Our in-house horror movie master just happens to live with me, so we watched Night of the Living Dead Saturday with our tiny all-black cat (the other cat was not interested) after a half-day packed with Halloween preparations. Halloween is serious business around here. And this movie, like it's progeny 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, takes zombies seriously; nothing is played for laughs.
The basic premise works: zombies trying to eat people and a group of people who more figuratively (and sometimes literally) eat each other trying to avoid that fate. But, the grandfather of zombie lore had a few kinks to work out:
1. Zombies can use tools. Graveyard Zombie Dude smashing Barbara's car window with a rock was a bit of a surprise to me as were the zombies surrounding the house grabbing the extinguished make-shift torch and whatnot. These zombies seem to have a bit of brains left in their undead heads. In this lore, zombies are also afraid of fire instead of attracted to the brightness.
2. Zombies don't so much have the now-trademarked rotting flesh that results from the partial-devouring that makes one a zombie in current lore. The film is purposefully dark (as in without light, not subject matter here) but we don't see flesh hanging anywhere (except the zombie barbeque/picnic featuring Tom and Judy as the main course), we don't see bites, and we don't see flesh rotting from bone. But, these zombies are perhaps created by some sort of mutant radiation from outerspace that brings the dead to life. This film doesn't specify that a bite will turn one into a zombie, just plan 'ol death seems to do that so the lack of flesh rotting doesn't break the rules, it's just not what we're used to.
3. Everyone (but the bandoliered sheriff) forgets about the shooting-in-the-head requirement. Come on people! Shooting at center mass works for the living but when one of the only pieces of information you have about the creatures is that you have to shoot them in the head, aim for the damned head! And, when you decide to freak out and shoot Harry for being an ass, shoot him in the head. There are simple rules: all of the dead come back to life and to kill the undead you have to destroy the head. So, why not just skip that whole coming back to life part and shoot Harry in the head? To bring up The Walking Dead again, we have a pretty direct nod to that scene in "Tell it to the Frogs."
4. You have a kid who has been bitten by a zombie in the basement. Shoot the kid. She's just going to eat you later. Or hack at you with a spade. And neither of those options turn out well for you.
5. Shoot first. Ask no questions. So, the bandoliered sheriff is just traipsing the country shooting everything that moves with no consideration that some of movement might be living people? How many living people has he killed?! Yes, it's a bleak damned-if-you-do ending and I don't particularly care whether Ben lived but there are a lot of logistical questions (and questions about fair war play) in just shooting everything in the head without thought.
All of that said, this was basically the first zombie movie and it turned horror movies into what they are today. And, like the book explains,
Night of the Living Dead, with its matter-of-fact, almost documentary-style approach, touches upon the issues that preoccupied America in the late 1960s: civil unrest, racism, the breakdown of the nuclear family, fear of the mob, and Armageddon itself. Nothing can be taken for granted. Good does not always triumpf. And for the first time, a horror movie reflected the sense of unease that permeated contemporary society with no offer of comfort or reassurance.When I think of the movie in those contexts, it works much better. This film actually manages to be a cheesy fluff of a horror movie not as well as it manages to be a pretty damning commentary on social injustices. It's not by accident that we only have one Black guy and that he gets shot unceremoniously after surviving an actual hell. In that way, the film is a more specifically direct ancestor of The Walking Dead when we think of the evolving relationship between Darryl and T-Dog. So, this one is more of a glad I watched it after I thought about it for a bit than an immediate gratification film, which is odd for a horror movie but good.
Meanwhile, Stuart Fischoff just published an article, "Why Are Some People More Attracted to Scary Movies than Others Are?" that's timely given the season.
I wasn't scared though. Tracy, were you under a blanket?