In a remote Pennsylvanian farmhouse, a group of desperate civilians attempt to fight off a horde of homicidal aggressors, hungry for living, human flesh.
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Compared with the current cycle of torture-orientated horror films (the Saw/Hostel cycles, French shocker Martyrs (Laugier, 2008), George A. Romero’s low budget, debut feature Night of the Living Dead may appear both cheap and, in terms of its violence/gore, tame. Shot for just over $100,000 with a small cast of unknown actors, there was little room for expansive set-pieces, state-of-the-art special effects or even colour cinematography. But ultimately, these financial restrictions have made the film what it is today: one of the most important, controversial, subversive films of the 1960s and according to many the first, ‘true’ modern horror film.
Taking his cues from apocalyptic literature, most obviously Richard Matteson’s 1954 novel I am Legend (which has been adapted for film on several occasions), Romero re-invented the ‘zombie’ for a capitalist, consumerist culture, where the strong survive by devouring the weak. The Romeronian zombie distances itself from previous cinematic incarnations in a number of ways: they are not the subservient, mindless workforce controlled by voodoo, as seen in early films such as White Zombie (Halperin, 1932). Romero creates a master-less zombie, obedient only to their desire for living flesh. Their demographic does not consist of the Caribbean/West-Indian plantation workers as in Halperin’s effort or Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943). The zombie horde of Night consists of everyday citizens – your friends, you family, the worker at the gas station. They may be monsters, but they are recognisable monsters, extensions of us brought down to their most basic desire, to survive. Romero’s unique take on the creature has influenced perhaps every zombie film made since, from the undead of Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) to Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s ‘Rom-Com-Zom’ Shaun of the Dead (2004).
Although Romero’s zombies do at times offer true terror (the film still has the potential to make even the most hardened ‘torture-porn’ fanatic jump), it is Night of the Living Dead’s human protagonists that hold the film’s true menace. Released during the Vietnam-era, the film is satirises the US government’s perceived inability to cope with a nation-wide crisis. The rag-tag group of ‘red-necks’ and ‘hicks’ that are employed to scour the Pennsylvanian countryside in zombie-hunting parties clearly subscribe to the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ school of firearm operation (ultimately, this lead to the films final tragedy). When interviewed by a local television reporter, the only thing the local sheriff (George Kosana) can offer in terms of a description of the creatures he hunts is, “Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up”.
The American ‘nuclear’ family is also criticised through the Cooper family. The father figure Harry Cooper is an aggressive, semi-psychotic who clearly feels uncomfortable with Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American, in charge of the house-hold’s only gun (Night was one of the first horror films to feature a strong, black lead). One of the film’s weaknesses appears in its lack of strong female characterisation, with both Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Harry’s wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) reduced to hysterical wrecks within a short period of cabin-fever-inducing confinement (Romero rectifies this in his later zombie films, which all benefit from strong-female leads). Mrs Cooper’s blindness towards the apocalyptic situation ultimately leads to her destruction, as she and her husband are murdered and devoured by their young daughter Karen, who becomes one of the undead after being bitten. The image of Karen towering over her mother repeatedly plunging a trowel into her (in a scene very reminiscent of Psycho’s [Hitchcock, 1960] shower scene) is hugely powerful, a daughter overthrowing the tyrannical rule of her parents, in-keeping with the 1960’s obsession with liberation.
Obviously, Night of the Living Dead’s violence and gore does not compare with the excess of visceral mutilation and dismemberment we see in contemporary horror. However, looking at Romero’s more recent films, this is largely to do with the film’s limited budget (his next film, Dawn of the Dead (1978) had a much larger budget and the inclusion of Tom Savini, whose special effects are nothing short of spectacular). Censorship was also much more restrictive during the 1960s and the film, along with other low-budget independent shockers, was among the most controversial of the era.
Whatever its restrictions were, Night works exceptionally well as a ‘chamber piece’, where we are more interested in character psychology and interaction, restricted to a handful of claustrophobic locations. We are often as confused about the situation as the helpless survivors, relying on garbled radio reports to inform us about this ‘epidemic of mass murder’. The black and white cinematography suits the film’s dark, depressive atmosphere and themes perfectly (always try to see the original version, it has since been extended and also colourised, neither versions truly capturing the 1968 cut’s tone). We can barely make out the zombie army amassed outside the house, illuminated only by and occasional light or hurled Molotov. Ultimately, it is the film’s beautiful framing and cinematography coupled with its hidden, subversive depth that lifts the film out of the realm of the B-picture and into cinematic/artistic renowned. The film’s final still images show Ben’s corpse (the film’s tragic finale that I mentioned earlier, see’s Ben mistaken for a zombie and shot by one of the zombie-hunting militia) being dragged onto a pyre of the undead, with the men using hooks rather that touching his flesh. This image, which has rightly drawn comparisons with the Nazi’s use of hooks to transport Jewish remains in Second World War concentration camps, is perhaps the most horrific, yet beautifully crafted of the film and begs the question: who are the film’s real monsters?