The first time I saw George A Romero’s masterpiece Night of the Living Dead it was actually a colourised version being distributed by Palace Video (home of The Evil Dead). ‘Sacrilege!’ I hear you cry. But with no other version of the film to compare it to, I quite liked it. Even after colourisation, the film retained its power to shock and astound. I bought this version in the late 80s as sell-through video had just become ‘the thing’ with films being sold for roughly £10 a pop. It was the best tenner I had ever spent.
Then, finally, in the late ’90s widescreen films on video were the new ‘thing’. Goodbye, pan and scan with each side of the film missing. Night was released in this format and *shock horror* in the black and white it had originally been shot in. The transfer was also remarkable. I never knew the original film looked so beautiful. This Tartan release put the kitsch colourisation in the shade (no pun intended).
I then saw that through rights issues associated with the film, it was being reissued on various cheap labels as DVD became the latest film medium to buy. Most of these transfers left a lot to be desired (hello again pan and scan my old friend).
But, partly through the cultural worth of the film and partly through karma, the film would years later be released in 4K on Blu-Ray and on the ever-excellent Criterion label. This is for all intents and purposes the definitive version. It’s fantastic and packed with special features. That’s one thing about being old(er)- living through the amazing era of home videos and onwards you get to see your favourite films released on whatever the latest format is and hopefully restored and cleaned up. Hooray for film preservation.
But what is it about Night of the Living Dead that makes it one of the greatest horror films ever made? The story begins with Johnny and Barbra visiting their late father’s grave. A shambling figure approaches them (giving birth to one of the most iconic lines in film history- ‘They’re coming to get you, Barbra!’) and suddenly lurches at Barbra. Johnny tries to fight his sister’s assailant but is knocked out in the tussle. Barbra makes it to a seemingly abandoned farmhouse and finds a female occupant not just dead but half-eaten. Barbra is joined by a young man called Ben after seeing other shambling figures approaching the house. It would appear that they aren’t alone in the house as a young couple called Tom and Judy and a family called the Coopers (Harry, Helen and their young daughter who has been bitten by one of the undead) have been down in the cellar the whole time.
There are mutterings from Harry that what is happening is some sort of widespread mass murder. The group then later find out from a TV news report that it is thought that a satellite that visited Venus was shot down after it was found that it contained a radiation that has caused the dead to rise up from their graves and see the living as their primary food source.
I love the fact that Night starts out like any other horror film of the era but then starts to mutate into a film that audiences had never seen up until that point whether it was regarding the action within the plot or the structure of the film.
Drive-in and Grindhouse audiences were to see the complete breakdown of society. That’s heady stuff for an evening’s entertainment and massively ambitious for a low-budget horror film from an, at that time, unknown film director.
The film was also a first in that the lead female character very quickly becomes catatonic and withdraws inside herself very quickly after reaching the farmhouse because of the trauma of what has just happened to her and her brother. If that wasn’t enough she then sees the half-eaten corpse of the previous female occupant of the farmhouse. Usually within films until that point, leading characters were established as they were there until the bitter end. Romero exploits this and demolishes audiences’ expectations. In fact, Romero even tops Hitchcock here who disposed of his supposed leading character Marion Crane in the shower in Psycho early on in that film’s runtime. Barbra for much of her screen time in Night is either withdrawn from the outside world or hysterical.
There’s a very poignant and unsettling moment when she accidentally triggers a music box to start. What would have been innocent and comforting in other circumstances is now rendered sober, sad and utterly heartbreaking as we see Barbra’s face through the slots of the contraption as it spins. The days of civilisation and order are now over. How Barbra meets her end is bother sad, vicious and ironic as she is finally reunited with her brother albeit in zombie form.
I love the film’s pessimism. One prime example is when Tom and Judy assist Ben in trying to refuel his truck at a nearby petrol pump, the petrol from the pump spills and is set alight by the lit torches they are holding. The truck with Tom and Judy in it catches fire and then explodes. We later see the zombies chowing down on the couple’s entrails. As if this wasn’t enough, when Ben approaches the house and bangs on the door to be let back in, we see Harry ignore his banging and set off back into the cellar. Ben kicks in the door, sees Harry setting off back downstairs and beats him for this. It would appear that the breakdown of society has brought out the various characters’ true natures.
Robin Wood had a theory known as the Return of the Repressed about film but was influenced by Freud. Wood argues that ‘the repressed represented the surplus that existed in society but had not been allowed to exist openly, left lingering under one’s bed or hidden in the closet.’ In Night this seems to be regarding the issue of the family. The myth of the nuclear family being the only family form or specifically the only acceptable or functional family form is attacked here. Firstly, it could be seen that the seven people who have found themselves together within the confines of the farmhouse could be seen as an alternative family form who must work together or die. With any family form, there are power struggles with, in this instance, Ben and Harry jostling for the top spot. Ben wants control for the genuine good of everyone in his new family, Harry wants to be the ‘father’ figure for the mere power and control of the position and so that he can do everything for himself rather than for anyone else.
The nuclear family in the film are shown in its reality rather than the false depiction conveyed in the media and advertising. Helen and Harry are stuck in a loveless marriage. As Helen starts a sentence at one point ‘We may not like each other…’ There is also a point in the film in which Helen has overstepped the mark with what she is saying to Harry. As he angrily throws down the cigarette he is smoking, she expectantly stops talking, almost like she knows what’s coming (a backhander). This is a very subtle depiction of the implied domestic violence within their marriage. This directly goes against the false myth of the nuclear family being the preferred and most functional family form in American society at that time.
The nuclear family within the film is also, literally attacked and eaten from the inside later in the film when we see Karen, now in zombie form, chowing down on her Dad’s arm after he has been shot by Ben. She then grabs a trowel and stabs her mother to death with it. Do we need a clearer depiction of both Romero’s, Wood’s and possibly society’s view on the myth of the nuclear family? I remember a module I took at University which was devoted to the horror film. The lecturer said ‘This is when the modern horror film was born’ and then he showed the clip of Karen killing her mother. I agree with him.
And then we have the film’s ending. Oh boy. Firstly, if you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead, stop reading and watch it. It’s on YouTube and waiting for you! The film’s conclusion finds Ben, the only survivor, stumbling up from the basement. There is a posse of zombie hunters who see him, MAYBE mistake him for a zombie (but we don’t know for sure) and shoot him in the head. The closing credits then play with stills of Ben dead, his body being hoisted up by the posse with meat hooks and then placed on a mound and set alight.
Not only is there the fact that the only living human being from the farmhouse has been killed and the twisted irony of this event but also the fact that Ben is black and his killing by the lynch mob could obviously stand for something else. This is the most shocking conclusion of any film I’ve ever seen. The power of what we’ve just seen occur and the fate of this strong, amazing character is very difficult to watch and my blood always runs cold when I see this sequence.
Key to this scene is the music used by Romero. In fact, the music within the whole film is amazing with the director using appropriate library music for the film. This masterful use of library music would be utilised again in Romero’s sequel to Night which is, of course, Dawn of the Dead, a sequel just as brilliant as Night.
The influence of NOTLD would pop up in movies that I saw after my first viewing of this classic. The gang members in Assault on Precinct 13, the chowing down of entrails in John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and just about every other horror movie that featured zombies being prime examples.
In 1999 Night was deemed to be ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’ by The Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. And rightly so.
If you haven’t seen NOTLD, you can’t call yourself a true horror fan. Period.