A New Phase of Horror: Close-Up on "Night of the Living Dead"

George A. Romero's brand of horror was the horror that scared and scarred, the horror that could deeply upset people and cause nightmares.
Jeremy Carr

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) is playing October 1 - 31, 2017 in the United States as part of the series Prelude to Halloween.

For all of its social and cinematic influence, its current notoriety as the granddaddy of the contemporary zombie movie (and television show and comic book and videogame), George A. Romero’s 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead, was a remarkably unassuming production. Shot in mid- through late-1967 on a budget of around $114,000, with a cast and crew of unknown actors and amateur locals, the film went on to accumulate an international gross of more than $30 million, setting the standard for a progressively popular horror sub-genre in the process. One now marvels at its systematic structure, its discerning formal design, its clever manipulation of time and space, and its shrewd exploitation of generic conventions. Despite any preliminary limitations, Night of the Living Dead became a groundbreaking, trendsetting masterpiece of modern American cinema. 

The apparent inconspicuousness of Night of the Living Dead manifests itself early on and is, in fact, a prominent part of the film’s fundamental construction. Opening on an anonymous country road in Western Pennsylvania, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, the film charts the rural course of a solitary, unremarkable vehicle as it weaves its way to an equally unremarkable cemetery. The setting, as will crucially remain the case for the duration of the film, is both anywhere and nowhere in particular. If there is something haunting about this first sequence, it is how utterly (perhaps unusually) calm and prosaic the whole set-up seems. Similarly modest are siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny Blair (Russell Streiner), average-looking folks, maybe a little on the nebbish side, who arrive at their father’s grave as part of an annual ritual. Contributing to their authentic character, and the initially deceptive tenor of the film, they bicker about everything from the time of day (a well-lit but not for long 8 p.m.) to the caretaker’s removal of the prior year’s flowers. Such paltry concerns, typical between a quarrelling brother and sister, are promptly suppressed by what soon transpires, as their world and that of everyone else they know, gets turned upside down.  

Romero and co-writer John Russo begin Night of the Living Dead with trivial squabbling and comic teasing—Johnny mocks his sister’s graveyard discomfort with a catchy, sing-songy taunt of “They’re coming to get you, Barbra”—but when the pair spots a roaming man in the distance, and Johnny declares in jest, “There comes one of them now” (not realizing he’s correct about the wanderer’s intention), the abrupt revelation does more than produce panic. As Barbra and Johnny are attacked—he fatally so (sort of)—the surprise of the assault derives from the assailant’s anonymity. Populated with regional extras as unwieldly zombies, part of Night’s horror comes from the familiarity of it aggressors, a novel idea that gives the film a universal application. Until we see the gradually more evident decay of the nomadic, languid bodies, the zombies look exceedingly normal.  

Indebted to Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend,” Night of the Living Dead began as a horror-comedy under the title “Monster Flick,” and while the humor ultimately dissipated from the final film (for the most part), Romero and Russo do a masterfully economic job of orchestrating the film’s horrific concept to make the most of its moderate means. After the first indications of something amiss are negligently, if innocently, ignored (Johnny clicks off the radio just as the broadcast returns with new information after an ominous break for technical problems), Night falls back on more conventional cues to initiate the impending terror. Augmenting Barbra’s cemetery fear, Romero adds another stock touchstone—a thundercrack—and contrasts fail-safe spiritual sanctuary with the onset of a foreign force, one which religion has hitherto failed to consider (Johnny ridicules Barbra’s faith with a derisive “prayin’s for church”).

Having fled the wayward attacker, Barbra arrives at an isolated farmhouse, the functional, budgetarily judicious, and symbolic central location of the film. With experience mostly in commercials and theater productions, O’Dea is an appealing, sympathetic heroine, conveying decency and vulnerability. She isn’t so much the emblematic “final girl” of horror films to come, but is rather like her character is supposed to be: an attractive, ordinary, sisterly figure. In a state of flustered delirium, she enters the house, a serene and familiar site, one that continues the theme of corrosive commonality. Though rattled by a montage of animal mounts of the wall (the film’s most cliched moment of shock-cut fright), Barbra assumes a defensive posture and instinctively grabs a kitchen knife. This fortified demeanor, however, will rapidly diminish, putting her in sharp contrast with the house’s new arrival, Ben, played by Duane Jones (unfortunately, Barbra’s near catatonic state also limits O’Dea’s presence in the film).  

Just happening by the house, Ben is assertive, taking charge and, forgiving the more modern-day affront of socking Barbra in the jaw to keep her quiet, instilling instant confidence. Like O’Dea, Jones was an inexperienced actor, primarily working on the stage to that point, and though Romero insists Jones simply gave the best audition, the African-American actor’s race wasn’t lost on audiences or critics, with many identifying the implications of a black hero in the raging age of civil rights strife. Given this context, his race is indeed significant. In addition to his character being the primary protagonist of Night of the Living Dead, the fact he is an assured, competent lead—resourcefully boarding up the windows and doors, calmly and reasonably assessing the situation, compassionately understanding Barbra’s dazed lethargy—does establish his character as a revolutionary minority icon. Jones himself certainly saw the racial consequences, particularly when it came to the film’s jarring, bitter end. It was he who apparently suggested to Romero that Ben should die (the screenplay was commonly altered during filming), stating the black community would rather see him dead than saved “in a corny and symbolically confusing way,” adding—correctly—“The heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that, and the double jolt of the hero being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy.”  

This casting challenge to America’s racial divide, deliberate or not, fits with Romero’s sweeping indictment of other sociopolitical subject matter. After Ben and Barbra are joined by Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), previously sheltered in the farmhouse’s basement with their injured daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon), and Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), a teenage couple from the area, attention shifts to the domestic composite of the picture. In this classical American home, Night of the Living Dead dismantles and recreates the traditional family unit, emasculating Harry, magnifying a preexisting rift in the seemingly secure marriage of he and Helen, and affirming Ben and Barbra as a parallel interracial pairing. As a growing number of lumbering ghouls march forward (they’re never called zombies), drawn to the commotion of this besieged assembly, Harry is also established as the inevitable human antagonist, the stubborn catalyst for interpersonal disputes regarding safety and strategy (should they return in the cellar, where there is only one door to protect but nowhere to run?). This creates a pervasive claustrophobia, with anxiety born from internal, as well as external, conflict. The home, as a shelter from the outside world and place of interior security, is no more. The most upsetting portent of this irrevocably damaged nuclear family is when little Karen, who had been bitten by one of the “flesh-eating ghouls,” subsequently turns on her own parents, leaving them with the disquieting dilemma of confronting, possibly killing, someone they care about. As noted above, a fresh zombie’s physical approximation and dangerous assimilation forms a major component of the film’s enduring genius, and Romero explicitly stresses the violent effect by amplifying electronic sounds to distinguish the devastating moral quandary inherent in this new horror phenomenon (one echoed later as a resurrected Johnny appears to Barbra).  

Night of the Living Dead

While most of Night of the Living Dead is set in this combustible, restricted residence, Romero creatively expands his apocalyptic canvas by alluding to the broader outside world. Given his limited funds and technical resources, Romero somewhat defies filmic dogma by having characters efficiently tell rather than show. Ben describes an earlier truck crash, talking about the fire and the onslaught of ghouls, effectively creating the impression of an action set-piece with ample conviction, and like the car radio hint in the first scene, Romero utilizes radio broadcasts to suggest the expanse of the outbreak and the ensuing confusion. Following a lack of dialogue as Ben reinforces the house, and set against the portentous score of the film, the droning radio acts as a constant audible nod to life outside and the scope of the catastrophe, intimating the investigations and multiple parties at play without having to literally see them. Romero transitions this reportage to the more visual medium of television, but even this is largely studio-bound, serving the purpose of furthering his exceptionally creative edification without committing to location filming. Bearing in mind these tropes were not yet commonplace (they soon would be through Romero’s own distinctive sequels like Dawn of the Dead [1978] and Day of the Dead [1985], to say nothing of the string of remakes and rip-offs), it is through the various media that the audience, and the characters, learn that the recently dead are returning to life, that there are rescue locations in place, that NASA experts are in consultation with the government (the epidemic has to do with radiation), that the monsters are eating flesh (making the whole thing “more ghastly,” according to reports), and that a head shot will “kill the brain and … kill the ghoul.” Constrained to an essentially fixed locale, Romero enlarges Night of the Living Dead and progresses its plot by using these narrative flashpoints to drop in key details and evolve the calamity (the only first-hand information we get is when Ben reveals the zombies are afraid of fire, introducing a useful tactic and a curiously neglected note about their lingering emotional faculties). The exception to this method is the on-the-scene coverage of a hillbilly militia deployed to combat the zombies. It’s a recurring cutaway that elicits skepticism toward the state of emergency and the efficacy of local and national defense, and it also produces one of the film’s most hilariously deadpan lines concerning the meandering monsters, from a local posse chief: “Yeah, they’re dead … they’re all messed up.”

Social commentary and logistic brilliance aside, Night of the Living Dead is a quintessential horror movie, and it more than satisfies on an immediate, visceral level. Its model genre scenarios are dynamically successful; see, for example, the tense sequence of a lethal refueling capped off by stunning flammable carelessness (for all of its innovations, Night is yet another example of characters done in by stupid decisions) and escalating carnage as lip-smacking, increasingly battered zombies descend on the charred corpses. Taking advantage of his background in television and industrial films, and proving that necessity is the mother of invention, Romero employs low-key accents to illustrate the picture, utilizing cost-effective camera angles (often low and canted) to shape striking, unnerving compositions of off-kilter dread. Acting as his own cinematographer and editor (the editing, like the acting, is comparably clunky), his use of stark, grainy black and white benefits the roughhewn nature of the film, its raw, primitive aesthetic, as does the second-hand wardrobe, the reduced lighting facilities, and the carnal menu of blood and guts (chocolate syrup, ham, and butcher shop entrails). The choreographed close-ups of groping hands and flailing fingers, reaching through breached doors and windows, compound the depiction of the zombies’ corporeal constitution and serve as a reminder that they are us, and we may be them.  

Night of the Living Dead

All of this was and remains tremendously compelling, but sealed with the scene of young, matricidal Karen, some viewers were jolted beyond their comfort zone. Night of the Living Dead opened in regions where it was common practice to have generally innocuous horror fare shown as part of Saturday matinée special, and with no MPAA rating in place (that came later in 1968), audiences of all ages welcomed the usually harmless terror. It may have drawn the same youthful crowd, but this was decidedly not the same type of film. The scandalous situation led some, like Roger Ebert most famously, to question the arrangement. In his review of the movie, Ebert observed the mood of the audience as it dramatically changed. “Horror movies were fun, sure, but this was pretty strong stuff,” he wrote. The kids sat in stunned silence. “The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying.” The film became an unprecedented illustration of unease, with copious gore, disturbing content, and a bleak ending that left no one alive (none of the heroes anyway). Surely it was someone’s responsibility to contemplate the film’s impact on children?

Nevertheless, Night of the Living Dead survived such early concern, and may have actually benefited from it. The film is like a ruthless life lesson, advancing the nihilistic notion that nobody is safe, that even death is not necessarily a final absolution. The zombies of this film were of no comfortably obscure voodoo origin, nor were these fantastical extraterrestrial invaders. This was real life; the victims and monsters were real people: friends and neighbors, parents and children. This wasn’t the same kind of fun. “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them,” writes Ebert. “They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else.” He’s right. It was something else. Romero’s brand of horror was the horror that scared and scarred, the horror that could deeply upset people and cause vivid nightmare imaginings. But it was also the type of horror that could have a profound, positive effect, inspiring a generation of filmgoers and filmmakers. A movie like Night of the Living Dead began a new chapter of screen terror, and for those who accepted it—indeed reveled in it—for those who harnessed the emotion and recognized its artistic impetus, it was a prosperous sign of things to come. It could be a nightmare, but it was one that spawned countless cinematic dreams. It still does. 

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