Night of the Living Dead still has the capacity to shock because it goes into taboo territory, to include story elements or images that for the most part are strictly off-limits. In this way, NLD reminds me of a much older film, Tod Browning's Freaks, a pre-Code movie (from 1932) that challenges the audience by using many real-life sideshow performers as characters in what is basically a gruesome revenge tragedy. With NLD, screenwriters John Russo and George Romero plotted a story that moved into territory that violated social values and taboos. Many people have written about the filmmakers' intention of commenting on the times, but I don't think that's exactly how many zombie films work. Rather, much of what an effective zombie film does is to show how human nature reveals itself when the social fabric unravels, civilization collapses, and existence is reduced to a kill-or-be-killed scenario. Whatever values and habits survivors hang on to -- or whatever new ones they develop -- unfolds in them.
The primary taboo that zombies violate is the eating of human flesh. As many will know, one of Romero and Russo's original titles was "Night of the Flesh-Eaters," and, of course, NLD was inspired in part by Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, in which the apocalyptic scourge comes in the form of vampires, blood-suckers existing a degree of magnitude beneath flesh-eaters. And although one could make much of cannibalism as a commentary on the excesses of consumer capitalism, cannibalism has a much more fundamental history as an idea that Western civilization defines itself in opposition to. It's not so much that zombies are eating your flesh, it's that, in a sense, they are eating everything we've come to identify ourselves with. Again and again, zombies are shown as outside (a room, a house, a mall, a wall) and trying to get in. The barbarians are at the gate.
Certainly, 1968 was a year of cultural anxiety in the United States. Richard Nixon was elected President, in part, by running as the candidate of law and order. Coming as it did out of this moment of perceived chaos, Night of the Living Dead builds some of its tensions out of cultural elements. The media is shown as slow to perceive what's really going on, referring to the growing hoards of cannibalistic ghouls as "mass murderers," still applying the old framework. The federal government may know what's going on, but they are not going to be forthcoming with the general public. Local law enforcement is handled for the most part by dangerously cocky rednecks with guns, and they'll happily deal with the walking dead as long as the coffee's hot and the ammo plentiful.
Ont the ground, where the main plot of Night of the Living dead unfolds, matters are far more gruesome. Opening in a rural cemetery where Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O'Dea) have reluctantly come to visit the grave of their father, Johnny teases her graveyard-fearing sister with the now famous line, "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" Before you know it, Johnny is downed by an indigenous zombie and Barbara runs for for her life, finding refuge in a rural farmhouse. She is soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who, seeing that she's in shock, takes it upon himself to secure the house, boarding up the windows and doors and locating a gun. Although the pairing of a white woman and a black man alone in a house might not seem problematic for younger audiences, at the time, it would certainly have raised some eyebrows. The fact that Ben is perfectly comfortable taking charge -- asserting himself physically when necessary -- is all the more socially provocative. We're a long way from the island automaton of Carrefour in 1943's I Walked With A Zombie.
After a time, as night falls, Ben discovers that a handful of people have been hiding in the cellar of the farmhouse. There's a teenage couple, Tom (Wayne Keith) and Judy (Judith Ridley). More notably, there's a family whose daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon) has been bitten by a zombie, and she's dying despite the care of her weary mother Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and her panicky, overbearing father Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman). Harry would rather everyone stay cooped up down in the cellar, door bolted against the gathering hordes. As Ben makes clear, once everyone's locked into the basement, there's no way out. Some of the best moments in the film happen between Ben and Harry, exchanges full of racial subtext, with Karl Harman showing some fine acting chops for imperious douchebaggery in the face of Duane Jones' urgent confidence.
The plot ball rolls along quickly after this point. After a time, everyone agrees to Ben's plan. They'll gas up the pickup truck they have at one of the farm's outbuildings and make a run for a nearby refuge. This goes badly. Teenagers are burned alive and then eaten in gory detail; Ben just makes it back to the house, where he and Harry struggle over the only gun, even as the zombies are climbing through the doors and windows. Harry gets himself shot, but stumbles back to the cellar, where he finds his daughter Karen, now a zombie, ready to eat him. Helen manages to free herself and retreat to the basement as well, but undead Karen stabs her over and over with a trowel, presumably antecedent to making a meal of mommy. Barbara, who had been staying alive to this point, sees her brother Johnny among the invading zombies and is carried off. Karen, escaping from the cellar, makes a move for Ben, but he slips down into the basement and locks himself in. As a bonus, he gets to shoot the animated corpses of Helen and Dickhead Cooper. In the morning, the zombies are cleared out by the redneck/NRA hordes, who happen to take out Ben with a head shot. He could have been a zombie, after all. Game over.
The reversals pile up faster than the motionless bodies of zombies in the last half of the film. Still concerned about your brother? You'll be carried off and eaten, and Johnny will nibble on your knees. Idealistic teenage love? That'll get you blown up and eaten. Take a gun away from a black man? That'll get you shot. Look after your children? They'll kill you and eat you. Stay loyal to your husband? He'll get you killed and eaten by your own children. Assume the authorities will come to your rescue? They'll end up assuming you're part of the problem shoot you in the head. Forget the zombies, it's people who are the problem. Romero and Russo pile up the unthinkables-- murder, cannibalism, miscegenation, patricide, matricide, racial revolt, martial law, even incest -- to the point where viewer's might miss them on a conscious level, but their effects would nevertheless be felt.
Produced in black-and-white in and around Pittsburgh on a very limited budget, using regional actors, and for a grand total of $114,000 (about $750,000 in 2011), Night of the Living Dead should be understood as an independent film in the the purest sense. In contrast, the year's top-grossing films in similar genres were Rosemary's Baby (which I've never cared for) and Planet of the Apes (which I adore), although both of these deal with themes of paranoia and revolt. The realism of the film's look -- especially its prominent gore -- combined with its uncompromising presentation of taboo -- provoked a remarkable range of reactions from audiences and critics. Regardless of critical or public opinion, Night of the Living Dead is the film that spawned most of the zombie movies to follow -- in part, because of its innovation, and perhaps because of its (oops) entry into the public domain. As a true original, it should be mandatory viewing for all zombie fans, if not all students of American cinema.
NOTE: This review is cross-posted at Mort-Vivant, my blog about zombies (and science fiction and comics). These cross-postings will continue until Halloween 2011, when Mort-Vivant finally walks alone!
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