Thursday, August 24, 2023

Lessons from Criterion:
"Night of the Living Dead" by George A. Romero

What a strange and surreal experience it can be to look upon George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” in the here and now, so long after zombie culture has ingrained itself firmly in our minds and our sense of cynicism has caught up to its underlying influence. All the obligatory questions emerge before a single frame has transpired. What does a dated relic from the era of indie counter-culture have to offer us now? Aren’t we too desensitized to be shocked or dismayed? Does any of the material on screen resonate in any way, especially given how effortlessly its grim sensibilities have been upstaged by dozens of indirect remakes, sequels and modern interpretations through the years? In almost every conversation about the most prolific of horror sub-genres, the popular benchmark is usually spoken of in only passively admiring terms. Many, including self-appointed experts on the pseudo-politics of the walking dead, are inclined to dismiss it on the grounds of its amateur values, downplaying the matter for the favor of the more technically-competent – and challenging – endeavors. Perhaps they are the sorts raised in the shadow of the much more well-regarded “Dawn of the Dead,” which was the first of Romero’s zombie films to add the much-lauded sardonic cultural subtext to the ambitious flesh-ripping violence.

If humor is, indeed, the quintessential tool to wield against a premise this bleak in a time when audiences value a sense of displacement from the nihilistic, then it is little wonder they have reservations about venturing far back into the nether-reaches of a black-and-white downer. None of the trademark wit or wry observations exist in this integral outing. A very real and terrible ordeal is occurring to the film’s characters, and their experiences are amplified tenfold by the depressing proclamations of a local television broadcast, ominously reminding us that mass killing are happening in nearly every major region of the country. The final sequence, a series of still shots that follow a shockingly fatalistic twist in the story, are likely to leave one feeling dejected or withdrawn instead of thrilled or amused. But it is precisely because the movie confronts the darkness so directly, without varnish or subterfuge, that “Night of the Living Dead” stands alone against its more cheerful cousins. In a world where the dead are literally tearing each other apart, this is a film that argues the only emotion worth regarding beneath the bloodcurdling fight for survival is exhaustion.

The first half hour thoroughly forecasts that knowledge. A lone vehicle carrying two aged siblings (Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner) pulls into an unremarkable cemetery with a spray of flowers in the backseat, their dialogue revealing their 200-mile trek into the late evening hours. They are there to pay respects to their deceased father, encouraged to do so by a mother who we gather is gifted at guilt trips, but not enough to compel herself to tag along. While standing at the gravesite, Johnny (Streiner) reminds his sister of mean little games they used to play during childhood, when he and neighborhood boys would convince her that the corpses beneath the headstones were going to attack them. “They are gonna get you, Barbra,” he playfully warns, his cheerful grin displacing him from the awareness that strange figures are lurking in the background of the frame. Gradually they move in. Closer, then closer, until they are no longer frivolous distractions but silent villains: the first of countless waves of zombies that will terrorize the camera frame of hundreds of future movies.

Johnny is the horde’s first casualty, and poor hysterical Barbra is left to do little but flee aimlessly into the dimly-lit wilderness surrounding the cemetery. Her pursuers are slow but unrelenting, giving her just enough time to find suitable shelter at a lone house just beyond the burial ground (we surmise it must belong to the caretaker). Her face and body contort into frenetic expressions that would be right at home in a silent film, but it is the soundtrack that does all the literal emoting: piercing instrumental riffs that sound as if they could be mistaken as screams. Then, just as the attack of the dead just beyond the doors and the windows lets up enough to allow in some silence, Barbra makes the mistake of venturing upstairs. No matter how many times I have seen the film or how prepared I think I am, it never fails to startle me each time the camera first cuts to the rotting corpse on the landing.

Others join Barbra in her forlorn isolation, starting with Ben (Duane Jones), who takes refuge in the house after his truck runs out of gas and he is accosted by the ghouls outside. Disciplined enough to shut out the possibility of them coming inside by barricading every entrance and window, something about his behavior suggests a shrewd vigilance for a moment like this – one, the movie quietly argues, that may be due to his experience as a minority at the dawn of the civil rights movement. After a momentary calm has settled over them, however, additional survivors make themselves known in the basement: a young couple (Keith Wayne and Judith Riley) who just want to stay safe without impeding the safety of others, and an older couple (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman) who are far more guarded: downstairs, their young daughter Karen lies in slumber after experiencing a sudden and mysterious illness. The wife Helen fills the role as the prospective peace-keeper among the argumentative sorts as the threat from the outside begins to creep ever inward, but her husband Harry is combative and self-regarding, always quick to indicate how everyone’s suggestions but his own are the wrong way to go about survival. That also means he and Ben are destined to clash heatedly throughout the picture, and when there’s a brief attempt at a getaway that costs the two young lovers their lives, there is an eruption of emotions that perfectly embody all the racial tensions we unwittingly project into their volatile chemistry.

Those exchanges became central to a filmmaker who saw his pictures as snapshots of their respective cultural structure, but what Romero probably did not intend, especially given his sense of casual credence, is that his casting of Duane Jones would essentially herald the arrival of a new wave of hard-boiled heroes, many of them people of color. Prior to “Night of the Living Dead,” black actors in American films were typically relegated to supporting roles, only having found a gradual tilt of importance since the recent emergence of Sidney Poitier, who even won an Oscar for an early breakout role. Duane Jones did not have the sort of illustrious career in movies as many of his contemporaries, but to look at Ben’s cynical sharpness and not see traces of Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft or Ron O’Neal’s Priest in “Super Fly” is to negate a key link in a chain of progressive characterization for minority leads, especially in crime thrillers and action pictures.

All of that might have been merely theoretical had the film itself not undergone important re-releases in subsequent years. When it first arrived in drive-ins and local theater chains in the fall of 1968, in fact, critics and audiences alike were too appalled by the violence to pay the material much mind. Others still, particularly those from the phony moral patriarchy of 1960s middle America, protested to keep it out of wide distribution. When the cultural tide seemed to shift in the wake of the Manson murders of 1969, however, the stage seemed prime to look at Romero’s endeavor with freshly desensitized eyes. Soon the movie was undergoing midnight revivals in New York, Los Angeles and France, where it was swept up into the proverbial wind of cult legend. No one alive by the early 70s – including those who had declined to see it – could deny the presence of a strange little film about dead maniacs coming back to cannibalize the living, try as they might to displace it from their conscious awareness. Ironically, it would be Romero himself who would upstage that initial influence years later, when his own “Dawn of the Dead” was released to much wider acclaim, and today there is rarely a list of the most important horror films that does not name it as an essential genre standard.

Yet it is the first, and certainly the most serious, that still holds sway over our hearts and minds. Perhaps it resonates so much more deeply precisely because it’s so deadpan: without humor or satire to upstage the concept, we are left to gaze upon the ordeals of the characters with some sense of despair. Perhaps the black-and-white gives the violence a more realistic edge, much in the same way “Psycho” benefits from the same trait: the shock of the action is elevated when the austerity of deep color does not interfere with it. Perhaps the rousing climax, a faceted overlap of dangerous ambushes and unexpected plot twists, is so perceptively modern in its execution – it seems to understand that the human experience inside danger is not always a straight line, but often a panicked flight of meandering last-minute decisions that depend entirely on luck. No director ever has the foresight to predict a shift in standard this drastic, but if Romero had stood on a soapbox back in ‘68 and called his movie the most influential of its kind, we would have accepted the statement all these years later as divine insight.

Written by DAVID KEYES

"Lessons in Criterion" is a series of essays devoted to exploring the films released within the Criterion Collection on Blu Ray and DVD. Noted for their notoriety or importance in their effect on the evolution of cinema, these films are not rated on the 4-star scale in order to preserve the intent of the work, which is to promote discussion and inspire thought on their relevance in the medium. More information on this and other titles can be found at

"Night of the Living Dead" is the twenty-second article in this series.

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