I’ve seen George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead more times than almost any other horror movie (with the possible exception of Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the few films I put on equal footing with Romero’s stone cold classic). Every time, I worry that I might enjoy it less, that this might be the time that I question whether my love of it is unjustified, and every time, I love it even more, finding more and more evidence that the original Night is one of the greatest horror movies ever made – a film that’s undeniably of a time fraught with anxiety and fears about racial unrest and an unpopular war, and one that reflects those worries, making it impossible to look away.
It’s this aspect of Night that I found myself thinking most about on this rewatch (which, incidentally, was also my first watch of Criterion’s new 4K restoration – it is a knockout, plain and simple, and a revelation). In so many ways, Night of the Living Dead is a film that bridges two eras of horror. We begin in the 1950’s, with camp, exaggeration, and mannered performances; we end in the 1960’s, with no justice, no easy answers, and no flinching from the nightmare of the world. (A lot of spoilers are going to follow; this is more of an essay than a review.)
Look, for instance, at the opening scenes of the movie. A brother and sister arrive in a graveyard to pay their respects to their long dead father. The film looks cheap and B-movie level, at best, at this point. The performances are broad, the dialogue mannered, the banter overwritten. That first zombie attack? It’s ridiculous. It’s a man basically playacting as Frankenstein(‘s monster), with a death that’s so bloodless we don’t even know if it’s actually a death, followed by a hurried, not particularly urgent escape.
So far, so good. This is familiar territory for 1950’s monster flick fans. A lot of fun; in theory, it could be scary, but mainly, it’s silliness, and a good time at the movies.
But then the film starts to change a little. Just a little, though. Sure, there’s Barbara, portrayed by Judith O’Dea in a mannered, B-level performance of hysteria, anchoring the movie squarely in the genre of the 1950’s. Nonetheless, there are signs that things aren’t quite what we think. A surprisingly graphic corpse rotting upstairs. The arrival of our new hero – Ben, an African-American man, whose blackness feels revolutionary, and yet the film leaves it uncommented upon. More than that, there’s the sharp contrast between O’Dea’s performance and that of Duane Jones, who feels more naturalistic, grounded – more in line with the naturalistic feel of performances we were starting to see in the new Hollywood wave. Still, setting aside these brief moments, the whole thing generally feels like a low-budget monster movie, and that’s no bad thing. For a while, our characters are talking inside a house, rather than fighting zombies. They’re making plans, and the glimpses of the zombies are brief and sporadic.
Obviously, the film is going to change, and change drastically, after the end of the time in the house. On this watch, though, I was more and more aware of how Romero was gradually tossing in more and more elements of 1960’s film, letting them sit in sharp contrast to the 1950’s elements. The cast continues to split, with most of our protagonists turning in 1950’s square performances, but there’s a greater and greater sense of divide between them and Jones. That finds a mirror all the way down to the various newscasts, which vacillate between War of the Worlds-style commentary and visceral newsreel footage, the latter of which features yet another grounded, realistic performance by George Kosana, playing a local sheriff who’s leading zombie-killing posses.
What’s more, there’s a creeping dread that what’s outside isn’t as safe as we thought it was. The news reports start drifting from 1950’s cheese (“The dead have begun to walk!”) to more brutal, disturbing claims of cannibalism and mutilation. The brief zombie forays get more violent, with one intruding hand being slowly torn apart by a hammer. There’s a sense that the child downstairs might not survive the night. In other words, there’s a slowly growing sense that the rules as we know them aren’t applying anymore.
And then, our heroes make an effort to fill up a truck with gas, and all hell breaks loose. Our teenage couple dies – not in a bloodless knock to the head like Johnny in the opening’s scene, but in a ball of flame that burns them alive. Ben is nearly left to die thanks to the cowardice of the surviving white male lead. Suddenly, the film isn’t fun anymore. People are dying, and not in safe ways.
All that before the zombies literally tear the victims apart, chewing and feasting on their flesh in gory, graphic ways – ripping the flesh off of severed hands, fighting over slippery intestines, and worse, thanks to the truly disturbing foley work.
Even in a day and age where zombie gore is nearly passe thanks to shows like The Walking Dead, there’s something shocking and unforgettable about Night‘s gore, and it’s in no small part because of how long the film takes to get to it. Before the gore, there’s been a sense that we’re in an old monster movie. After the horrifying death of the teenagers and their graphic dismemberment, though, we can’t hide from this world anymore – the rules as we know them seem to have been thrown away.
What could be more appropriate than that for a movie made in a decade where the facade was ripped off of race relations, forcing Americans to grapple with their own complicity in oppression and cruelty? Or for a decade in which footage was coming through on the nightly news of wartime violence, uncensored and unedited, to say nothing of the wartime crimes being committed?
From there, there’s no going back. A child brutally and graphically murders her mother, stabbing her over, and over, and over, and over, until we just want it to stop. Ben – our hero, our protagonist, the one decent man – kills a man, not because he’s a zombie, but because he almost let him die. It’s murder, plain and simple, and even with Ben’s successive killing of a mother and child because they’ve turned, there’s a sense that we’ve crossed another line, one in which morality is gone, too. Barbara? She doesn’t make it either, pulled away by her own brother. Even those we love turn against us in Night, making us question whether we can truly know what’s in anyone’s heart. And in the midst of all of it, we catch a glimpse of that zombie from the opening scenes. He’s unchanged – still lurching, no more graphic than he was – and yet, he’s not funny anymore. None of it is. Is it just part of the way the film comes full circle, ending where it began? Or is it a darker comment on how this horror has been underneath the surface all along, and we’ve just been blind to it – the same way so much of America was blind to the horrors of war, or racial intolerance?
And then there’s the ending. Not giving his an audience even a moment to relax as he builds to the unforgettable final moments, Romero fills the scene with loaded images: cops holding back straining German Shepherd dogs, wandering patrols in grassy fields picking off people one by one. It’s impossible to see these patrols and not find them horrifying, no matter if intellectually we tell ourselves that they’re hunting zombies – it’s too close to what we’ve seen on the news every night, and the enjoyment they’re feeling is too nauseating,
Too nauseating, even before they shoot Ben as an afterthought. No big music sting. No teased hope. Just a short, brutal death – a betrayal of any hope that good might win, and an image whose resonance hits home even after 50 years. (Maybe more so, in a world after countless examples of black men killed for the color of their skin.)
And then, Romero cuts to newsprint-style credits, but even there, there’s no escape. We watch as Ben – our hero, the voice of reason, the survivor – is impaled by hooks, tossed on a blazing inferno. The still images give way to a towering inferno of corpses.
Cut to black, and our journey is complete. We started in the world of the 1950’s. Threats were childish, and we could joke about them. The world made sense. Heroes would win, villains would lose, and order would be restored. There were risks and uncertainties, sure, but the world tended towards justice. White heroes would thrive, would be brave. Villains were easy to identify.
But we end in the 1960’s. We have met the enemy, and he is us (an “us” that might be “humanity in general,” or just “suburban white people”…or maybe both). Racial violence is impossible to ignore. The authorities are not our saviors. The world doesn’t make sense. Death is ugly. Humans are cruel to each other. You can try to cling to the old ways – like Barbara did, acting as though this is nothing but men in rubber suits and it’s all going to be fine – you won’t make it. But even those who adapt, like Ben, sometimes have no chance. And sadly, even fifty years later, every bit of it still hits home relentlessly. Authorities still kill black men without remorse. Men with guns kill and feel like big men because of it. War makes every brutality acceptable. Humanity is willing to turn on itself at a moment’s notice. In other words, despite us “moving forward” as a human race, every bit of the ugliness and nastiness uncovered in the film is still relevant and trenchant today.
And that’s far, far scarier than any zombie ever could be.