Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Film Appreciation - Another One for the Fire

As Halloween grows near, Jay Burleson talks about a horror classic as he discusses George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George Romero
Starring Judith O'Dea, Duane Jones, and Karl Hardman

There's a certain magic about Romero's original zombie classic that separates it from all of Romero's others as well as countless knockoffs and imitations. While I am a big fan of some of the other "Dead" movies I must say this one is still at the top of my list. The eeriness of the black and white, the feel that this is almost an episode of Andy Griffith gone wrong, the look and vibe of the ghouls themselves, it all comes together to create a perfect atmosphere. The world Romero puts us in is one we can't escape even if we wanted to, and while it's a terrifying ride, it's a hell of a lot of fun too.

Night of the Living Dead documents a group of diverse characters all holed up in a strange farmhouse once the dead return to life and attempt to eat the living. First there is Barbara, fresh from an attack on her life at the cemetery down the street, and then comes Ben, a black man who shows up soon after Barbara gets to the farm. Later Barbara and Ben discover another group of people are seeking refuge in the farmhouse cellar. Of these people, Harry Cooper is the most violate and he and Ben don't agree on much of anything.

Race is often brought up when this film gets mentioned, as it features a middle-aged white man arguing with a younger black man, and also shows the character of Ben being shot in the head by a white man in the film's final scene. George Romero has stated that race played no part in the casting of Duane Jones as Ben and that he got the part because he was the best actor they saw. It's also worth noting that the film was to be shot in color but the filmmakers lacked the funds to do so. Duane Jones as Ben and the black and white look of the film are two of the things that make it the classic that it is, so I'm glad that it worked out the way that it did.

Earlier I mentioned that Night of the Living Dead feels like an episode of Andy Griffith gone wrong. I get this impression from two of the other characters in the cellar, Tom and Judy, as their intimate scenes together feel like something from a show of that nature. Mix that with the black and white and Night of the Living Dead feels like it could be a 1950s TV show turned upside down. This is a compliment to the film and its time frame, as that vibe only helps amplify the terror displayed by the zombies, who are actually never referred to as zombies in the film, even though this is universally accepted as the zombie film.

The film relies on the horror of the zombies, but also rests its head heavily on the dynamics of the group and their decision making process. A lot of the terror lies in the decisions that they have to live and die with, and how they accept the reality of what's going on. The film is shot very effectively by Romero and he, along with the rest of the crew, do a nice job of getting a lot out of very little resources. This entire project is a group effort, if you check the credits you see that a lot of the actors were producers, and do more than just act and produce. The makeup here is provided by Karl Hardman, who also plays Harry Cooper. Lots of friends, producers, and other crew members turn in performances as zombies, and the most notable is the appearance of William Hinzman as the cemetery zombie. He was also on the film's crew and has a lot more to do with the Night of the Living Dead legacy. I know Cody will be mentioning more about him in the weeks to come.

Speaking of the cemetery zombie, the opening to the film is one of my favorite parts, and definitely iconic in film history. Here are some of my favorite images from that segment:

Night of the Living Dead is an indie triumph that paved the way for a ton of great horror filmmakers to take matters into their own hands and make their own movies. It's obviously one of my favorites, and perfect for the season. The cool crispness of the opening scenes put me in mind of fall and Halloween, and that season is definitely upon us.

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