Friday, 16 January 2015

1,001 Films: "Night of the Living Dead" (1968)

Thirty years on from Hollywood's first wave of monster movies and creature features, and with America in the middle of a decade of civil-rights turmoil, George A. Romero cobbled together the funds to make what would prove a landmark indie. Informed to some degree by the sudden outbreaks of violence that had punctuated American life over the previous decade, Night of the Living Dead would benefit from both a flourishing drive-in circuit and a newly relaxed attitude towards screen censorship that meant the crucial action was allowed to be more explicit than it was in those old Bela Lugosi vehicles: let's face it, once you've seen the First Lady getting covered in the contents of her husband's cranium, there would be no particular reason to flinch from the maraudings of crazed brain eaters.

The opening pulls up just shy of parody, and we're reminded The Rocky Horror Picture Show was only a few years away. A couple of squares find themselves under attack when they go to lay a wreath on the grave of the girl's father; the guy, unable to take the threat remotely seriously, is knocked out cold, but his gal escapes to a nearby farmhouse where she holes up with a passing stranger and attempts to see off a wave of reanimated "ghouls". This state of crisis is taken as a given; what's crucial is how these characters react to it. Some immediately hymn the merits of isolationism, and suggest going into lockdown; other survivors insist they should stick their necks out to save anyone else who might be in trouble. Around its halfway mark, Night of the Living Dead starts to mirror the fractious political discourse America had been prone to ever since Hitler came to power around the time of White Zombie.

The film is undeniably savvier than most B-movies up to this point: its most convincing elements are the reconstructed news bulletins that carefully reproduce the tenor of 1968 reportage (even when the reporters are obliged to say such things as "kill the brain, and you kill the ghoul"), and suggest Romero was very much of that generation who'd watched enough TV to know exactly how to replicate its tropes. By comparison, the idea of making the hero African-American - and of making of him a most capable de facto leader, an Obama-in-waiting - now appears rather less groundbreaking than first claimed, not least as the studios had given us Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night not one year earlier.

Forgotten in all the analysis of what the film may or may not say about the America of the time is the fact it's still a film possessed of the ability to creep up behind you and whisper "boo!" in your ear - albeit in a fashion as creaky and clumsy as its own zombies sometimes appear. It is uncanny that the zombification process should apparently start from nothing - radiation from a Venus probe is the official explanation, but we don't know that when the couple in the cemetery first come under attack - and the ghouls' slow march on the farmhouse remains an eerie experience, shot on make-do monochrome stock, scored only to the chirping of cicadas.

It should nevertheless be said that Romero was to refine his technique and his themes in subsequent films, taking on board more funds and better actors: the film's nasty secret is that there would be more accomplished entries in the Dead series. Like Easy Rider, another zeitgeisty gamechanger, Night may be one of those works more significant for what it represented - a rediscovery of a horror aesthetic that came to seem oppositional when set against the lavish slickness of the era's studio productions, a framework for subsequent genre efforts, a reengagement of some kind with pressing social themes - than for what it in fact was: in this case, a patchy low-budgeter whose rep has come to be inflated over the years by those doing the sterling work of making horror a respectable area of study. Clearly something of note is going on within these unruly, indisciplined frames, but you may do better to approach it as no more (and no less) than an above-average midnight movie: let it creep up on you, in other words.

Night of the Living Dead is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through StudioCanal.

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