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Wednesday, 5 December 2012
Night of the Living Dead (Romero 1968)
Night of the Living Dead is simply THE classic zombie movie, it is undoubtedly the film that sparked the modern zombie genre. Inspired the siege of the house in Richard Matheson's vampire novel I Am Legend, George A Romero created his own house siege in Night with the stars being surrounded by ghoulish humans back from the dead and hungry for human flesh, these ghouls were later identified by the press as Zombies and that is what they became. Night is a story all about power, made in the 60's a time of cultural fear and anger over the Vietnam War the comparison between the ghouls and 'gooks', Vietnamese, isn't difficult to see but its not the only reading to be made. Romero himself says
"To me, the zombies have always just been zombies. They've always been a cigar. When I first made Night of the Living Dead, it got analysed and over analysed way out of proportion. The zombies were written about as if they represented Nixon’s Silent Majority or whatever. But I never thought about it that way. My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I'm pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible."
So maybe Zombie's aren't an encoded metaphor for anything and more a simple plot device however that doesn't stop anyone from decoding many messages from the film. It seems however that it is the humans that need to be analysed and read into arguments of race, family and gender are clear.
The film opens with a clear American flag, a simple signifier that the characters in the film, along with the zombies, represent all of America which gives significance to the first conversation. Barbra and her brother discuss why they bother driving down to the cemetery in the town they used to live to plant a wreath on the grave of their father about whom Johnny remarks coldly "I don't even remember what the guy looked like". This clear breakdown of the atomic family is representative of the time in which traditional values were disintegrating and foreshadows the later scene in which Karen Cooper kills her parents in an even more extreme signifier. Another of the traditional values to be attacked in this first scene is the church, when Johnny sees Barbra praying he simply says in a dismissing tone "Come on church was this morning". After Johnny is attacked Barbra begins to flee in a hysteric manner thus displaying her generally passive and pathetic character that could be accused of being a typical horror female. There is a lot of evidence against this however specifically in Stephen Harpers "They are us" Representations of women in George Romero's Living Dead Series" in which Harper excuses Barbra's character as either an attack on how patriarchal society makes women or a satirical comment on typical horror heroines.
As Barbra escapes one stumbling Boris Karloff esque zombie into thee refuge of an abandoned house that becomes the main set and the victim of the aforementioned siege. The lighting within the house is spectacular, the black and white visuals are lit in moody squares as if through the windows, the spooky effect is perfect and haunting. A few random shots of animal heads frighten Barbra further showing her hysteria and possibly referencing Hitchock's Psycho from 1960 furthering the possibility that Romero is mocking classic horror/ thriller females.
Barbra is saved however by the main hero of the film, Ben an African American man who stamps his authority on the situation and kills zombies left right and centre. Although Ben was never written as a black character he is one of the first back leads in film that don't have a romantic partner and his presence alludes to the ever present zombie theme of racism. Ben's later death is a harrowing experience and Romero himself has said that it isn't a reference to Martin Luther King's assassination but when he was transporting the film to the studio to be printed he heard of MLK's assassination and thought there was a creepy parallel. Ben's character takes control and boards up the house before telling Barbra and the audience his story which is amazingly delivered and evokes fear and empathy in the audience.
The reliance of our survivors on the media becomes apparent as they perch by the radio which imparts small gems of knowledge calling the zombie outbreak an "explosion of mass homicide in which victims are "partially eaten by their attackers". Even Ben is reliant on some greater force as he believes that if they survive long enough "someone is bound to come and get us" thus highlighting the public's reliance on government to save them from situations of danger. Whether Romero sees this as positive or negative is unclear as when people do come to help they do the exact opposite and kill Ben. Romero has said in commentary on his other films that he thinks its funny that if this ever happened it would only be the government and the red necks that would be able to defend themselves, an interesting if not frightening idea.
The arrival of more zombies outside the house is clear as they stumble along eating bugs and bark to delay their hunger. Clearly seen in the foreground is a naked female zombie, this goes some way towards supporting the argument that Night is a feminist film as the woman is in no way sexualised but just there wondering round like the others. With the arrival of more zombies comes the arrival of Harry, Tom and Judy from the cellar down below, after hearing the noioses and hiding they finally decided to find out what was going on, finding Ben and beginning the ever present power struggle between Ben and Harry, Black and White. Ben never falters simply saying "go back down into the cellar, you can be boss down there."
The breakdown of the modern family is contained in the cellar, within the family of the Coopers, father Harry, mother Helen and ill daughter Karen are hiding out in a hope to survive. They however are not happy as Helen states "We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn't going to solve anything" and ironic foreshadowing again of their soon to be death. Again the television and media leads them astray or at very least leads them as the Vietnam like footage of search and destroy missions tells them that their best chance is to get to a refugee centre. Whether it is right or not Ben is willing to do it because "the television says its the right thing to do" Ben saying "television" not scientist or government official is extremely important as it shows that he doesn't so much believe the specialist as he does the media that control his actions.
Ben's plot to save them by fuelling the fire fails and the young love of Tom and Judy fails and dies with is, a pessimistic statement about relationships and sacrifice. Harry sees this as a chance to overtake Ben, he believes he has gone too far and when Ben drops his gun to deal with a Zombie it is snatched by Harry. He however doesn't have the guts to shoot Ben who wrestles the gun from him and shoots him. Its every man for himself as the Zombies break the house down, the women however band together as Barbra finally starts to be productive. Her heroism is shortlived however as Johnny arrives at the house and pulls her into the horde.
Meanwhile Ben retreats into the basement where Karen has been eating her father and stabbed her mother to death in a horrifying scene. The trowel scene is brilliant, the slanted lighting canted camera and screeching soundtrack all make for a horrifying death, all the more scary for the corrupted innocence of the young girl Karen Cooper, who destroys the atomic family completely.
Ben does survive the onslaught by killing the Coopers and hiding in the basement as per Harry's original suggestion. However as he steps into the light in the morning he is killed by a search and destroy squad who believe he is a zombie, this scene bares a stark resemblance to lynch mobs of the time. In the following photo montage Ben is grabbed with hooked poles and thrown on the fire as one of the gang simply say "thats another one for the fire". Exactly what Romero is trying to say with Night isnt perfectly clear, there are a lot of motifs and a lot that can be re read into the film but at its heart the horror and fear are clear and the anti government possibly nihilistic sentiments are clear.
Whether you see Night as a political statement or just as a good scare one thing is perfectly clear, it is a masterpiece!