Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Film Appreciation - The Ultimate Monster Flick

Cody Hamman digs up some Film Appreciation for Night of the Living Dead (1968).

For a lot of my favorite movies, the making of them is nearly as fascinating to me as the film itself is entertaining. One example of that is 1968's Night of the Living Dead, an independent production by a first time feature filmmaker that went on to be widely recognized as one of the greatest horror films ever made. It's one of my favorite movies, it's one of the films I'm most passionate about, and it is very likely the movie I have watched more times than any other.

At the center of Night of the Living Dead was a man in his late twenties named George A. Romero, who had been interested in filmmaking since childhood. He had used that interest to co-found a successful business, the Pittsburgh-based commercial production company The Latent Image. Romero had intended to shoot a feature before, but attempts had either gone unfinished or never even made it into production. When the idea came up again among his friends and co-workers at Latent Image, it was able to gain more traction, and while Romero's previous ideas had been slanted toward the arthouse crowd, this time it was realized that one of their best options would be to make a horror movie. There's a bigger market for indie horror than for any other genre.

A separate production company called Image Ten, so called because there were ten people involved, was formed specifically to make this horror project, which had the working title of Monster Flick. Some of Latent Image's commercials had substantial budgets (although under $100,000), but initially all that could be spared for Monster Flick was $6000, raised by each member of Image Ten pitching in $600. Of course, the budget ended up growing far beyond that (the final number was $114,000), but it was enough to get things off the ground.

The original idea was to mix sci-fi and comedy in with Monster Flick's horror, but things took a more serious turn when Romero's associate John A. Russo came up with the image of alien creatures harvesting human corpses to eat their flesh. Romero took that idea, mixed it with elements from a prose short story he had written before and inspiration from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, dropped the alien aspect, and wrote forty pages of a script. Within those pages, Romero unknowingly created what would become one of the most popular monsters of all time. A creature that would take a place alongside classics like the vampire and werewolf. Turning the human corpses themselves into the flesh-eating threat, Romero made a monster that is now known as the definitive version of a zombie, although he and his collaborators didn't call them zombies at the time. The word "zombie" then was only used to describe mindless slaves created through voodoo. The walking dead in Night of the Living Dead were considered ghouls by the people making the movie. The public chose to call them zombies.

Once Romero had written the first forty pages of the script, Russo took over, giving Romero's pages a polish and finishing up the screenplay. Given their limited budget, the group wisely chose to limit the story's locations as well. The movie would play out almost entirely at one farmhouse, for which a perfect shooting location was found - a house that was slated to be demolished. The filmmakers would have the run of the place, and when they were done with it the bulldozer would be brought in.

With their commercial equipment at hand, a cast assembled, and black & white 16mm film acquired, Image Ten barreled into production on their monster flick before anyone could lose the passion to get it made or second guess themselves.

The movie was scored with pre-existing music found in the library of WRS Studio in Pittsburgh, and although you will occasionally hear tracks from the score in early '60s TV shows and movies like Teenagers from Outer Space, The Devil's Messenger, or The Hideous Sun Demon, it's Night of the Living Dead that they always call to mind for me, and the music fits the scenes it was put over perfectly.

One of those perfectly chosen tracks kicks in over the film's opening image, of a winding road cutting through the hilly Pennsylvania countryside. The title sequence plays out over shots of a car driving along this road while the music sets a foreboding mood. The black & white film and the locations really make this sequence rather beautiful to look at.

The car soon turns off the road to take a gravel path that climbs up a hill to a cemetery that can't be seen from the road, obscured by hills and trees. The Evans City Cemetery in Evans City, Pennsylvania, another wonderful location.

Arriving at the cemetery after a three hour drive, and finding that the place appears to be completely deserted, are twenty-something siblings Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russ Streiner). An early indication that something might be wrong is the radio station in the car, which comes back on the air after dropping out due to technical difficulties, but this isn't lingered on. The radio is shut off as the siblings exit the vehicle.

Johnny isn't happy about having to waste his Sunday driving out to the cemetery, at their mother's behest, to lay a wreath on the grave of their father, a man who has been dead so long that he can't even remember what the man looks like. While the reserved Barbra goes about paying her respects at the grave, thunder rumbles and lightning flashes in the sky, and Johnny reminisces about previous visits the graveyard - recalling that Barbra was always scared of the place when they were children.

Putting on what I once read Fangoria describe as "a Karloffian leer", Johnny starts teasing his sister with warnings that "They're coming to get you, Barbara." Surely no one on set when Streiner delivered this line realized they had just recorded what would be one of the most popular lines in horror history.

Barbra has a very intense reaction to the teasing, so Johnny keeps it going. Seeing a man walking through the cemetery, he references him as part of the joke - "Look, there comes one of them now!" As the siblings cross paths with the man, Barbra finds "they" really are coming to get her, and this man is one of "them". Assistant cameraman Bill Hinzman as the first modern zombie, the cemetery ghoul.

The ghoul attacks Barbra, grabbing her and trying to bite her. Johnny saves his sister, but at the cost of his own life. The ghoul pursues Barbra to the car, where she finds that the keys are not in the ignition, Johnny had them. The determined ghoul smashes the passenger window with a brick, so Barbra pulls the brake to send the car rolling down the hill and out of the cemetery. Unfortunately, the car is stopped when it sideswipes a tree. The filmmakers paid to break the window, but the damage to the side of the car was surprise production value. The car belonged to Streiner's mother, who had gotten in an accident between the time when the title sequence and Barbra's escape were shot, so Romero and company used the result of the accident to their benefit.

The ghoul on her heels, Barbra has to abandon the car and continue running through the surrounding farm land. She soon reaches the farmhouse where the rest of the movie will be set, but this doesn't solve her problem. Nobody's home, there's a mutilated corpse at the top of the stairs to the second story, and during the chase the ghoul tore out the house's phone line - not as a tactic, but simply because it was in his way - so she can't call for help.

Night falls quickly, and the cemetery ghoul is soon being joined by other members of the living dead who come shambling across the farmhouse yard. Barbra is about to run elsewhere for help when a pickup truck comes driving up to the front porch. From the truck emerges Duane Jones as Ben, a man seeking help himself. The truck is low on gas and he had seen the gas pump that's out by the barn, but it's locked.

Ben dispatches a few ghouls with tire iron blows to the head, but the effort seems fruitless - as soon as those ghouls are dead, more come walking up to the house.

They're stuck in the house until they can get some gas for the truck, so Ben proceeds to gather up a hammer, nails, and wood so he can board up the windows and doors to keep the ghouls out. Barbra helps a little, but she's sinking further and further into a catatonic state. The situation has blown her mind.

While Ben dismantles a table, Jones delivers a fantastic monologue about his own experiences with the ghouls. Witnessing ten or fifteen ghouls swarm a tanker truck that crashed through a gas station and became a "moving bonfire". A nearby diner surrounded by ghouls. Finding himself alone with fifty or sixty of them... It's a creepy story, vividly told.

A lot of attention has been given to the fact that Romero cast an African American in such a prominent role at this time in American history, but Romero thought nothing of it - Duane Jones was simply the best actor who auditioned. The role had been written for a specific white man, Romero's friend and Latent Image/Image Ten partner Rudy Ricci, but the filmmakers didn't change the character once an actor of a different race took it over. In fact, it was Jones who changed the character himself. Ben had been written as a simple country boy, his dialogue written with rural patois. If the dialogue had made it to the screen that way, it would have been comical at best, likely having a negative effect on the film's reception, and to have Jones speak it that way could have come off as insulting. Jones's Ben is smarter and has more depth than the character had on the page. The actor gives an incredible performance, and he had a great voice.

Ben already has the first floor of the house all boarded up by the time another bunch of characters enter the picture, emerging from the house's cellar. There's a young couple named Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley), a middle-aged married couple named Harry and Helen Cooper (real life married couple Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), and the Coopers' daughter, Karen (Hardman's daughter Kyra Schon), who is very ill, having been bitten by a ghoul after a bunch of them overturned the family's car.

With the introduction of these characters, a theme is also established that runs throughout every Dead movie Romero has made since. The idea that ghouls/zombies may be a deadly threat, especially in large numbers, but the greatest threat to a person's survival in these situations is other people.

Ben and Harry butt heads immediately, having heated arguments over something they should be able to come to a calm, rational compromise over. Harry insists on staying in the cellar, there's only one door in and out of it, and thus it's the safest place in the house. Staying upstairs, surrounded by doors and windows, makes no sense to him. Ben has the opposite view, seeing the cellar as a death trap. If the ghouls get in there, you can't escape from them. Tom sides with Ben, while believing that the others should have the option to go into the cellar if the situation gets desperate. Harry is so afraid, so intense about protecting his daughter, and so bullheaded that he threatens to lock the cellar door and not let anyone in, no matter what. This disagreement puts Ben and Harry at odds over everything for the rest of the film, and Hardman does an incredible job making his character so unlikeable that you always side with Ben, no matter what good points Harry might make. It helps that he's also a jerk to his wife, and they've clearly been having problems for a while. Helen undercuts him by wanting to be upstairs, where they can gets news... and where Ben has found a gun.

As the characters watch TV reports and listen to radio reports on the situation, what's going on outside the house becomes more and more terrifying. There are reports of ghouls attacking and eating people coming in from all over the eastern third of the United States. It is confirmed that the ghouls are the recently dead, returned to life and now existing solely to consume human flesh. Rescue stations are opened throughout the affected states so people can seek safety. Meetings are held in Washington D.C. to discuss what's happening, why, if radiation from a satellite that exploded in the atmosphere while returning from Venus might be the cause.

Like the makers of The Dead Next Door would around twenty years later, the makers of Night of the Living Dead made a day trip to the nation's capital to get some footage there. The filmmakers also had access to real news stations and newscasters, so the faux news reports here really ring true, making them all the more unnerving, as they make it easier to imagine that this situation is actually happening.

Concurrent to this rising terror, tensions within the farmhouse are also rising. As the group's chances begin to look more dire, with escape attempts going disastrously wrong and the situation gradually falling apart, things also boil over into violence among the people. The way the film shows the build-up to this is extremely effective, Night of the Living Dead is one of the greatest "pressure cooker" stories ever told and the script is truly amazing.

A group of police officers and volunteers are sweeping the countryside, gunning down every ghoul they come across, but the people in the farmhouse aren't able to hold it together long enough for help to arrive. Even when help does arrive, things don't go well. Other people are the biggest threat.

In addition to introducing zombies, this is also the film that introduced the way to kill them - by destroying their brain. Also included is a seldom used method of keeping them at bay: like their undead predecessor Frankenstein's Monster, zombies are afraid of fire.

It's through the character of Karen that Romero and Russo establish the fact that being bitten by a ghoul/zombie is a death sentence that will gradually turn you into one of them. This is a fact that some of the characters learn too late, and when zombie Karen rises from her makeshift sickbed, she grabs a carpentry trowel to carry out a shocking, stylishly presented murder, doling out a horrendous fate to a character who did not deserve it. As heartbreaking as it is, it's also one of my favorite moments in any movie. The editing, camera angles, and sound design as Karen puts that trowel to use are stunning.

It's really remarkable how Romero and his collaborators were able to make the ghouls as scary as they are. These are certainly the cheapest monsters they could have possibly made. They're simply friends, family members, neighbors, and others volunteers who had some pale makeup put on them, maybe some mortician's wax applied to give them some ugly wounds, and then told to walk around the farmhouse yard and reach for anyone who came near. There's just something inherently unsettling about the concept of these ghouls, and of course the lighting, the music, and the intensity of the sequences they're involved in gives them a boost.

Given the black & white film, the blood the ghouls (and the people) manage to spill didn't have to look real on set, so it was achieved through the use of things like red ink and black paint. When the zombies feast on the flesh of some unlucky characters, they're really chewing into ham coated with chocolate syrup. I intend to eat some chocolate ham myself someday in honor of this film, but I haven't brought myself to have it yet.

Sometimes projects with humble beginnings catch lightning in a bottle, and such is the case with Night of the Living Dead. It is astounding to me to think that a group of people with no feature film experience could get together, gather a small budget, and turn out a film that I and many others find to be such a masterpiece. Ten working class folks formed a company, shot a movie in the Pennsylvania countryside, and the result was something that has had a huge impact on pop culture.

The movie doesn't look like it was made by amateurs. It is crafted as well as any other film of its time, and the actors all handle their roles capably, with few weak moments among them and many impressive ones.

The filmmakers' inexperience did, however, trip them up in the form of one monumental mistake. They secured distribution through the Walter Reade Organization, but the distributor requested that they change the title, which was by then Night of the Flesh Eaters. The Flesh Eaters title had a copyright notice under it, but when it was replaced by the title Night of the Living Dead, the copyright notice was not replaced. Without the copyright being featured anywhere on the movie, Night of the Living Dead became public domain. This is part of why the film is so widely available - anyone can do anything they want with it, from distributing it on home video themselves or featuring it on their horror host show to even making their own remake. On one hand, this copyright issue has caused the movie to be seen by a lot more people than might have seen it otherwise, but on the other, it's a shame that its creators see so little in return from its success. This is partially why Romero later shepherded the Night of the Living Dead remake in 1990, and why Russo and Streiner re-edited the film and added in newly shot footage for the much-maligned thirtieth anniversary edition; to have a copyright on a version of it.

Night of the Living Dead's public domain status has undoubtedly been a boon to my viewings of it. I can't remember the first time I watched the movie, but it has been in heavy rotation since my childhood. I've watched it on TV, I rented and purchased the VHS, I've watched it on more horror host shows than I've counted, and have seen it in theatres. I own multiple versions of it on DVD, but I don't always put in those DVDs when I want to watch it. All you have to do is search for it on YouTube or find it on a Roku channel and you'll have it streaming instantly. I've watched Night of the Living Dead on my phone. I've even had the audio of it playing in my ear as I walked around town during Halloween season.

As I mentioned, this film may be my #1 most watched movie, and there needs to be a whole lot of viewings for something to earn that rank for me. Well over a hundred. Night of the Living Dead earns all those viewings through the fact that I find it to be one of the most comforting films I can put on at any given moment. Frightening and tragic though it is, there's something about the look and sound of the film, combined with my familiarity with it, that makes it relaxing to me. When I'm stressed or have had a bad day, I put on Night of the Living Dead. Many, many nights I've put it on to fall asleep to. I do so regularly, and will continue to. Night of the Living Dead will always be there. It endures, nearly forty years after it was made, cherished and respected by genre fans, honored by the Library of Congress and preserved in the National Film Registry as a culturally, historically or aesthetically significant work. The achievement of a bunch of first-time filmmakers. One of the greatest films of all time.

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