Monday, December 13, 2010

What's Black And White And Dead All Over?

There's a few answers to the above question but the only one that really matters is Night of the Living Dead. It's a movie that's been so influential and is so thoroughly familiar to horror fans that it's easy to take it for granted. But in rewatching it recently, I was struck by how well it still works. I mean, I didn't expect it to suddenly suck, of course, but I sure wouldn't have faulted it for not hitting me as hard as it once did.

But it did get to me. Besides being as scary as I'd remembered - it's a movie that's just relentless in piling on the horror - I was grateful to be reminded of how much real sadness the movie carries. It's not a traditional tearjerker, no, but the deaths in this movie aren't just there to be gawked at for the FX (like Capt. Rhodes' death in Day of the Dead) - they really pierce you.

When Judy (Judith Ridley) impulsively bolts out of the farmhouse to ride shotgun with Tom (Keith Wayne) on his run to the gas pumps, it seems like such a true gesture on her part. And when Cooper (Karl Hardman) slams the front door behind her, it already feels like the end has been written for her and Tom. After their mission to fuel up the truck has gone horribly wrong and Tom has bravely driven the flaming pick-up away from the gas pumps, when he turns back to help Judy free her caught jacket, it's still a jolt to see that truck explode. Romero doesn't milk the scene for any gratuitous suspense. We don't see a lot of fumbling with Judy's jacket - it's about being hit by that sudden, instantaneous loss of life.

That's the moment where Romero and co. really let the audience know they're playing for keeps. The early, unexpected loss of Johnny (Russell Streiner) was cause for concern but the abrupt loss of Judy and Tom in that one fiery moment moves the film to another level.

It's also interesting to watch NOTLD now and see how differently the zombies are depicted from how they went on to be portrayed in Romero's subsequent Dead films. Everyone who makes a zombie movie or writes a zombie book now always points to Romero's original Dead trilogy as the Bible in how to proceed (unless they're going off on their entirely own take) but it wasn't until Dawn of the Dead that Romero really started to refine the rules of what his zombies could and couldn't do. NOTLD is its own thing. You would never see a zombie stabbing someone with a garden trowel in a Romero, or a Romero-influenced, zombie movie today but yet it's such an iconic moment in the original when Karen (Kyra Schon) attacks her mother (I bet the main reason this scene was changed in the 1990 remake to Karen simply biting her mother - with the spurting blood splashing on a nearby trowel as a nod to the original - is because zombies weren't supposed to be capable of that kind of advanced action anymore).

There's also the crazed ferocity with which the Cemetery Zombie (Bill Hinzman) attacks Johnny and Barbra, to the point that he grabs a rock to smash the car window to get at Barbra. And look at Johnny's eyes when he returns as a zombie and sees Barbra:

The intensity that he looks at his sister with (can we call it recognition?) has subsequently became a violation of the rules (almost all zombies now have those murky cataract eyes that seem to see nothing). But it's such a chilling moment in NOTLD. The way that Johnny focuses his gaze on her, it's almost as if he's been trying to get to her ever since he came back. In NOTLD, zombies have the capacity to glare - a skill that's since been stolen from them. With Johnny's pale skin and glowering eyes, I also feel like there's a little hint of vampire lingering in this encounter - perhaps a faint spiritual residue from the acknowledged influence of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend.

While it's well-known that Romero imagined this film as the start of a larger story from the get-go, watching NOTLD I always get the impression that in the bigger world beyond the farmhouse things were generally well in hand. At one point, the field reporter asks the Sheriff if the problem is going to be wrapped up in the next 24 hours, or words to that effect, and the laconic Sheriff gives a pretty unconcerned response. From the perspective of law enforcement, this zombie plague seems more like a temporary inconvenience than an apocalypse. And that's something I always liked about NOTLD. Within that isolated, overwhelmed farmhouse, this is the end of the world but in reality it's a manageable crisis - nothing that a redneck posse can't successfully mop up once the sun is out. I feel like when that bonfire is lit at the end, normalcy - for what it's worth - has been restored.

Of course, I'm probably the only person who looks at NOTLD this way - because, you know, there's all those sequels that say otherwise - but I like the idea that all this really was just a wind passing through. It makes it seem a little sadder to me, and makes the character's losing struggles that much more bitter.

To think that these people might've survived their long night of horror only to become part of the thankless, never-ending fight against an army of the undead doesn't seem so poignant to me. But to look at Ben (Duane Jones) and Cooper's bodies next to each other on the pyre and think that they might've returned to their normal lives had they only found a way to protect each other and those around them for a few dark, desperate hours - well, that's something to mourn.

15 comments:

Dom Coccaro said...

Another incredible piece. Can I just say that this is my favorite blog? I've read so many reviews of NOTLD, but this one is different. It points out things that I never considered. A job well done.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Dom, your kind words are much appreciated! It's always encouraging to know that people enjoy coming here.

Arbogast said...

Jeff, you've pointed out things I've always appreciated about Night of the Living Dead and how it differs from all other dead and living dead movies that came after it. Even Dawn of the Dead feels like a betrayal of those original concerns and themes now in retrospect. The movie is so tough, so unrelenting in its fairness... it really gives everyone a chance to be as best as they can. Tom and Judy lose their lives but not their faith in their fellow men, while both Harry and Ben fail and they fail big. In surrending to their fear and anger (respectively), they become no better than the ghouls, getting by on raw instinct.

It kills me that so many people who consider Night of the Living Dead to be, as you say, the Bible, don't study its teachings. Zombie movies have become all about the creative kills and there is no more guilty practitioner than George Romero himself. I hate how he has in his autumn/winter years become surrounded by enablers who tout Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead as significant works when they are the cinematic equivalent of rotting, degraded corpses, shuffling forward on momentum and animal instinct.

Jeff Allard said...

I do wish that Romero had been able to stay away from zombies and leave his legacy in that area unsullied. I bet on some level he wishes the same thing and that he could get other projects off the ground in his later years instead of more and more Dead films.

I do love Dawn of the Dead - for years I considered it to be my favorite film - but looking at Night now it's clear that it's cut from a different cloth. Both are great but there's a pleasing finality to Night - a quality echoed in the films that came in its wake, like The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue - whereas Dawn's opening ending led to almost every piece of zombie fiction after to be about the ongoing adventures of surviving in a post-zombie world.

Arbogast said...

The great thing about Night of the Living Dead is that there isn't a dot of wish fulfillment or vicarious thrill in it - you wouldn't want to be in that house under any circumstances, although many of us have had Dawn of the Dead fantasies. Night doesn't empower or invite envy, it presents a very uncomfortable situation and follows it through to its logical conclusion in a very unsentimental and even logical fashion, which is what gives it its eternal power to disturb and unnerve.

Jeff Allard said...

Yes, and even Day - which in many surface ways is more oppressive than Night - still invites fantasties of heroism and macho gunplay and, ultimately, escape. There's none of that in Night.

knobgobbler said...

Great write-up!
I also re-watched NOTLD recently (it turned up on TCM Underground) and was taken by some of the same realizations.
For all the times I've watched it I'd never noticed how downright malevolent the zombies in NOTLD are... they're not just mindless shamblers, not mere ghouls driven by cannibal hunger. They are angry... they have it in mind to do violence to the living.
While watching it I found myself musing that if they'd offered up the premise that the dead were possessed by some alien mind-invasion from space... it almost would have fit.

The thing with the redneck militia has always struck me as (black) comic relief... those guys seem to enjoying themselves.

knobgobbler said...

Also, I've always thought that if I were in that house... my plan would have been to take apart the staircase and hide upstairs (zombies can't climb)... but after the latest viewing... I'm not so sure even that would have been safe.

Jeff Allard said...

Well, following the "zombies can't climb" train of thought, in the NOTLD remake, Romero has Cooper survive the night by hiding in the attic. I imagine that in the years after NOTLD's release, Romero heard that possible solution offered many times by helpful fans.

As for the posse/militia, they're definitely played for laughs in Dawn (and representing humanity at its lowest in the Night remake) but in Night, I feel like they're all business. They may or may not be deep thinkers (and they sure need to learn to double-check their targets before firing), but they're they're not there to play games or whoop it up.

I much prefer this even-handed portrayal of these guys (the shooting of Ben is infuriating but it doesn't seem like the result of malice or undue carelessness - it's just a random fuck-up) than the increasingly derisive one that Romero went for in later films. It plays into the quality of fairness that Arbo cites above.

Bill said...

NOTLD is just one of those things, like the Wizard of Oz, and It's a Wonderful Life. You watch at least most of it a couple of times during the year and it never loses it's flavor-it always gets a bit richer. It was on the other night, and I noticed something that's been in the back of mind for a while. Different versions have wild variations in sound mix. The one that was on This! was just awful. The once incidental music was insistent, nearly painful, and freaked me out enough to turn it down, but then the dialogue was nearly indecipherable.

Jeff Allard said...

That's too bad, Bill - but I guess that's what happens when a movie is in the public domain.

Emily said...

Great post. NOTLD is a film most of us have seen more times than we can count, so it's really admirable for you to capture something new about it and see it from a different angle.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Emily - I guess classics like NOTLD are so rich that they always reveal a little something more each time you go back to them!

Jonny Metro said...

Jeff,

Great post about a great pic! I chose it as one of the best of December 2010, and included it in the admittedly late third issue of Spatter Analysis.

Check it out!

--J/Metro

Jeff Allard said...

Hey, thanks Jonny - I'm glad you liked the post. Thanks for sharing it on your blog!

And I love that you have a screen grab from Crawlspace as your blog header - nice!