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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

by on 2011/10/30

“This incredible story becomes more ghastly with each report.”

* * *

I’d heard of Night of the Living Dead, but not until well after its heyday. Ironically, I once won tickets to see Tom Savini’s 1990 remake, and was unable to attend. Two friends went in my place and reported back their disdain.

They weren’t exactly horror picture fans.

Shortly thereafter I discovered the original via Off Beat Cinema. By and large, they’re similar, with the bulk of concepts, screenplay, and crew carrying over. The greatest changes are in characterization and the latter’s use of colour. I’ve since seen both, I own both and, while I think they’re due a measure of respect, appreciation isn’t the same as enjoyment.

It begins with Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother visiting their father’s grave at a cemetery outlying Pittsburgh. They’re attacked by a stranger, and she escapes to a nearby house. She’s alone except for a dead body upstairs, and a slow-moving crowd forming outside. Gradually, new refugees appear: loner Ben (Duane Jones), a bickering couple (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), their daughter (Kyra Schon), and another more simpatico pair (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley).

Their microcosmic predicament points to a national holocaust. The house’s phone, radio, and television function sporadically, with broadcast snippets suggesting a grander backdrop. A probe sent to Venus has returned to Earth, unusually radioactive. NASA shoots it down, triggering an apparent wave of homicidal mutation.

The group holds off against the invaders as long as possible, but internal strife, and a growing imbalance in numbers begins to tip their fortune. The story features an interesting ending, though not enough to dissuade me from a frequent recurring thought, “So this is what Plan 9 was trying to do.”

For many, my thought may seem insulting, damning with faint praise. The difference is, I enjoyed Ed Wood’s opus, and I didn’t enjoy Living Dead. Interestingly, they share some of the very same shortcomings: wishy-washy conflict, poor characters and acting, and substantial shortfalls in production value, even given their low budgets.

But let’s face it . . . fans are watching for a classic flash-point, the moment at which multi-threat creator George Romero launched the zombie subgenre.

Oddly, Romero has been credited with things that don’t appear in his landmark. The zombie holocaust is referred to as an epidemic of mass murder by assassins in a trance. The culprits themselves are called ghouls at one point, never zombies. They resemble the living, lacking the bloodshot eyes or sickly pallour of their inheritors. And though Romero’s zombies have been retroactively labelled “slow”, they’re neither as hesitant or dim-witted as their branding suggests. They move quickly at times, and retain enough intelligence to use rocks and clubs as weapons and tools.

Recognizable similarities include being the unburied recent dead, cannibalistic tendencies, a fear of fire, and a weakness for brain injuries. (Not that the last two distinguish them from any average human.) “You can beat ‘em or burn ‘em” we’re assured by one survivor.

Sounds exciting — or at least adrenalizing — in theory. In practice, Living Dead unwinds like a real-time one-room play. It reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds without all of its pretentious “character” stuff. We get a mix of archetypes, configurations, and dynamics, still they’re ultimately flat and over-explaining, cringingly earnest some times, too matter-of-fact at others.

For example, I wanted to find the sympathy in the father, Harry Cooper, and yet his relentless vitriol prevented it. Ben’s polar switches between blandness and hostility made him similarly hard to access. Most difficult of all, however, was Barb’s ineffectual “heroine”, who spends the majority of the tale traumatized and distant, emerging only to deliver crazed histrionics or faint non-sequiturs. That the others aren’t more frustrated by her is either a miracle or an oversight.

And twice, two different actors look directly at the camera!

Such gaffes are relatively rare, especially for a shoestring effort, but they do exist, particularly in the audio. The sound has a sense of dissociation, with foley work disconnected from some scenes, both in tone and in synch. Everything feels muted, with a dearth of effects, unconvincing zombie moans, and collisions lacking much in the way of impact. As if to compensate, music swells melodramatically, too frequent and too loud, overplaying a mood which could benefit from silence.

For me the truest successes were the broadcasts, pieces of a proto-multimedia broken telephone game. Isolation and ignorance conjured a mystery, with the slow addition of evidence offering possible explanations. Like the movie as a whole, I found the parts compelling, but much was left unclear and unconvincing.

Better for its potential than its production, I appreciated a lot about Night of the Living Dead, but clearly things went awry in transition to the screen. Taken on its own, I was most impressed it was made for just over a hundred thousand dollars. I wouldn’t have found it memorable if it weren’t already so famous for its later influence and legacy. I’m not surprised the filmmakers tried a generation later to realize the early spark of life, of living death.

* * *

Full movie (public domain) available here:
http://www.archive.org/details/night_of_the_living_dead

Unrated, contains nudity and violence

96 minutes

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