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translittler.GIF (807 bytes) Home: And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

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View the Complete Index of Films Reviewed

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NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

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The Haunting | Deep Blue Sea | The Sixth Sense | Lake Placid | The Blair Witch Project | End of Days | Night of the Demon | Stigmata | Night of the Living Dead | Mission to Mars | Bats
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Well, the Cinematheque was supposed to be showing Maniac, which, after reading Dr Freex’s recent review over at The Bad Movie Report, I was quite desperate to see. But they couldn’t get the print, and so screened George Romero’s epoch-making horror film instead. And in the end, I was glad of a chance to see it again, and particularly on the big screen. Even after more than thirty years, and the quantum leaps made in the realm of special effects, this low budget black and white effort retains its power. It’s almost inconceivable to think that a film that has proven to be so overwhelmingly influential was once in danger of being lost forever. Initially relegated to the drive-ins and the bottom half of double bills, Night Of The Living Dead might well have remained just an obscure footnote in motion picture history had not Roger Ebert, in one of those fits of inexplicable short-sightedness that sometimes seize critics and morals crusaders, chosen to launch a savage attack upon the film in the pages of "Reader’s Digest" – thus catapulting it to national prominence, and bringing it to the attention of thousands upon thousands of people who otherwise might never have heard of it. (Thanks, Rog!) Ill-judged as the attack may have been, even at this date it is not difficult to see what provoked it. If Night Of The Living Dead still has an impact today, you can imagine how audiences must have reacted to it upon its initial release. This is the one that broke all the rules, and changed the horror film forever. No longer could you pick which characters were going to die, and which survive. This showed a world where love, courage, honour meant nothing at all; and where instead of leading the worthy to safety, a cinematic hero could suddenly be as fallible, as misguided, and ultimately as doomed as his lesser brethren. This aspect of the film still works today. What doesn’t work so well is what, in 1968, was probably Night Of The Living Dead’s most notorious aspect: the flesh-eating ghouls doing their thing onscreen. Viewed at this blasť distance, these scenes look faintly silly, if still satisfyingly gross. Beyond this, there is little of a visual nature to worry the viewer, other than the corpse found in the house. In fact, for a film that achieved such notoriety for its "violence", it is quite remarkable how little is actually shown. Undoubtedly this was due to the budgetary restrictions, but it works in the film’s favour. For example, the close-ups of the flesh eating are not nearly so distressing as the long shots of the ghouls leaning into the cabin of the burnt-out truck and tearing something off. The film’s brilliant opening sequences work for much the same reason. "Nightmarish" is a word all too commonly associated with horror movies, but in the case of Night Of The Living Dead it is entirely justified. The early stages of the film are terrifying not for their violence, which is minimal, but because horrible things happen completely out of the blue, and because, try as they might, the characters cannot make them stop. These scenes build a tension that remains relentless for the rest of the film. This in itself is remarkable. However, it is the events that occur once the film’s characters have barricaded themselves into the house that lift Night Of The Living Dead to a level of brilliance that few films can touch. It is impossible to discuss this film without addressing the casting of Duane Jones as Ben. It is depressing to reflect that, even more than thirty years later, it is still startling to see a black man cast in what is so blatantly a heroic role. What is more startling – breathtaking, even – is that there is not one moment in this film, not one single instant, when Ben’s colour is an issue. How wonderful this is to see, and how sad that there are so few films of which this can be said! (Even sadder is how little impact Romero’s attitude had in the long term. Never mind making a black man the hero – if I had a dollar for every movie, horror or otherwise, in which the first person killed is a member of a minority group, I could retire and live in comfort for the rest of my life.) Three plot threads highlight Romero and Jones’s groundbreaking work in this regard. The first is when Barbra and Ben are, it seems, trapped in the house alone. Here we have a scene guaranteed to send shivers down the spine of the bigoted: a black man and a blonde white woman sealed up together. Barbra, however, is so terrified by what she has endured that she barely reacts to Ben’s presence, let alone the colour of his skin; while once Ben discovers how little help Barbra is going to be in the ordeal to come he becomes angry and impatient with her, seeing her as no more than a millstone around his neck. Finally losing his temper with her, Ben strikes Barbra and knocks her unconscious (the mind boggles at the possible range of audience reactions to that). Yet these scenes are far surpassed by the power struggles that go on between Ben and Harry Cooper (1968’s Person You Would Least Like To Be Trapped In A Cellar With). Harry is undoubtedly one of the most obnoxious characters ever to grace the screen. How easy, how obvious it would have been to make him a racist; to make his objections to Ben being in charge purely a matter of white vs. black. But Romero is above anything so simplistic. Harry wants to be in charge because that’s the kind of guy he is; because he’s used to giving orders, and can’t stand taking them; because he’s terrified half out of his mind; and because he thinks he’s right. Harry is so unpleasant that audiences, even prejudiced audiences, are automatically on Ben’s side. Which brings us to the third remarkable thing about this aspect of the film: that Ben the heroic, Ben the resourceful, Ben the take-charge guy is completely and utterly wrong in everything he does. And again, his colour is not the point. Ben is wrong not because he’s black, but simply because he’s wrong. If we have learnt anything by the end of Night Of The Living Dead, it is just how manipulative movies are, and how conditioned audiences can get. Ben is brave, intelligent and likeable; Harry is rude, cowardly and selfish. Therefore, every law of the movies says that Harry will die a horrid death, while Ben leads a small band of survivors to safety. Harry does die a horrid death – twice; but in the end, there are no survivors; and it is Ben, our hero, who is directly or indirectly responsible for everyone’s death but his own. It is only by locking himself in the cellar, as Harry wanted to do all along, that Ben himself manages to survive the night. This is surely one of cinema’s bitterest pills. At this distance, it can be seen that Harry Cooper is a more interesting and complex character than it initially appears. We object to his rudeness and violence because that’s not how identification figures are supposed to behave; but surely no-one can deny the realism of it? There is one utterly brilliant moment when Harry is supposed to be unlocking the door to let Ben back into the house. As the ghouls draw nearer and Ben pounds on the door and cries out for admittance, Harry hesitates at the entrance to the cellar, visibly torn between his sense of right and his sense of self-preservation. This hesitation may not be very praiseworthy, but it is impossible not to feel that this is how people really react in the face of danger, having to fight their selfish instincts in order to do what they know is right. The other characters in Night Of The Living Dead do not match Ben and Harry for interest. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is that Romero’s liberalism did not extend to his female characters, all of whom prove utterly ineffectual. Sure, nothing the men do is any use, but at least they try. In contrast, Helen Cooper, who seems intelligent and capable, does nothing but snipe at her husband; Barbra spends the whole film gravitating between hysteria and catatonia; while Judy can’t even tear up a sheet properly. (Interesting that when Romero re-made his film, he went for a Ripley-esque heroine.) Still, the bottom line is that Night Of The Living Dead presents us with a crisis in which ultimately, none of this matters. For all the unhappy endings and "it isn’t over" twists that have plagued horror movies in the past thirty years, nothing has ever matched the nihilism of this film. The grimness, the cynicism, the overwhelming bleakness of Night Of The Living Dead remains unequalled. Harry is suitably rewarded for his courage in letting Ben into the house when Ben shoots him; while Barbra, like a zombie herself for much of the film, has one lucid, even brave, moment towards the end – and it costs her her life. Truly, this film was a product of its time, a year of violence and desperation that is strongly reflected in any number of contemporary motion pictures. After the suffocating tension of the opening scenes in the house, Night Of The Living Dead broadens its perspective. The characters find a television, and discover that their situation is being replicated country-wide. Government representatives give the American public some unpalatable advice. The newly dead must be burned immediately; while the undead can be destroyed by burning them or, preferably, shooting them in the head. Family ties, emotional attachment of any kind, cannot be afforded. This aspect of the film is frightening on two different levels. Firstly, the events in the house justify this stance utterly. All three of the women lose their lives through misplaced sentiment. Judy insists on accompanying her boyfriend, Tom, out of the house and thus dies with him. Helen cannot bring herself to raise a hand against her undead daughter, and allows herself to be slaughtered with barely a whimper. Fighting off the ghouls, the sight of her brother amongst them causes Barbra to hesitate for just an instant, and she is dragged out to her doom. It is in a wider sense, however, that the need to take action against the ghouls becomes truly disturbing, as we see that there is a certain cross-section of society that takes to ghoul-shooting like ducks to water. The political subtext of Night Of The Living Dead remains submerged through most of the film, but the sight of gun-toting citizens roaming the countryside, unemotionally killing and burning, evokes an unmistakable context – particularly when the ghoul-shooters are joined by helicopter squadrons. By the end of the film, the killing has become indiscriminate; and we are left uncertain whether it is the living or the undead who are ultimately the more terrifying.
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