Night of the Living Dead

Last night I wanted to do something to commemorate that it was Halloween as I couldn’t do it the usual ways – I don’t get any trick or treaters where I live, I don’t have any kids to dress up (and after trying it one year, I’m not dressing up the pet) and my office doesn’t really get into the holiday spirit. It was shaping up to be just another Wednesday until I heard that our local art house cinema was having a special event – they would be showing the original Night of the Living Dead, fully restored, colorized and in 3-D.  So I rounded up some people and dodged holiday revelers (little ones and their parents trick or treating, drunk college kids and perhaps the most scary – packs of unchaperoned teenagers, sans costumes, looking for candy and trouble) to make it to the screening.

I generally like zombie movies; they aren’t my favorite sub-genre of horror movies and I’m not fixated on zombies like some other people, but have enjoyed the films that I have watched. I had never seen Night of the Living Dead before, but I had seen a lot of director George Romero’s later films and was curious to see where it all started as this was his first film. Since it was from the 1960s, I expected that it would be pretty dated and not all that scary; what was considered shocking and scandalous then would not have the same impact on a modern audience. But Night of the Living Dead is considered a horror classic and really kicked off the zombie craze, so for the sake of cinematic history it was worth checking out.

I was surprised by the crowd, or lack thereof, once we went into the theater. I thought that there would have been a lot more people; it may not have been the hottest ticket in town, but I assumed that would be a sizable crowd for a one night only movie event as it would be early enough for people to still go out afterward. Going to see a retro scary movie on Halloween seemed like a hipster-ish thing to do, but I either misinterpreted or the hipster population in Albany isn’t all that big. Most of the people in the audience were older and probably remembered when the movie originally came out in 1968.

The film in and of itself was pretty simply – a woman and her brother are in the cemetery when they are attacked by what we will later learn is a zombie (though the word zombie is never used in the film; they are referred to as ghouls). She escapes to a farmhouse where other people are hiding and they discover that what they experienced is not an isolated incident, but part of an epidemic. They must figure out how to survive until they are rescued.

The first thing you notice about this movie is that these are not modern day zombies; if you watch The Walking Dead, you’ll find the zombies in Night of the Living Dead kind of laughable. For the most part, they aren’t all that gruesome; the first zombie that the audience encounters just looks kind of gray and isn’t heavily made up. They are not as decayed and disgusting as the zombies that you would see in a zombie film in 2012. Of course an independent horror movie in 1968 wouldn’t have had the budget or the expertise to have very sophisticated zombie creations. It is also important to note that unlike today’s audiences, there wasn’t really any conception of zombies to compare Night of the Living Dead to. Romero’s conceptualization of zombies was completely new and innovative at the time; older films used the word zombie to refer to someone under a trance and controlled by someone else. The idea that zombie could mean a reanimated dead person with a taste for human flesh was completely groundbreaking at the time and would revolutionize horror movies. It was kind of cool to see where it all began.

What I like about Romero’s later zombie films is that while they are designed to be scary, he also uses them to make some sort of social commentary. It’s hard to get into the 1968 mentality, but I have to think that making the main hero Ben an African American man was probably intended to make some sort of statement or at the very least was somewhat controversial. There is also some irony in how Ben ultimately ends up. The racial commentary, if any is intended, is very subtle other than the decision of whom they cast as the lead; I waited for it to become more explicit, but it never did. There was some hostility between Ben and one of the other refugees in the farmhouse that may have had some elements of racism, but that may have been simply because I was looking for it. It may not have been a statement at all. There may also be some allegories to Vietnam, but those were even more obscure if they were there. It is quite possible that Romero was just getting his feet wet as a filmmaker and was not yet in a position to use his films to make the statements that he would in his later work. I may have been looking for a message that wasn’t there.

The colorization wasn’t a problem, but I do wish that they had not added the 3-D element to the movie. It added nothing to the film and wasn’t done very well; in fact it was more distracting than anything. Because the film was obviously shot using technology that was not anticipating a 3-D upgrade, there are several scenes where the depth is clearly off. Actors appear to be hovering over objects or are locking a door that they seem to be standing feet away from. It was pretty bad and in several instances I watched the film without the glasses – slightly blurry was better than messing with my depth perception. I’m not the world’s biggest 3-D fan anyway – I don’t feel that it is used very effectively and I hate how dark it makes the movie when you have to wear the glasses – but this was the first time I thought the 3-D actually took away from the final product.

Some other thoughts:

  • I’ve said many times I doubt I’d last long in a zombie apocalypse, but I finally found a character that would be even more useless than I would be: Barbara in Night of the Living Dead. She apparently only ran on two speeds – hysterical or catatonic. Not the most flattering portrayal for women. She contributed nothing. I would definitely be more valuable than she was.
  • George Romero makes an uncredited appearance in the film as a reporter.
  • It’s always laughable how dumb people are in movies like this. At one point they hatched a plan that involved having fire in close proximity to a gas pump and a truck. Gee, I wonder why that didn’t work.
  • Further proof of my OCD tendencies – in the scenes where the local news had area shelters appearing at the bottom of the screen, it was making me very angry that the cities weren’t being listed in alphabetical order.
  • These zombies were smarter than a lot of others that I’ve seen – they knew enough to throw rocks through windows and to smash the headlights out of cars. For the undead, they were pretty logical.
  • There is a prolonged scene that shows the zombies munching down on a victim that I am positive was scandalous at the time. I’m sure it terrified the 1960s audience, but to my trained eye it looked more like they were “eating” meat from a butcher shop. Special effects have come a long way.
  • For some reason, this really made me laugh – a zombie rampage has taken over the U.S. east of the Mississippi and a reporter interviewing the head of a local posse who is going out and killing zombies says something along the lines of “So, you think you’ll have this taken care of in the next 24 hours?”
  • This is only tangential to the movie, but I do not understand people who order movie popcorn without the butter. If you are going to go for it, go for it. This particular cinema uses real butter, which is even better (if not kind of greasy). I’ll eat plain popcorn at home, but if I’m at the theater, it’s go big or go home.

So while I thought parts of Night of the Living Dead were slow and there definitely weren’t any chills, I am glad that I went to see a piece of movie history. Zombies are such a common thing these days – you can even get zombie wedding cake toppers – that is was fun to see the movie that first introduced them. I was even home in time to watch American Horror Story, which was a bonus, and prevented my Halloween from being a boring affair. An overall win.