Night of The Living Dead

Night of The Living Dead

George “The King” Romero, 1968

notld

 

Maybe it’s because I grew up close to the cemetery used in the movie, or because I got to meet George Romero when he came to my college for a panel discussion of horror in literature and the movies, but this will always be one of my favorite movies of all time. I think it was probably the first horror movie I saw and I still remember some of the nightmares it provoked.

This movie really was the grandfather of zombie horror (interestingly, they are never called zombies, they are called ghouls) and for a movie made with $114,000, it truly is a masterpiece. When you consider the small town locality, the budget, and the relative unknown actors, the fact that it became as successful as it did says something important that I think we, as new writers, should remember. It’s the writing, the story itself that is effective in making the audience feel trapped and claustrophobic right along with the poor souls inside the farmhouse.

Because I love this movie, I’ll start with all the things it got right and end with the very few things that bugged me. I’ll start with the setting. A small town, rural, “local” and a farm house with lots of empty space around it and windows galore. Putting seven survivors (and one dead body) in the house provide the sense of being trapped–that claustrophobia of tight spaces, but the windows work to add vulnerability, and instigate the fight between Ben and Harry over where in the house is the safest. Ben wants to stay upstairs with the windows; where he can both keep track of the ghouls and have multiple exit strategies. Harry (who is quite the hotheaded bully) wants everyone in the basement.

Now, thanks to the bickering both inside and outside the house are dangerous environments. No place is safe and no one can be trusted. The story keeps ratcheting up the risk along with the tension. Backstory of the situation is effectively presented via the radio broadcasts. Because until then, we too are helpless, ignorant survivors hiding out in the farmhouse along with Ben, Barbara, Harry, Helen, Tom, Judy and of course the poor injured Karen. So rather than feel like the radio is an “info dump” you, the viewer are also leaning forward listening intently to the report, trying to determine what happened here and how best to survive this “wave of mass murder” sweeping the country.

The use of unknown actors, cheap film (adding the sketchy look to the piece) and local town names just added to the realism of the story. And maybe it was just me, but the view of Barbara walking up the stairs, the mummified look of the dead woman, and Karen’s mindless murder of her mother were all reminiscent of Hitchcock’s psycho. Coupling these familiar horror images with the constant crickets chirping in the background helped to maintain a constant unease throughout the film.

The crickets. Oh the crickets. I thought I was on to something when I noticed that the sounds of the crickets stopped right after Ben knocked Barbara out. I stopped it, went back, and watched again. I said to my husband “There must be something to this!” and sat like a freshman on her first day of school, ready to take notes on how the crickets symbolize something about madness or danger. But then they randomly started up again and continued off and on throughout the movie with no rhyme or reason. I tried googling it, so sure I had discovered some deep inner mystery, but what I discovered was just that it was due to some guy going out and recording crickets for the soundtrack and then playing it on a loop throughout the film. So much for my cinematic genius.

Now, for some things I found bothersome which for the sake of laziness, I shall list.

  1. In the cemetery, why wouldn’t the zombie (who we assume is acting purely on instinct) stop and eat Johnny, instead of just leaving him dead and go after Barbara.
  2. The dead lady in the farmhouse: why was she not turned into a zombie? She was the unburied dead, right?
  3. The zombies were not consistent: Are they smart? They used tools to get at their victims, then later they were all like “aarrgghh, uuuggghhh” and just blindly reaching around the windows and such. Sometimes they walked all stiff like Frankenstein’s monster and the next minute they are trying to pull the boards off the windows.
  4. Remember in the beginning of the movie, how cold Barbara looked in the cemetery? Yet everyone is sweating in the house. I get it, trying to show the close, airless feel of being trapped, but then it needs to be summer.
  5. Lastly, if they are just the “recent dead” and their brains have been brought back via radiation, won’t they eventually just rot away? Could it be waited out? Just wondering.

 

But even with all that, I thought it was an effective story, even the science seemed reasonable for the time and I liked that the reporters treated it more realistically calling it “mass murder.”

Maybe that’s what I liked best about it, it was believable. People acted exactly as you would expect. Survivors couldn’t get along to save their lives (literally—only Barbara and Helen were actually killed by the ghouls), the posse shot first and asked questions later, the science was reasonable (especially for the time period), and they called the dead “ghouls” for lack of a better word (because I think we would be hesitant to call something like that a zombie—a fictional monster). This was, for me, the most reasonable of all the monster novels/movies we’ve seen thus far. And as a horror movie, one of the scariest on the shelves, even today.

 

 

zombie-food**Bonus Trivia: After Tom and Judy are blown to smithereens in the truck, there is a scene of the ghouls feasting on pieces of their roasted corpses. The expressions on the faces of these ghouls are that of disgust. Those expressions are true, not acting. They were actually eating roasted pork with chocolate syrup (which looks a lot like blood in black and white).

 

 

 

 

**Bonus Trivia #2: There is no underlying racial meaning behind Ben, our hero, being a black man. Romero says he just gave the best audition for the part. And he totally owned it, so I believe that.ben

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5 thoughts on “Night of The Living Dead

  1. lisettegallows says:

    I think it’s so interesting how someone’s past plays into their enjoyment of a novel or a film. This was my first time watching this and I found the beginning of it as unspeakably dull as you found WWZ, which is one of the cornerstones of my writing life. For me the saving grace was how quickly it all goes to Hell at the last minute (after Tom and Judy become a buffet) basically as soon as everyone shuts up. Once they start losing the fight, I was interested, but I had a hard time engaging with the film up to that point. Including the broadcast, which I thought was a clever way to get the information across and very realistic, but ultimately too long.

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  2. Aaron Dalzell says:

    Damn it Joe-la, why do you have to be so good at explaining things.

    But yeah, I pretty much agree with the stuff you said. Though I’m not so crazy about the story, it truly was the believable commotion between characters that made the film work and it had nice build-up to the ending as well. We get just enough time with everyone to get to know them.

    For me, I look more into films a little closer than books, because of the lack of certain info, it gives me more of an imaginary escape, but I always saw the ghouls as a metaphor for different things, usually it’s the paranoia and fear of the people closing in on them, breaking in the doors and windows of their sanity.

    Aaron D.

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  3. I liked what you said about the realism of this movie. I can absolutely see people acting very much like they did here — one or two sensible people trying to survive, sensibly, while the rest of them get all stupid and belligerent, or shell-shocked and useless.
    I also thought I’d stumbled upon something “deep” when I noticed the crickets — and let’s face it, how could we NOT notice the crickets? They were friggin’ LOUD. I didn’t try to keep track of when they appeared, but after awhile it was apparent that Romero had bought this cricket sound effect, and by God, he was going to use it.
    You brought up a lot of good points in your criticisms, too. I wondered, too, why the first zombie didn’t stop to snack on Johnnie, but if he hadn’t then we wouldn’t have gotten to see Barbra trip and fall over her own damn feet (apparently, this is mandatory in all horror movies, especially the older ones).
    I did wonder about the corpse upstairs, but figured there was something “wrong” with her, and that’s why she didn’t zombie-up when she died.
    However, I did NOT notice the zombies’ inconsistency, nor the fluctuations in temperature. And I didn’t even reach the point where I wondered if the whole silly thing could have just been waited out.
    Using the radio to fill in backstory was a great idea, as you said, and I found myself “leaning in” to find out more, too.
    As usual, a great post.

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  4. vanessaesslercarlson says:

    So much win in this post. You bring up several points that I myself wondered about in the movie. The first, that the graveyard zombie went for Barbara instead of feasting on her brother, I think is to save the gore for later and further the plot. We don’t learn that the ‘ghouls’ eat their victims until a later news broadcast. We know this information in the present as the zombie has become iconic and we expect them to eat people. Also, Barbara needs to be chased to the farmhouse and the audience doesn’t know that there are hundreds of the walking dead and not just one crazy guy. Again, we assume there is a horde because we know zombies as they have evolved into the creatures of today. The dead lady on the stairs looks like she has damage to her head, so she can’t be reanimated since her brain isn’t intact (at least that’s what I saw). The heat I agree was weird, as it appears to be cold in the beginning. The zombies are a bit inconsistent. As for rotting brains of the zombies, that’s an interesting point. I suppose the characters were in too immediate danger to even consider it.

    I wish I could see that graveyard and I’m super jealous you got to meet Romero. I’m a huge fan of his work. I bet that was a fascinating lecture. As for Ben and racial commentary, I agree that he wasn’t hired because of his skin color (which just shows how cool Romero is) but they do admit they talked a great deal about incorporating their personal ideas into the characters. The actor changed Ben’s character from a trucker to a professor and much of the racial tension and themes grew from the cast discussing the topic and incorporating them. This is why film can be so impressive when done right. When everyone involved add to the creativity of the movie instead of it all being the ‘vision’ of a director. Or maybe I’m just bitter at how dull Hollywood has made modern films.

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  5. Joe-La, I’ll say my favorite part of this movie is the realistic media coverage of the event. I’m sure many actors thought this was a silly premise, but they delivered their lines in a serious, no-nonsense sort of way that made me believe the zombie apocalypse was going on around them. A lot of movies don’t effectively use fake newscasts very well, but horror seems to be the exception to the rule. Look at the media cut-aways in Ghostbusters. Having Larry King talk about ghosts legitimized what we were seeing.

    I don’t think this is a technique that’s used enough, but I’m glad it’s not. I sometimes do broadcast news and I can spot an actor trying to be a broadcaster a mile away. They just don’t have the correct cadence in the way they speak.

    Night of the Living Dead made use of some talented actors, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were local newscasters.

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