RogerBW's Blog

Night of the Living Dead 15 September 2021

1968 horror, dir. George Romero, Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea: IMDb / allmovie. The dead are rising, and they're hungry.

Which of course they hadn't been before, not quite. On the one hand, there was your White Zombie (1932), which had set the pattern for what "zombies" were on film: the raised dead, yes, but the villain would be the zombie master (in that case Bela Lugosi as "Murder" Legendre), and the zombies themselves were basically the master's tools. But on the other hand this film owes rather more to the book I Am Legend (1954) and the 1964 AIP semi-adaptation The Last Man on Earth: you can be converted to become like the dead, and it takes a special means to kill them. (And famously this film never mentions "zombies" – it's "ghouls" or "flesh eaters".) This is a film with a hole where the sneering villain would be, and I can't help see anxieties about environmental issues: the zombies don't care whether you're a good guy with teeth that go ting, they're just going to eat you.

In 1968 race was on everyone's mind after the US riots of 1967, and Romero makes no script concessions to having a black lead actor. (In fact, Ben was originally written as being more of a common man, and after Jones was cast he and Romero tweaked the character to be more intellectual.) There are moments during Ben's arguments with Harry where Harry could easily have come out with some sort of racist comment, entirely acceptable by the standards of the time… and he doesn't.

It's just a pity that all Ben's decisions are wrong and get people killed. He thinks, perhaps, that he's the hero of a traditional survive-the-night horror film; but this film is much less kind. Harry the coward is simply right.

Also a pity is that all the female characters are basically useless; when Harry talks about "all three of us working together" he's leaving out the women, and one can't honestly say he's wrong to do so. Barbra's near catatonic after the first scenes and rouses only to make a mistake and die, Helen at least argues a bit with her husband but does nothing except fail to attack her newly-risen daughter, Judy makes a very stupid decision which leads immediately to her death, and Karen does nothing at all. Eh.

But all of this is secondary. This is a horror film that I loved. Yes, all right, being in black and white gains my sympathy, and while a huge fuss was made about the gore at the time I honestly think it wouldn't take a lot of cutting to produce a version with more suggestion, less by way of explicit effects, that was just as good at producing tension and horror. I wonder to what extent the fuss was a proxy for unease about a horror film that breaks the rules, that doesn't have an ending to reassure you that the right people lived and normality has been restored.

(Freely available from many places, including the Internet Archive, thanks to a mistake: in the USA in 1968, copyright didn't exist unless you asserted a claim, and the theatrical distributor didn't put a copyright notice on the new title frames when it renamed the film from Night of the Flesh Eaters to the current title).

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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