As I watched Night of the Living Dead for the first time, I caught myself nodding along and thinking, “Yes, yes this is a classic” and “oh, there’s where the stumbling comes from” and “the sheriff just said to shoot them in the head and started the brain must die. Nicely.” I realized this was mostly me hiding boredom. I was thinking, “time is not kind to old monster movies” and “maybe I’ll write about how the remake was stronger and why.”
Then a truck blew up.
Tension and terror ratcheted up so high so fast. I could see why it was a classic and why it will always be a fantastically watchable film. It was because the heroes were losing.
When Night of the Living Dead debuted in 1968, Robert Ebert said, “The movie … stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and [became] unexpectedly terrifying.” And I agree. The first half of the film felt as cheesy and uneven as anything horror film churned out in the 60’s and 70’s. Pretty screaming blond girl, ludicrous and somewhat ineffectual monsters, big strong man to rescue her.
But then the main characters started losing. A teenage couple dies and have their bodies picked apart with the thoroughness of a well-organized buffet. The tension that was mildly elevated with the introduction of a scared racist bully comes to a head when the rational main character finally loses his cool and them calmly murders him. A little girl stabs her mother repeatedly with a trowel. Zombies feast on intestines, human legs, and then overwhelm and consume a woman our of her mind with terror. The hero hunkers down in the basement, as his rival said they should from the start, and survives the night only to be shot casually in the morning.
The three of us watching who had not seen the film before each expressed some version of awe at that moment (mine was Holy Shit! My friend’s wife was Oh No!). We are not used to seeing heroes lose. Especially when they survive the monster.
The second half of this film is filled with the kinds of horror that even modern films struggle to express. They are dealing with high stakes, a very gruesome death, and the heroes are not winning because they are fighting among themselves. Everyone dies because of one or two bad decisions that anyone in audience could also make. This is no, “don’t split up the party!” or “don’t go in the basement!” bad choice; these are legitimate survival decisions, made worse by racism, sexism, and some good old fashion high tempers. And in the end, that final death is totally random.
There is nothing comforting in Night of the Living Dead. The town does not come together to defeat the monster and the good guys die gruesome and random deaths. I think the update to this story did not hurt (it’s one of the few remakes I like), especially since it gave us more time with the characters and more to care about reducing the unevenness at the beginning of this classic, but the remake is not the game changer that the original was.
I loved the realistic response to the threat in this film. Too many apocalypse books start in the middle of things because on some level we trust our military and police force to prevent the complete upheaval of society (not unreasonably). But in Night of the Living Dead, the government reacts reasonably and effectively if untimely for our farmhouse. It’s a great start to the end of the world.
One final thing, I wanted to mention since we’re all of us starting out on creative careers. This movie had no budget at all. Many of the zombies were friends and family of the director and actors. The local weatherman had a cameo. Romero did something incredible with a good idea, he got as many people involved in the creation as possible and he adapted to the challenges in the process. For example, much of the dialogue was improvised, most notably the sections where Barbara and Ben recount how they arrived at the house. The one that stands out most in my head is that Ben in the original script was a white, uneducated truck driver (the truck driver was meant to escape from his ball of fire and run to a farm house not burn alive as it turns out). But because Duane Jones gave the strongest audition, Romero cast him in the part than adapted the story to reflect a non-white lead. Duane, as a highly educated black man, suggested changes to the original script and upgraded the character out of the land of dumb rural guy into the cool, competent man audience sees controlling the house. Romero adapted to this new idea and in the end got a stronger more memorable character. I would argue one of the strongest African American characters in early horror.
That spirit of collaboration, of being able to share an idea and see how it grows with a community of creative people, is precious for artists.