Saturday, November 2, 2013

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Director: George A. Romero                           Writers: John Russo & George A. Romero
Stock Music: Spencer Moore                         Cinematography: George A. Romero
Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman

Though it has the reputation of being a low-budget film--and technically it is, simply in terms of the cost of production--this film has none of the pejorative associations that go along with the term. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is actually a very well made film. The print I have claims to be restored and re-mastered and it is very good, a crisp sixties black and white with excellent sound that looks tremendous. As a testament to his skill, it is one of only two films--the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers being the other--that is both an A List as well as a B List entry. Though the majority of Romero’s career has been spent cashing in on the artistic success of this film, he has done a few other interesting horror projects, like Money Shines and The Dark Half. Ultimately, however, his name will be forever associated with taking the idea of the zombie and updating it with a science-fiction device by turning the zombies into ghouls.

The film begins following a car as it makes its way to a lonely, isolated cemetery in Western Pennsylvania where Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner going to visit the grave of their father. The only hint of something strange is when an announcer comes on the radio, but Streiner turns it off. There is one other person in the cemetery, and Streiner begins joking with O’Dea that he’s coming to get her. Famous last words, as the first of the ghouls fights with Streiner and accidentally kills him on a headstone. O’Dea makes a run for it, eventually finding her way to an abandoned farmhouse. As night falls and her fear nearly paralyzes her, Duane Jones pulls up to the house with his car out of gas, and takes refuge with her in the house. Interestingly, instead of his presence bolstering her courage, she takes the opportunity to completely lose her sanity and descend into abject fear. What makes the story so compelling is that Romero has a way with the camera, a documentary style that injects a frenetic and frightening energy that is perfect for his subject.

The suspense in the film comes from a concept that has been used hundreds of times before, and hundreds of times since. The analogies are endless. Whether it’s a submarine gradually taking on water or a disease slowly spreading, there’s a certain inevitability that underpins the entire film. The longer the night goes on, the more ghouls converge on the house, and the more pressure they exert on the weak points of the structure. Eventually something has to give way. In addition, the personalities involved all threaten in some way to unravel or damage the delicate latticework of protection against the living dead, thus doubling the suspense by making the audience wonder if the destruction is ultimately going to come from outside or inside the house.

The A List essay by Kevin Thomas is easily the most disappointing of the two reviews. He takes a nostalgic look at a film he calls, “still . . . the scariest movie I have ever seen,” by sharing his original review, but never once telling the reader why the film is so scary. The essay from Desson Thomson in The B List is just as short, but he comes at the film from a different angle, focusing instead on the idea that the very limitations of budget are what made the film so artistically satisfying. But his best idea is a throwaway line about Jones, a black man in the sixties whose intelligence is clearly superior, and how his ultimate disposition mirrors that of so many minorities, both then and now. For the film has certainly evolved over the last forty-five years from an exploitation horror flick into an allegory and it is there where the most interesting aspects of its artistry are to be found. And the ending is absolutely masterful in conveying a certain type of futility. Night of the Living Dead, despite its low-budget pedigree, is a powerful, moving film that has deserved its stature as one of the all time greats.

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