Day 2: Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George Romero
Starring: Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea
Runtime: 96 minutes
While Psycho located horror in the familiar, in someone just like us, Night of the Living Dead goes one step further: the horror is us. This film still has the power to disturb not necessarily because of its violence and gore, but because the enemy is collective humanity. Zombies are dead humans reanimated. But the living protagonists are just as dangerous. Of the 7 deaths we see in the film, only 3 are caused by zombies; the other 4 are the result of murder or bungling.
Night is remarkable in many ways. One of the first independent films to receive a wide audience, it was influential in showing what an impact a movie could make with a limited budget. Stock music from a TV studio was used, dialogue was ad-libbed by actors, and regional aspects dominate (many Pittsburghers recognize “Chilly Billy Cardilly,” a local TV horror show host, as one of the reporters, as well as names of the “rescue stations,” etc.). Also, much subtext, intentional and unintentional, gets packed into the fairly simplistic story of seven people holding up in a rural Pennsylvania farmhouse. Tensions of race, gender, and social apathy are frequently cited undercurrents, although Romero and cast members have claimed that they were not thinking of these at the time.
SPOILERS FOLLOWThe breaking of taboos makes Night’s popularity even more perplexing. Cannibalism is explicitly depicted, since the zombies eat the flesh of the living. A young girl eats her father and commits matricide by stabbing her mother to death with a trowel. Finally, the ending is so bleak that to this day, it leaves viewers feeling empty and disturbed.
The apocalyptic nature of the crisis had been somewhat prefigured by The Birds, but the threat was more localized to a single town. In Night, reports indicate that the plague has spread everywhere. And as I suggested, the crisis reveals that the horror in ourselves is brought out. The ending suggests that militia-style posses are cleaning things up, but when they kill off the only character to have survived the night’s zombie assault, mistaking him for one of the living dead, we realize that mob rule has taken over, and the fate of the world remains as uncertain as ever. Many have convincingly argued that this reflects the political tensions and violence erupting in American society at this time.
There are many more things I could go into, but suffice it to say that I believe the rawness of this film retains its power 45 years later. Like Psycho, it has become extremely influential, not only in spawning the zombie Is it such a stretch to say this is a critique of America’s out-of-control “consumer culture”? Or were the filmmakers just having fun grossing people out?subgenre, but also conventions such as the danger of human paranoia in the midst of attack, and the nihilistic ending (see John Carpenter’s The Thing and Frank Darabont’s The Mistfor both). It is one of the most important films in establishing modern horror.