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Friday, October 16, 2015

Examining a Movie: Night of the Living Dead

Hey there, my denizens of the "Eye of Terror" (known in these parts colloquially as "The Internet" or "The Information Superhighway"). How go your wars against the false emperor and his lapdogs?

At any rate, I want to break from the world of Warhammer and take a plunge into the world of cinematic horror. As it is approaching Halloween, I thought I'd do something to keep in the scary spirit of the season as it were. So in this post I'd like to take a bit of a look at a seminal horror classic, Romero's Night of the Living Dead. So, with that...


This was one of those movies that my parents forbade me from watching as a kid (The Exorcist was another). Though I wasn't allowed to see it, I did know of the film. For those of you in my age group (or old enough to remember) there were clips of NotLD in the VCR game "Doorways to Horror", but I didn't know anything about the movie itself. My mother in particular was adamant about me not watching the movie (and remember, this was the same mother that had no problems letting me watch violence in things like Alien or The  Godfather). NotLD was verboten in my household.


Now, fast forward to my early college days. There was a lot of buzz about Resident Evil 2 for PSOne. I loved the first RE (I was a senior in high school when that one dropped), and was truly excited for RE2. But the game mags were talking about the role of Romero's films influencing the RE series (plus, he directed the Japanese commercial for the game too!). Well, after reading about all that, I decided to watch the movie. I was an adult now- I'll do what I want, damn it! So I did, and boy, did that change things for me...

A few disclaimers for those who have never seem the film before (and if you are any type of horror fan, you owe it to yourself to see it):

First, NotLD is an independent film- there isn't any Hollywood gloss on it. This has two effects- the independent, guerrilla style film-making makes the film feel raw, gritty. and realistic. However, you end up seeing some of the "seams" due to this not being a Hollywood movie (occasional wonky sound, a body whose head is virtually destroyed in one scene, but then looks whole when dragged away in a later scene)- if you know where to look you'll see errors and mistakes. You'll have to accept that if you're going to watch the movie.


Second, the film is old. Its storytelling and dialogue are from decades ago- it is a product of the late 1960s. Neither does not have the "gee whiz" special effects or action stunts that characterize zombie (and indeed, most other) Hollywood films today. The movie's pacing is deliberate, careful, taking its time to build up the characters and the frightening world they are in. It doesn't have fast cuts, CGI, huge million dollar action scenes, etc. Again, if you're going to watch the film, you have to know going in that its a different kind of movie from a different era. If you are expecting World War Z or something- this isn't it.

Last, you need to watch this movie LATE at night. In the dark. Alone or with a significant other. Not with a group of friends who may make jokes and distract from the film. No snacks either. Just a dark room with nothing else. It all adds to the atmosphere. Trust me.

So, with that out of the way, let's plunge in. I want to talk about various aspects of the movie. I think I'll do it by topic:

Plot: The plot is incredibly simple. Barbara and her brother Johnny are making a bit of a road trip to put flowers on the grave of their father. Without warning, they are attacked by a man in the graveyard. Johnny is knocked down, and Barbara runs, frantically fleeing to a seemingly abandoned house. She is in shock and alone. But very quickly, Ben arrives, also being chased. Very soon, other refugees appear, only to find that the house is surrounded. They learn from TV and Radio that their assailants are reanimated corpses who consume the flesh of the living.  The group must work together and make tough choices if they are to survive the undead onslaught.


That is the overall plot. Fairly simple. But, behind that simple premise lies a complex story that is not only about horror, but also about race, gender, and class in a time where everything is being upended.  So while the story is straightforward, it has many layers.

From this point on, there will be SPOILERS, just so you know...

American History:

Yes, if you know your history it will help you really "get" the film. The late 1960s was a chaotic time in America. The conformity of the 1950s had given way to the changes and even chaos of the 1960s. The nation was in the midst of an unpopular war (Vietnam). A charismatic President was assassinated. The government was appearing to be more corrupt. The Civil Rights movement was starting to wind down, but racial unrest continued to rock US cities (such as the Watts riots). Women were starting to challenge traditional gender roles. The economy was starting to show signs of slowdown. Divorce rates were rising. Homosexuals were also seen as threatening America's moral fabric. Finally, students everywhere were ignoring authority- they were the counterculture, denying the values of the old generation and embracing a new "holy trinity"- Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n Roll. They dressed differently. Many lived almost communally. And they challenged the very core of American values and beliefs. America was a nearly broken society by 1968.


The zombies in NotLD can only be understood in this context. Forget the flesh eating for a second. And don't think they are the "Vietnamese" or  "Hippies" or something specific. Rather, they are a primordial force of change. The zombies are so different that they don't qualify as "human" in our eyes. They represent the negative of all of our values- they don't care about family, love, country, money, honor, freedom, etc. Their only goal seems to be to kill and consume. They are not stand ins, with a particular symbolism. Instead, they reflect the fears of all the fundamental challenges that our nation was facing. The zombies are a broad mirror, reflecting the tumult of America as so many things, once so certain, seemed to be eroding so quickly. The American way of life- indeed, the very concept of "life" as we understand it, is under existential threat.

But, even worse though, is that the zombies don't just kill you. They eat your very essence. And then--- you become one of them. You are transformed into the very thing you were resisting, and all concept of self is gone. That may be the scariest thing- you become a part of this force, this tidal wave of change that no one can fully understand. Again, this reflects the fear that America was about to be forever altered- and not for the better. All that was good in us is subsumed and destroyed, both as individuals and as a nation.

Like all good horror and sci-fi films, NotLD can be interpreted in many ways. However, it is clear that the zombies are a reflection of our national (and personal) fears in 1960s America. Just as Star Trek (also a product of the 1960s) represents our Kennedy-esque optimism that the early 1960s started with, NotLD represents the chaos and fears of the late 1960s. Forget optimism. This is pure nihilism, and it reflects so well the events of that era.

Characters:


If you thought that NotLD was just a neat slice of history, it's about to get more complex. The characters in NotLD are also reflections of various issues in American society. The characters may be broad archetypes, but the acting and the situations they face elevate the characterization to a much higher level.


Let's start with Barbara and Johnny. They are the characters at the start of the film (though they are not the main characters). Barbara and Johnny represent the average American family BEFORE the storm, as it were. They seem upstanding, though Johnny doesn't like church too much. Barbara is a typical young woman- fairly conservative in her dress and demeanor. Johnny is a bit more of a jester, but harmless. A regular Joe.


When the zombie first attacks them, they (and we) have no idea what's going on. They represent their "traditional" gender roles well in the attack- Johnny fights back (and dies for his effort) while Barbara panics and runs away. By the time she makes it to the house, she is utterly hysterical, at first half-crazed, but then descending into a blankness- a numbness, as she cannot deal with the reality of her situation. Indeed, for most of the film, she is is completely passive, subordinate to the other characters. She is the stereotypical woman in a horror film- just a victim, who only stands up for herself at the bitter end, when the game is already absolutely lost.


The main character though is Ben, who arrives at the house shortly after Barbara. Ben is an African-American male. His race clearly matters, both in the film's plot (unspoken but there) and in terms of how the audience is looking at the movie. Ben is physically strong, assertive, and determined. He is a strong black man. However, he too is conservative- his dress, his manner- he is no "radical", as it were (again, 1960s here).


 And yet- his color sets him apart, and sets him at odds with the other characters. Ben is tenacious, inventive, and stubborn. But above all, Ben is compassionate. He wants to survive, but he also wants to save the others too- how many ideas does he hatch to protect the group? How much thought does he put into plans for getting everyone to escape? He is very protective of Barbara after her initial hysteria passes. He even volunteers to carry a sick child as they make their run- surely the child will slow him down, and yet he offers- and it is sincere. Ben is the hero, though by 1960s standards an unorthodox one, due to his race. Indeed, some of his actions must have been shocking to 1960s audiences. For instance, when Barbara panics, Ben hits her, throwing her down on the couch. Now, slapping a hysterical female is standard horror movie fare- but for a black man to do it- wow. That must have been jarring to whites in the late 1960s, who were just coming out of Jim Crow, fearing "miscegenation".


There are several other survivors who hole up in the house, but the most significant is Harry Cooper. Cooper is a middle aged, middle class white man with a wife and ill daughter. He is desperate to survive (as Ben is). However, Harry is much more self-centered than Ben, and he is just as stubborn. But, for our purposes, Harry represents the average white American- a 1960s white-collar man seeing his way of life disintegrating before his eyes. If indeed the zombies are a stand-in for this upheaval, Harry is the middle class American man who has the most to lose.


But, as scary as the zombie/upheaval is, Harry is more threatened by Ben. Although he never utters a racial slur, you can just see it in the actor's looks- it is unspoken, and yet it is yelled in volumes. Harry resents that a black man is trying to give him orders. The undead may be stalking outside, but Harry will be damned if he's going to let this black man take over. The two men bicker and fight throughout the film. Indeed, most of the dramatic tension comes from these two- they argue, engage in fisticuffs, and- in the major twist, Ben shoots Harry. Again, think of the unspoken racial statement here.


In the end, Harry wanted to save his family (and way of life) but was just too damn pig-headed to do it. The sad part is Ben's heart has been in the right place the whole film, but it is Harry that has the correct solution. But as they can't agree- they can't get anything done to save everyone. You can sympathize with both, even if you can't believe they can't work together.

And it is the Harry/Ben dynamic that is the core theme of the film. There are forces all around us that want to destroy us utterly, and yet we cannot set aside our minor differences to confront them. The characters fail to work together- as a result, they all die. The message couldn't be any plainer. With America facing untold problems, we need to work together. Our failure to do so will doom us, one way or the other.


News in a Changing Society:

One of the most interesting and innovative features of NotLD is Romero's use of newscasts. The refugees (like the audience) don't know what the heck is going on. Is it just happening to them? What exactly is going on? Is help coming? Does the government have a plan?


News in America was changing as well in the 1960s. This major shift was happening for several reasons. First, the proliferation of TVs, which started in the 50s, exploded in the 60s. TVs were now everywhere, an accepted part of society. People crowded around to watch JFK's funeral, for example. People wanted to know what was happening, and they took comfort in the reassuring glow of television. Second, the technology was getting better. In decades past, news traveled at a slower pace. You might read about them in the paper, but that was usually it. You might read about an event that happened days ago. But, as TV improved, the ability to transmit news faster increased. Further, the power of television was such that newscasts gave you the "you are there" feeling- a sense of immediacy and connection with the news that had never been felt before. Martin Luther King understood this power very well, and used it to awaken the nation to the Civil Rights movement.

However, though news traveled faster and people became more connected to it, as American society grew more discordant, so did the news. People could see the Vietnam War in their living rooms each day (Vietnam is often called the first "Television War"). The race riots and student protests also played out on TV for all to see. And there were no answers forthcoming- only more dire news. Americans became disgruntled, but still they tuned in. It was a ritual. It was a "small comfort".



Romero's film plays this brilliantly. When Ben first finds the radio, he is desperate to hook it up- indeed, the radio is what bring Harry and the others out of hiding. But very quickly, the radio is not enough for the survivors- they need more news. They ultimately find the TV, and they gather around it in eager anticipation. Even if the news is horrifying.


The movie is absolutely relentless in its ratcheting up of the fear and tension- once the first zombie appears in the graveyard the movie just keeps bringing in more threats and dangers. However, when the TV is on, there is a sense of calm. Then, the fear fades into the background as we watch the news along with the survivors. The movie slows down the frantic pace. We learn more of what is happening- at least we know. And then, the TV anchor  tells them that they CAN make it if they can get to a "rescue station", thus causing Ben to take the risk in trying to escape with everyone.

Then, at the climax, they are watching the TV. The escape attempt has failed, but the news might still help/comfort them. Just as they (and we) are settling into the newscast- the power goes out. The TV is gone, and the house is plunged into darkness. Then, the zombies begin their final assault- breaking through the barricades. The news is gone, and there is no more hope.

The use of the newscasts do indeed add to the realism- they do feel like newscasts of the era- the black and white, the shaky cameras, even a crawl on the bottom (detailing the location of the "rescue stations").  The newscasts, combined with Romero's independent film style, create a sense that this is actually happening. It makes the crazy notion of "flesh-eating ghouls" seem like a real possibility. That adds to the accomplishment of NotLD.


So does the content of a particular newscast. They show a "search and destroy" mission- cops and armed civilians going out there to kill the zombies. They are led by Chief McClellan, a tough, grizzled chief who has an air of authority and confidence- he seems optimistic about ending this in 24 hours (the reporter's words), but also says he doesn't "really know"; there is some doubt in our tough lawman. However, there is another historical image at work here. The Chief, with his all white militia and barking attack dogs- he is reminiscent of "Bull" Connor, a southern law official who used attack dogs on African American protesters- the actor even gives him a bit of a southern twang. There is more- but I want to save it for...


The Ending:

The ending to NotLD is as bitter, bleak, and hopeless, as any ending ever put on film. It is completely nihlistic.

Just as the dwindling survivors are watching the news, the power goes and the zombies attack the house. It is at this point that Ben and Harry have their last fight- ending in Harry being shot. Harry descends into the basement (which he has been calling "the safest place" since he first appeared)- he reaches for his ill daughter- knowing that the zombies are in and he failed- does he blame Ben or himself in that final moment? We will never know. He dies, pathetically and powerlessly.


Meanwhile, upstairs, Ben, Mrs. Cooper, and Barbara are fighting to keep them out. Then, knowing it's all over, Mrs. Cooper abandons the fight to go down to her daughter- for a last goodbye? To protect her? Well, it doesn't matter. She goes down just in time to see her daughter eating her freshly dead husband. The child died of her wounds, and was now a zombie. She then kills her mother, stabbing her over and over and over with a gardening tool that was in the basement.


Upstairs, it is just Ben and Barbara. She has regained her senses just in time for the end. As she fights to hold the undead out, one breaks through- her own brother Johnny. He was now one of them. She is utterly broken now- she cries as her undead brother pulls her out so that he and the other zombies could feast upon her.


Only Ben remains, and he has no choice but to flee to the basement (which he considered a "deathtrap" that had no way out). Down there in the dark, he barricades himself in, and then dispenses with the undead Coopers. When he shoots Harry (again), there is a grim determination in his eyes. If he hates or blames Harry, we will never know. With the gruesome deed done, Ben throws the gun down in despair. And then- he collects himself. He is determined to live. He grabs the gun again, looking at the small staircase, ready to shoot any zombie that gets in.


But they never do. There is no leverage on the basement stair, and the boards prevent them from getting through. Ironically, Harry was right about the basement, and Ben was wrong. Yet Ben is alive. The scene of zombies trying to break in at 3AM gives way to a quiet early morning. The camera shows the house and countryside, with birds chirping and the sun coming up. Nary a zombie is seen. We then cut to McClellan and his men, shooting a few scattered zombies as they make their way to the house. The Chief is feeling ever more confident, they are killing these things off. Order can be restored, it seems.


Ben hears the approaching lawmen and the barking attack dogs, and in a daze, leaves the basement to go to look out the window. As he does so, the Chief orders his men to shoot Ben, believing he's a zombie. Ben is shot through the head by this "Southern" lawman. The Chief announces triumphantly "He's dead! That's another one for the fire!".


The audience is then shown still shots now, looking like fuzzy newsprint. The lawmen use meat hooks to drag Ben out of the house (and presumably the Coopers, though we don't see them being dragged out we can assume they were) . We see still frames of a pile of bodies, with Ben prominent among them. We then see switch to see movie footage again- the pile of bodies is burned. The zombies. Ben. All burned together. Flames and smoke rising to the sky. The End.


The movie ends on such a tragic, even ironic note. It is a pitch black ending. It is absolutely stunning in its brutality. The heroes don't win. The people we were rooting for are all dead. Even Ben- our moral compass- killed by his very would-be rescuers. It surely doesn't get any worse. The entire film is an exercise in fear and even futility, and the ending just adds to that so perfectly.


My Conclusion: NotLD endures as a film, despite it's flaws. The film became a cult classic upon release, it's violence (and I believe, its reflection of American turmoil) keeping older Americans away, while young ones went in droves. The film would go on to inspire not just a Romero zombie franchise, but an entire sub-genre in horror- the "zombie film". You wouldn't have any Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, or any of those without this film. This is the one that started it all.

However, while it works as a zombie film, the social concerns on display in the film are what make it truly a remarkable achievement. It captures a moment in American time so well, so completely- again, I could talk about Star Trek and NotLD in the same breath, as they are the two sides of the 1960s coin. Every time I watch it I am awed by the movie's raw power and bleakness. It doesn't scare me, but I am unsettled- every time I see it. Not just because of the thought of the dead attacking the living, but also for what it says about us, as human beings, and as Americans.

Until Next Time...



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