Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968)
[originally posted 26Feb2002]
How many records has this movie broken, and how influential has it been? Night of the Living Dead is, arguably, the last film to date to have so radically changed the face of filmmaking as we know it. Love it, hate it, be indifferent to it, one unarguable fact remains: Night of the Living Dead is the single most influential film of all time, if for no other reason because it was the catalyst that sparked the induction of the MPAA ratings system. In other words, every film made in America since 1969 has been influenced by Night of the Living Dead.
There is quite a bit of debate about what really caused the folks in Hollywood to get up in arms about this movie. The obvious one is the violence. There are a number of scenes in this movie (that number varies depending on two whom you’re talking; I count three, but most people would add at least two more) that, for 1968, were pushing the envelope of onscreen violence. I tend to keep the number at three because I don’t think it’s just the violence in those scenes that affected people so much, I think it’s the subtexts behind the violence. Ben (Duane Jones) jamming the business end of a tire iron through a zombie’s skull is violent, perhaps egregiously so, but it doesn’t carry the delayed-reaction shock of the movie’s most extended scene of violence, that of the zombies eating the body parts of those who died in the truck explosion. Cannibalism scares us more than murder does, and on more levels. Add in the ending, which may be the finest in film history (I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know the ending, but I’ll refrain just in case); you have something that disturbs from top to toe.
But was the violence really the reason this film was so outrageous? Or could it have been the sociopolitical subtexts within the film? After all, the idea that a black man could be the protagonist of a film, making all the right decisions where the older, middle aged white guy is making all the wrong ones, was a dangerous precedent in 1968. Worse yet, the black man is protecting a white woman. Add in a spark of sexual tension between Ben and Barbara (Judith O’Dea), and you come up with something that surely raised a whole lot of hackles. You could certainly keep going in this vein, adding in the film’s subtexts of matricide/fratricide, cannibalism, incest, and other things of which most people are more scared than the surface aspects of the film. There’s certainly a strong case to be made for this argument, probably a stronger one than for the surface violence itself. Then you add the coup de grace—Romero is taking all this stuff, pointing at the zombies, and saying “this is America.” That didn’t become painfully obvious until eleven years later, when he did the same thing a bit more nakedly in Dawn of the Dead. But the subtext was always there, we just couldn’t see it.
There is a third possibility, and from a cynical viewpoint it makes the most sense. Perhaps one reason the film inspired such outrage was that it circumvented the system. It not only did so and succeeded, but it succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of anyone involved with the making of the film, and beyond the deepest nightmares of anyone within the system that shunned it. Much of the stark feel of Night of the Living Dead comes from its low budget. The sound recording is bad, the film stock is low-quality black and white, the camera is jerky and inconsistently applied. (Note the influence of Night of the Living Dead, in this, on films as disparate as The Blair Witch Project, Raging Bull, and Trespass.) None of this was done for artistic credibility, it was done because the film had been shunned by Hollywood, and Romero and co. were scraping up pennies as they went. They did what they could afford to do. And even after they completed it, the Hollywood machine took one look and laughed. So they distributed it independently. Twenty-five years after its release, the film was still playing Saturday midnight showings in some of the same theaters where it first appeared. Aside from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, there’s no other film in history that can make that claim.
It should go without saying that the very things that caused the Hollywood system to turn its back on Romero’s first, and still finest, movie are the exact same things that have drawn moviegoers to it for some thirty-five years now, and keep us watching the movie again and again. Never mind that the film the X rating was created for would barely merit a PG-13 today, never mind that the movie has so pervaded our culture that even those who have never seen it will know half the lines and a quarter of the scenes already (how many people living in America today over the age of twelve, whether they’ve seen the movie or not, won’t have faces that light up with recognition upon hearing “they’re coming to get you, Barbara!”?), never mind that the film is predictable. We keep watching, and we will continue to keep watching, because we recognize (or most of us do, anyway) that Night of the Living Dead is the Gutenberg Bible, the Model A, the Carl Yastremzski of filmdom. It’s been done since, and it’s arguably been done better since, but it’s so much a part of us that we can’t help but look at it with respect and affection. It is still, and will always remain, the finest horror film ever made. *****
The full film. (“In HD!” Does that really matter for a movie made in 1968 on really cheap stock?)