Sunday, October 23, 2011

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

After the disappointment that came from my first Hammer Films experience, Dracula A.D. 1972, I was in the mood for something classic, know...good.  The original Night of the Living Dead had been on my to-do list for a while now, but it was nice to have a reason to prompt me to finally watch the movie that launched a sub-genre.

As the grandaddy of all modern zombie movies (a few preceded this one, but they were more voodoo zombies), Night of the Living Dead starts at the very beginning, which is a very good place to start.  Babra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother have driven several hours for their monthly visit to their father's grave; the radio has had poor reception, so they've spent the past few hours talking and not listening to reports of a bizarre infectious disease (zombie-itis?) that seems to be spreading.  In the cemetery, a pale, lurching figure stumbles toward the siblings but is not given much attention.  That's too bad, because the dude is a zombie.  Zombie tries to attack Babra, but her brother rescues her; unfortunately, he struggles with the zombie and hits his head on a grave stone, dying instantly.  Understandably panicked, Babra runs to their car and drives into the first tree she can find.  She then runs to the nearest farmhouse in this sparsely populated area. 
...but not before saying goodbye to her favorite tombstone
Nobody seems to be home, except for a half-eaten corpse.  Babra starts to run out of the house, but she is greeted by the sight of more undead creatures slowly heading her way.
L-R: late-career Brian Dennehy, Robert Stack, young Brian Dennehy, and Marilyn Manson
Babs probably would have freaked out and just let them eat her, but that's when Ben (Duane Jones) arrives.  His car is out of gas, but he is smart and capable of action.  He brings Babra inside, kills the resident zombie, and puts up some rudimentary defenses on the doors and windows.  He isn't too demanding of Babra, who is obviously deep in shock, and he does what he can to keep her safe. 
Ben, realizing that the lights are on, but nobody's home
From this point on, things start to get more complicated.  The undead continue to arrive and cluster around the farmhouse.  They could escape, since the farm has its own gas pump (that happened in the sixties?), but it is locked, without a key.  Zombies aren't the only concern, as it turns out that five people were hiding out in the basement while Ben was fighting off zombies on the main floor.  More people means more mouths to feed and more opinions on how to handle the situation, which means more fighting amongst the living that could have been spent against the dead.  So what should the group do?  Hunker down in the easily defended (but impossible to escape from) basement or fortify their shoddy ground-floor defenses?  Or maybe they should make a run for it.  They could wait and see if the authorities will show up and help them.  The beginning of the zombie apocalypse has a lot of options, even if they're not all good ones.
Bad choice: group staring contests

I have to admit that I was impressed by Night of the Living Dead.  I've seen a few of George A. Romero's movies, but have found them to be a pretty mixed bag.  This is definitely one of the good ones.  Fans of zombie movies may be surprised at some of the "rules" established in this film, though.  For starters, the first zombie shown in the film is pretty fast and is clever enough to use tools (well, a rock) to attack his target.  Both are traits not necessarily repeated in later Romero zombie pics.  Zombies are also shown to be afraid of fire, which (depending on which movie you watch) gives them more intelligence than they are sometimes afforded in movies.  One of the zombies also eats a large bug, for some reason.  Oh, and they're not called zombies in Night of the Living Dead.  If anything, they are called "ghouls."  I found that mildly interesting.  Aside from that, these are the kind of zombies that lumber around in varying states of undress and decomposition, they eat human flesh and infect anyone they bite, and they die if their brains get destroyed.  Speaking of brains, you might assume that this would be the movie that popularized the whole "zombies love to eat brains" thing, but that was first introduced twenty-seven years later, in Return of the Living Dead.  That's just an FYI; I don't want you to sound ignorant when discussing fictional infectious diseases. 
"Braaaaiiiins!  I mean, um, Ghoulie Snaaaaacks!"

I expected the acting to be pretty piss poor in Night of the Living Dead, but it's actually very solid.  Despite having a no-name cast, the performances really stand the test of time.  Sure, Judith O'Dea was pretty worthless, but she was mildly attractive even while she was barely functioning.  I thought Duane Jones was pretty bad-ass as Ben.  Not only did he seem logical and brave, but he made some pretty ballsy choices as the film progressed.  His character is all the more impressive given the fact that this movie was made at the height of Civil Rights discussions in America and Jones is a black man; if this movie was made now, Jones would still be bad-ass, but it is an especially bad-ass role when you consider how little quality work was available for black men in films at the time.
Who needs to wait for Spike Lee when you have Duane Jones?
The rest of the cast were amateurs.  Karl Hardman, the ornery middle-aged man, was a co-producer of the film, while his wife was played by the wife of his co-producer.  Perhaps the most iconic actor of the bunch is Hardman's real-life daughter, Kyra Schon; her kid zombie scenes are some of the scariest in the whole film.

This film doesn't suffer from director George A. Romero's later habit of inserting heavy-handed social commentary in the story, and I definitely appreciate that.  Feel free to interpret the film as you will, but the fact that it is open to interpretation makes this far more subtle than his other works.  There is a little gore, but it is pretty tame by modern standards.  What sticks with you after seeing Night of the Living Dead is the familiar cast members becoming zombies and having the audacity to make an innocent child into a genuine monster that needed killing.  This would have blown my mind if I had seen it in the sixties, especially with the ending.  Even now, I was impressed by the lead acting and thought that the choice to make this black-and-white instead of color definitely helped overcome budget issues to make these ghouls decently frightening.  I was expecting a lot less, given how many poorly made and loosely connected sequels it has, but Night of the Living Dead deserves its classic status.

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