December 22, 2010

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George A. Romero

5 / 5 zedheads


What can be said about Night of the Living Dead that hasn't already been said? When Night was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, it was chosen for being a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" film. No dispute there. Its influence changed the direction of zombie media. That's a given. It has been hailed as a subversive film of the 1960s and the beginning of a new age of horror film-making.

Rather than drudge up these same arguments, I'm going to talk about why Night of the Living Dead was an important film for me and my development as a horror and movie fan.
Damn it, Bill. It says "pull," not "push." Pull, you idiot.
In a piece honoring my father that I wrote at Monster Chiller Horror Theatre, I talked about how Dad introduced me to Night of the Living Dead for the first time one Halloween night. It was probably my first adult horror film, and it taught me that horror could be bleak and socially angry. Until I saw Night, I had enjoyed films like The Monster Squad, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and Critters, and even the Robert Englund Phantom of the Opera. While these films contained varying levels of age-inappropriate humor, violence, and nudity, they all came from a juvenile place of storytelling and more times than not focused heavily on monsters. I loved monsters. I'd doodle them all the time. Night of the Living Dead, however, took the fanged, horned, hairy, scaly, flying, clawed, and four-legged monsters that I loved and replaced them with creatures that looked alarmingly human. Alarmingly like me.
Oh, so NOW you want to help with the gardening?
The human as monster -- and by extension human behaviour as monstrous -- never really occurred to me in films where the monsters were either sympathetic goofballs or eventually destroyed by the prevailing light of good. That humans could be monsters and that humans could fail to defeat monsters because of human greed, shortsightedness, prejudices, and ignorance -- this was a new concept for me in horror. Instead of looking under my bed or in my accursed bedroom closet that also acted as an attic,  I started looking at my parents, my friends, my neighbors, and even myself to find monsters. The zombies are us. We are the monsters.
If you're zombies and you know it, raise your arms.
Night of the Living Dead also introduced me to the importance of older horror films and black and white horror. Although the films of 1968 can hardly be considered ancient, for a kid growing up in the mid 1980s anything before 1983 might as well be ancient history. Watch a black and white movie? You've got to be kidding! Night of the Dead, however, gave me and appreciation for horror films that were older than me. It encouraged me to pay more attention to the VHS copies of films from the 1960s and 1970s that populated my local Video Rental Stores. It even encouraged me to seek out black and white classics from the RKO and Universal era. Not only did these films give me a better appreciation for history, they made me a better horror fan because I could see the scope of terror on film and appreciate the longevity and durability of horror as a genre.
Let's Scare Barbara to Death!
Years later, Night of the Living Dead also taught me to appreciate small budget film-making. When I began to learn about how films are made, I saw something special in the production history of Night. Despite my diet of big-budget and special effects saturated pop culture, I realized that Night of the Living Dead was able to affect me on a visceral level with only a small budget and limited resources but an abundance of luck and talent. It opened my eyes to the possibility of independent and young filmmakers working outside of the studio system. Born into the video generation and maturing on the cusp of the digital revolution, I was always reminded by Night of the Living Dead to not discredit a film because it didn't have name actors, a large budget, or the backing of a studio pushing a multimillion dollar ad campaign and merchandise tie-in promotional strategy. To this day, I'll never turn down a film just because of its budget. If I do, I may miss out on another sleeper hit that could change film and genre forever.

Not even the zombie apocalypse could kill the Olympic Torch
For these reasons, Night of the Living Dead is a classic to me. Sure, it'sa fantastic movie with interesting characters, a terrifying premise, and a metaphorical and social weight, but it also shaped my expectations of what a horror movie could be. Say what you want, but Night of the Living Dead will always be a classic.

THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE continues all this week with more reviews of zombie classics as I countdown to Christmas.