagonist is black because he was a good actor and happened to be black, there's no huge statement about race relations. What there is is a flawed hero, a villain who kind of has a point, and a crafty heroine who completely falls to pieces within about 3.5 seconds.

TBH Barbara is the worst. Screw trope reversal.

Night of the Living Dead takes place in a small Pennsylvania farm town. When Barbara and her brother Johnny (an uncredited Russell Streiner) are visiting their father's grave, they are attacked by an ugly old man in a cemetery. The man takes Johnny down and runs after Barbara (Yes. Runs. These original zombies aren't quite the cliché that developed over the years. They also notably use tools to smash out car lights and to break down a door), who ends up pulling the emergency brake on their stalled car, rolling down the hill, and taking refuge in a remote farmhouse along the side of the road.

That's about it for Barbara. Apparently having worn herself out from her adventure, she proceeds into a state of vapid catatonia that lasts for the rest of the film. Some praise Barbara for accurately reflecting the realities of post traumatic shock, but who wants that in their zombie movie? Having the main female protagonist lay there muttering for 80 minutes isn't exactly my idea of a party. Bring on the chainsaws!

Barbara mopes around like Lana Del Rey until Ben (Duane Jones) comes barging in, taking refuge after being chased by a horde of those "ghouls." Against the background of Barb's pathetic whimpers, Ben gets proactive and barricades the doors and windows, right before smashing the skull of a zombie that Barbara failed to notice had gotten inside. I'm sorry, but when sobbing into a chair is higher up on your To Do list than keeping an eye out for lethal monsters, I have no sympathy for you.

Barbara's the worst.

Luckily, it turns out that there's more people in the house, who had been hiding in the basement this whole time. There's Harry (Karl Hardman), a rude middle-aged man, and his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), who's pretty and kind and why are they married again? They're holed up in there with their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), who was bitten by one of those... things and is languishing on a makeshift bed. Remember, this was before this sort of thing had any meaning in the genre. It would soon gain it.

Accompanying them is a young All-American couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley) whose presence more than anything cements in the tropes of the B-monster genre even further.

Or boarded them in. That works too.

The whole thing is marred by jumpy editing that took a while to figure out was actually done on purpose. At first it seemed like a fluke, but it solidified as time goes on, so I can say with some authority that the unsettling effect it has is absolutely intentional. Go filmmakers!

So back to the trope reversal thing. First of all, making the characters all equally flawed was evidence of George Romero sharpening his teeth on standard character archetypes, allowing him to explore for the first time that favorite platitude of his: "people are the real monsters." And by putting his film into the basic framework of a movie audiences expected to see, he put them in exactly the right mindset to be utterly shocked and terrified by the unprecedented amount of gore he put onscreen.

Again, the Chocolate Syrup Massacre can't compare to the movie (or even TV) gore of today, but in 1968 this was quite literally breathtaking.

And occasionally heartbreaking.

Although his keen eye for satire and commentary wouldn't be developed fully until Dawn of the Dead in 1978, this movie planted the seeds for everything the sequel does right. Although in a different way than most people would have it.

I won't give away the ending here, but I've stated before that many people see this whole film as a treatise on the way society treated black people in the 60's. This is absolute garbage and anybody who has seen the entire film knows it. What people don't notice is the satirical eye aims itself toward redneck culture (the enthusiastic bloodlust of the farm natives) and a TV-run society (characters decide to abandon their refuge because "the TV said it was the right thing to do.").

There may also be some symbolism in the idea of the two groups splitting up between the upper and lower floors but I don't think it's fair to read that far into a movie that includes a voluptuous naked lady zombie just cuz.

Not pictured. Sorry.

Night of the Living Dead was a stroke of low budget brilliance, but much like any Adam Sandler film, it simply doesn't manage to be as entertaining when viewed in 2013. That doesn't mean that it was never a pinnacle of the genre and a great film, but the relatively slow pacing, the less than outrageous gore effects, and the unbelievably irritating heroine mean it's not a movie I'd jump to recommend to a beginner zombie fan.

So shuffle along, sweet chariot, there's so much greatness down the road.

TL;DR: Night of the Living Dead is certainly a well-made and sharply satirical film, but ended up buried under the weight of the genre it single-handedly created.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1378

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