Monday, 4 October 2010

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Country: USA

In a tribute to utter pointlessness I present yet another review of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I’ll get all those predictable words like seminal, legendary, and landmark out of the way now. No review of this film would be the same without them. Unfortunately I don’t believe that Romero’s film is seminal, legendary or a landmark, but that is probably besides the point. Three other adjectives do spring to mind though - amateurish, crude, and rudimentary. I’m not one to herd the sacred cows of the horror genre into the slaughterhouse just for the sake of it, but neither am I party to the sort of unthinking and mindless worship of a film on the say so of a bunch of ex hippy critics and academics who were around at the time of the films release. Histories are written retrospectively and its rarely mentioned for example that Night of the Living Dead was not a major success when it was first released. Instead the film languished for three or four years before it became a success on the Midnite Movie circuit. One version of history will have you believe that Romero’s film distilled all the anxieties of the day and was a white hot rebuke to mainstream American culture up there with Easy Rider (1969). The fact is all these qualities were drawn out of the film retrospectively. Therefore the much lauded allegorical dimension of the film was only appreciated when the time had passed. However Romero did have an effective metaphor for consumerism in his depiction of a zombie horde stripped of the mystique of voodoo.

To Romero’s credit he did identify a need for the horror genre to address socio/political concerns, and clearly found the gothic melodrama’s of AIP and Hammer to be reductive and regressive. The turmoil apparent in the real world was steadfastly ignored by horror films, and the direction offered by Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960), Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) had largely been ignored by the majority of producers. Romero’s success was in marrying a staple component of the horror genre (the zombie) to an everyday milieu that had chilling echoes of the real world. Nothing was more horrifying than the images of the Vietnam War presented on newscasts and Romero cleverly invested his film with the grainy black and white realism of television footage. The content and its self-consciously allegorical overtures is considerably less interesting than the formal and stylistic decisions forced on the filmmakers by an ultra low budget. Few films at the time were daring enough to combine the basest elements of the exploitation arena with an aesthetic presentation more in line with Cinema Veritè. This gave the film an added sense of realism and power that even dreadful acting and clumsy editing couldn’t dilute .

The title itself is a concession to the reverse psychology apparent in Romero’s approach. One approaches the film lulled into a false sense of security (an attitude of mind which is almost impossible now because of those that pathetically genuflect at the altar of Romero), but I can imagine at the time audiences expected a brainless and moronic film and instead got the reverse. Every aspect of form and content is about challenging expectations, and it is in this attitude to generic expectations that Night of the Living Dead shows its most radical side. The politics of the film might be counter-cultural, but few people took that reading away with them at the time, however the effect of Romero’s challenge to generic conservatism meant the film still had the power to unsettle. The deaths of the romantic couple in a fire for example, the lack of explanation to the events, the failure of mainstream patriarchy to restore the status quo. The surprise death of the man we have come to view as the hero of the film.

Romero is able to stand tall on his soap box because of the microcosm of society he places within the four walls of a house from which there is no escape. We are party to simmering racial tensions, and we are party to Romero’s less than progressive attitude to gender. Romero goes as far as to make Barbra a literal dumb blonde. We are also party to the breakdown of traditional American family values. Romero’s all too frequent reliance on sub-Hitchockian devices is a feeble attempt to add atmosphere, atmosphere which is regularly assassinated by the botched sound design. For me the most illuminating element of the film is the whiteness of the zombies. In this film the zombie disease only affects white Americans, and this becomes a damning statement against mass conformity and mindlessness. Romero would tweak this in later entries, perhaps aware that he might seem a hypocrite if he didn’t extend racial equality to the undead. All of these elements are interesting, but to what purpose? Romero makes his statement, he vents his spleen, but does he offer a remedy or an alternative? The answer is no, he doesn’t even try to show alternative positions. Romero has his view of the world, and its his film, so who cares what anyone else might think. The tone of nihilism and despair comes as much from Romero’s own cowardice to offer solutions as it does the posse of rednecks who shoot Ben dead.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. I'm so pleased I'm not the only one who thinks Romero is an incompetent film-maker.

    Even his socio-political commentary, for which he gets so much praise, is obvious and heavy-handed.

  2. Agree with you on the Amateurish aspects of the film, specially when it comes to its technical side, as you mentioned, the sound isnt all that great at times.

    But considering this was Romero's first film, I think he achieved a lot with very little which is why I still respect this film. A film with this kind of budget under a less visionary director would have been a lesser film, instead we got this great zombie film that has survived through the decades and is still held in high regard.

    As for Barbara being portrayed as a dumb blonde, I think Romero didnt purposely set out to do this. I think he was simply trying to portray a person who loss control of her actions because she couldnt take what was going on. But looking at it now, its easy to see why many will see it as Romero portraying a "woman who cant handle reality". This was something that Romero remedied in the 1990 Tom Savini directed remake of Night of the Living Dead, a solid remake I might add.

    As for the racial tension, I think it was pretty brave for a film during those days to put these issues across. I mean racism was even fiercer back then, sadly, I think though hidden, it still exists in society, which when you think about it is truly a horrifying thing. But I think audiences must have been shocked to see a black man giving orders and being in control, hell, a black man being the lead character!

    The bleakness is something that is inherit in a lot of Romero films, and honestly, I appreciate it because its not idealistic. Though we would all love for some of humanities issues to simply vanish, Romero presents us with the idea that the future is a bleak one for issues such as these, I mean, like I said before, racism still exists today. There's still such a thing as the KKK. So Romero is at least being sincere and commenting on society in that way, he is commenting on what he sees, and he apparently didnt see things clearing up so easily back then.

    Looking at things today, I'd say he was right.

    Great review Shaun!

  3. I do think that Romero is, as Doom noted, heavy handed. In fact he is at times clumsy. The problem with NOTLD is that its a pretty awful film. It amazes me how people are so surprised at how poor Romero has gone - wasnt he always poor? (Martin aside). I could easily defend the film, but then I wouldnt be true to myself. I think it sucks! I can objectively recognise it's important within a generic schemata, and I'm clear in my belief that it is in the realm of genre where the film is of most importance. I believe that all those socio/political elements of the film that are so lauded were not in Romero's mind when he made the film. He was out to make a buck. All of that stuff is a by product of what successive generations of critics and academics have read into it. I dont object to any well thought out defence of the film, such as you offer here Franco (and I appreciate it), but what I really dislike are those who unthinkingly claim it a masterpiece (I've met people who think this, who havent even seen it) on the say so of horror fans and critics.

  4. Wow, this was an amazing review, Shaun! I wholly disagree with just about all of it, but damn, I love it when somebody goes against the grain and puts their thoughts out there regardless of whether it's the popular majority. I do think the movie is a masterpiece, but in what it is able to accomplish on its minuscule budget. Personally, I think its shortcomings work in its favor. The acting isn't always "great", but what's here comes off as more natural and less theatrical.

    When I first saw this at 8 years old, I wasn't familiar with filmmaking styles, but I felt I was watching something that seemed tangible. It looked like I was watching a documentary. It seemed far more real than a normal movie. Not to mention there hadn't been another film like it at the time in relation to zombie movies.

    I adore this movie and the following two and enjoy his later takes on the formula. NIGHT is one of the few I can watch today and it still gives me the creeps. My girlfriend gets nervous when watching it stating the way it's shot unnerves her. I have the original 'Making Of' book (two copies with different covers, actually) and it tells you everything you'd want to know about this movie.

    This is the first time I think I've read a damning review of the film, but it's refreshing just the same to read one so thoughtfully "put to paper" so to speak. This is truly the best piece I've read all week.

  5. Thanks for the endorsement Venom, it is very much appreciated. I do agree with you that NOTLD has power as a horror film. It works very well within the genre, and I guess you could say it is revisionist. The problem is that so few people nowadays discuss the film within the terms of genre. Fans of the film tend to leap upon political and allegorical aspects because this is a laudable defence for a film that is both an example of horror and amateurish. Horror history has almost been written in a way that suggests there is a before and after NOTLD, it isnt that simple. A number of previous horror films engaged with topical and political issues, but in a less obvious and heavy handed manner. The best metaphor in the film is the zombie as the consumerist/capitalist impulse - but this clearly wasnt obvious enough for Romero, and he chose to make 'Dawn of the Dead' which literalised the metaphor for those who didnt get it the first time around. This is why I have little respect for the social impetus of 'Dawn' either - it had all been said in NOTLD.

    You make a very good point about the age we are when we first experience films though. More research should be conducted into these early almost primal encounters. Those clutch of first horror films rarely leave us. My equivalent to your childhood story is 'Halloween' and 'The Shining', and like you and NOTLD, I see no fault in those films. I salute your open mindedness too an alternative reading. You should wait for when I get around to 'The Exorcist', I dislike that film even more.

  6. I don't dislike THE EXORCIST, but it did nothing for me as it did those who saw in the theaters. I did find certain things about it shocking, but THE OMEN was far more frightening to me. I had seen that one first, so possibly the sheer terror of civilization's destruction made more of an impression on me than a timid girl possessed by the devil.

    I simply find THE OMEN a much more powerful experience. The remake was needless and thoroughly awful I thought, save for the inclusion of John Morghen's evil priest. It was nice to see him in a big Hollywood movie.

    There are very few horror movies I can watch now that still give me an uneasy feeling. One you mentioned, HALLOWEEN, is one of them.

  7. Yeah I'm more appreciative of 'The Omen'. I've certainly watched it many more times than 'The Exorcist'. I agree with you about the remake, for me though the absolute nadir of Hollywood's remake fetish was 'The Wicker Man' - the original is one of my favourite films. That was an unspeakable travesty and offered a distubring indication of the depths Hollywood are willing to plumb in order to gain success on the coat tails of a cult following.

  8. I still have to give NOTLD points for significance in the genre,never felt Romero was THAT heavy handed (though my favorites of his are the non-zombie films like MARTIN,THE CRAZIES or NIGHTRIDERS)and suspect you're suffering from hype that goes beyond the movie itself. It's certainly happened to me with such things. To me,NOTLD and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE kind of occupy the same place. They led to great changes in horror film making,they had a shocking quality to them...we can read meanings or merely take them as frightening. Plus after listening to several commentary tracks of his,I like Romero and some of what I feel he achieved.

  9. Hi there Dale - thanks for the comment and apologies for the delay in replying. My favourite Romero films are his non-zombie pictures too...especially MARTIN, I think THE CRAZIES is a lesser film. I'm not sure I'm suffering with the hype as such, more I felt a need to contextualise it and address it in the review. The problem I have with NOTLD is I don't find it particularly frightening. It doesn't work all that well for me on a scare level, which is why I approached it from an avenue that interested me; its relationship to genre and the socio/political elements successive critics and academics have identified. I have always maintained it is entirely worthy of its generic status, but as for the rest, I remain unconvinced. I think Romero comes across very well in interviews, and he never looks down on the genre that made his fortune. I appreciate him for that.


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