Bite Me (Film Review: “Night of the Living Dead”)

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The granddaddy of the zombie genre and just as shocking 50 years later: Night of the Living Dead. Bring a flaming torch and your blankie. . .  Happy Halloween!

 

SnapShot Plot

Just in time for a flesh-eating Halloween smorgasbord, allow me to reintroduce you to the movie that started it all, George Romero’s 1968 black & white cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, now available for streaming on SnagFilms.com.

The simple story-line takes place primarily in a remote farmhouse somewhere in Pennsylvania, where a handful of strangers desperately tries to fend off an inexorable horde of undead ghouls swarming the countryside in search of live flesh. News reports tentatively source the wave of mass murder to a satellite returning from Jupiter, destroyed in transit by NASA, subsequently releasing radioactive particles into the atmosphere over the northeastern portion of the U.S. The group of disparate people who find themselves thrown together in one terror filled night reads like a Sociology 101 experiment of the day. There’s Barbara (Judith O’Dea), a young woman almost catatonic with fear whose brother Johnny was left behind in a graveyard. And Harry & Helen Cooper (a.k.a the Bickersons) and their badly injured daughter, Karen. An attractive, hip young couple named Tom & Judy just want to do the right thing. And leading them all – in a groundbreaking piece of casting – is Ben, an attractive, smart and morally superior African American man who valiantly tries to save himself and the group from the horrors outside the house, while inside confronting the thinly veiled racism and antagonism represented by Harry Cooper. With very little to work with in the way of script or direction, actor Duane Jones managed to bring a level of integrity and credibility to the role of Ben, which made his character’s abrupt death at the hands of law enforcement that much more shattering at the end of the film. The final sequence, a series of grainy still shots showing Ben’s body being unceremoniously heaped on a funeral pyre along with the ghouls, is alone more poetic and visually symbolic than the entire film that preceded it.

 

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

Parting Shot

Any serious consideration of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead must focus more on what the film represented than what it intrinsically was as a piece of film making. The movie (screening in select theatres this weekend nationwide) has become a cult classic for several reasons, most of them being ‘firsts of its kind’. It’s widely hailed as the first horror movie whose subject matter was undead flesh-eating ghouls, later to be termed Zombies. Reanimation of dead corpses, of course, had been done before (Frankenstein and Dracula as the most famous) but never had the shocking element of cannibalism been so overtly exploited within the horror genre. The Count might drink your blood but he wasn’t gobbling up your lower intestines in the process. Similarly, although the Cold War 60s were rife with science fiction thrillers, those movies usually presented the enemy as coming from outer space and attacking planet Earth; in Night of the Living Dead there is a causal science fiction element but the enemy is our very own families and neighbors. We are the monsters.

But the most historically interesting thing about the making of Night of the Living Dead is the casting of Duane Jones as the ill-fated hero, Ben. Never before (in American cinema) had a Black man been portrayed as the protagonist in a mainstream horror film, even more interesting in that the part did not actually call for an African American to be cast in the role. This was Jones’ first on-screen performance, and it’s impossible not to note the racial, social and political nuances at play, although he rarely commented on it in his life. He went on to become an English professor and theatre director in New York City.

It’s also interesting to point out that the actors who played Harry and Helen Cooper – Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman – had been longtime collaborators and had even teamed up with George Romero on the production of Night of the Living Dead. In fact, Eastman herself worked behind the scenes (on make-up and props) as well as in front of the camera, and even assisted in the editing of the final film. Ironically, they ended up marrying each other in real life.

The film itself is far from a masterpiece in technique, although there’s a quite satisfying visual quality achieved by the stark black and white format. And although suspenseful, the film’s intrinsic elements often don’t add up. The editing is choppy, the acting is second rate, and the dialogue is at times dreadful. But in a mere 96 minutes this little film somehow captured the nightmare imagination of an entire cinema industry and Cold War/Civil Rights generation, to the extent that it has spawned a still-thriving genre of Living Dead successors and the many tropes first outlined in the original. Maybe the reason is the overtness of this horror. What’s so shocking is how absolutely still shocking these scenes are today. The frankness of the cannibalism (sound effects especially) mixed with the bare-bones bluntness of the action make the film feel almost like a snuff film, that’s how ‘real’ it feels.

I’m not saying I’ll watch Night of the Living Dead every Halloween. But for the historical record, it was good to revisit that farmhouse 50 years later and know that there are certain unspeakable terrors that remain as shocking now as they did at age 10. By the way, I still had to peek through my fingers this time too.

 

Night of the Living Dead is presently streaming on SnagFilms.com

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to announce squatters’ rights on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEVjoAwC-3Q

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