In 1968, America was a land of great unrest. Vietnam had turned out to be anything but a cakewalk, race relations were still strained, prominent public figures were assassinated, and the disgruntled younger generation had begun to take far fewer baths than before. In this climate of tension and fear (and smelly young people), Pittsburgh native George A. Romero decided to lighten the mood with a cheerful ray of sunshine called Night of the Living Dead—my favorite horror movie ever. Roger Ebert tells of the first time he saw it, at a Saturday matinee attended mostly by children. As events unfolded, his fellow theater patrons were stunned into quiet shock, scared shitless and traumatized for life. No wonder—as I posited yesterday, this was a new kind of horror, Psycho being the only close precedent. Here was the kind of horror you felt. Imagine the sight that greeted the parents when they returned from their shopping rounds!
General consensus seems to be that Night of the Living Dead, released six months after the Tet Offensive, is an allegory for the Vietnam War. I’ve often heard that the zombies in the field suggest demoralized US soldiers staggering through rice paddies—strangers in a strange land. But if that’s the case, what do the living people symbolize? You could just as easily claim that the zombies are Viet Cong, while the survivors represent embattled Americans thrust into a situation they’re painfully unprepared to handle. And if politics aren’t your thing, Night is open to other interpretations. After all, this is sophisticated, modern horror. In Laughing Screaming, author William Paul dwells on the movie’s family-related horrors. Jamie Russell, meanwhile, in his first-rate zombie guide Book of the Dead, writes that Night is about “the horror of the body.” Hey, it’s all good!
Now, what about the style? As it happens, Night of the Living Dead is an exercise in subtle, skillful filmmaking. The craftsmanship is obscured by more visceral thrills, and it’s no surprise when critics see Night as crude and reminiscent of cinéma-vérité. Romero himself can be quite self-deprecating about the technical side of the production. But there’s genuine craft on display here, and an affectionate attention to the history of horror movies. In particular, there’s a distinct influence from the German expressionists of the silent era. Dark, angular set design, which mirrored the tormented interior lives of the characters, was a stylistic hallmark of silent German cinema; shadows and intentionally overwrought acting contributed to the feeling of an off-kilter dream world. In addition, the themes most often revolved around death, insanity and sin. And all of these elements, in one way or another, are clearly mirrored in Romero’s debut effort.
Early on, main character Barbara (Judith O’Dea) must flee the country cemetery where a zombie has attacked her brother Johnny (Russ Streiner). After an awkward run down a country road, she seeks refuge in a seemingly deserted farmhouse—the interiors and lighting of the place are straight out of silent German cinema. And the ghouls themselves move like distant cousins of Cesare, the somnambulist in Robert Wiene’s 1919 classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Actually, even the living characters move like him in the beginning. Just watch as Barbara and Ben (Duane Jones) warily explore the house, pressed against the walls while shadows dance across their faces. From Book of the Dead: “Romero and his producers Carl Hardman and Russell Streiner (who both appear in front of the camera playing Cooper and Johnny respectively) had originally wanted to make a non-horror art-house movie.” Well, guess what? They didn’t completely ditch the art-house sensibility … they just disguised it a bit with walking corpses, head bashing and people getting eaten. You can have your bloody cake and gobble it down too!
Oh, and Happy Halloween!
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