A mysterious radiation thought to have been brought back to Earth after a space probe to Venus is bringing the dead back to life to feast on the living. A young woman named Barbara is visiting her dead father’s grave with her brother Johnny when…
This film has so much of a great reputation amongst horror fans and cinema scholars alike. Does it live up to this?
In a word- YES. Not only does it feel real (it’s based in the America it was made in and looks almost like a documentary) but you get the impression that the events that take place in the course of the film could actually happen. We are witnessing the fabric of society unravelling magnificently due to the disaster which has occurred. Life (and death) will never be the same again after this literally Earth-changing event.
Hitchcock may have ripped up the horror rulebook by disposing of Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane early on in Psycho when the audience wrongly thought of her as the main female character who would make it to the end of the film. But George A Romero goes one better in Night. Barbara is still in the majority of the film but is so traumatised by her ordeal that she is rendered catatonic for the rest of her tenure. And what a great performance it is- a mental breakdown captured on celluloid, a brilliant portrayal of a response to trauma. Watch the scene where Barbara comes across the music box. It’s one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever seen.
Romero also holds a mirror up to societal tensions and conflicts throughout the film. Duane Jones as Ben is the lead of the movie but is also African American- unheard of except when depicted by Sidney Poitier in mainstream Hollywood films that felt groundbreaking and progressive but also marginalised. These films squarely tackled race (and rightly so). But Jones just happens to be black and this is never mentioned in Night. His race isn’t an explicit issue in the film- but maybe directs the actions of other characters (check out the conclusion to Night. There are MANY different readings and interpretations of this. It’s the most shocking ending I have ever seen in a film and just as relevant today as it was back then. I actually get a shiver down my spine just thinking about it and what we see during the end credits of this film).
But there are other societal echoes within Night. Notice how Ben gives his monologue regarding the backstory as to how he ended up at the farmhouse. Jones is truly astonishing especially here. But then watch how he reacts when Barbara tells her story- her account is no less serious or devastating as she’s just seen her brother being knocked unconscious after being attacked by a member of the undead during an event that should have been humdrum and routine. She is termed hysterical by Ben who tells her to calm down. Different oppressed sectors of society with equally disturbing back stories to tell but instead of each being given their time to share their experiences, a member of one group tells the other to effectively shut up. 50 years on, this film is still relevant.
This film also has a lot to say about the family of that time. The traditional family is under attack from the zombies (as Robin Wood expressed using his theory of ‘Return of the Repressed’). The notion of Mom, Dad and 2.4 children (possibly with an apple pie on the table) is no more. The new family in the farmhouse consists of disparate members of society who are forced together to survive against what has gone wrong in the outside world. In fact, in one scene we see Ben actually taking apart the notion of the family and the household from within as he starts taking apart furniture like the kitchen table to barricade the doors and windows with. The scene where the mother is stabbed to death by her daughter who has been bitten by a zombie represents the death of the outdated notion of the family in it’s purest form. The new killing and replacing what and who has gone before.
The first time I saw this film it had actually been colorised but still worked. The thinking behind this colorisation was probably the video company thinking that all horror films made within a certain timeframe were ‘kitsch’, camp and unworthy of serious analysis or enjoyment. I believe the term is ‘so bad it’s good’ (vomit). I remember an advert for a screening of the film on the UK’s Channel 4 that billed the film as a typical 60’s drive-in B movie- cue emphasis on bad acting, rubbish make-up and all round tack. Wrong on EVERY count.
It was a revelation when I first saw the film as it was intended to be seen in black and white. It’s actually a beautiful film with every frame resembling the work of the Nouvelle Vague rather than some Grindhouse fodder made on the cheap to be shown to the stoned.
I saw this film yesterday on the big screen. It was the Criterion 4K restoration and it looked and sounded amazing.
If punk is seen as Year Zero for music then this is Year Zero for horror and one of a whole slew of films that represented a turning point for American film in general.
Fun fact- this is the film on in the background when Harold is having a sandwich made in Halloween 2 (1981).
5 out of 5 stars