Today’s horror review is by Dale Rawlings, a comic book illustrator based in Washington, D.C. He covers Night of the Living Dead.
Zombies terrified me as a kid. In fact, they scared the crap out of me. The concept that someone would die (in most cases a friend or family member) then minutes later re-animate eager to eat you alive was truly horrifying. This scenario resonates deeply with the primeval fears of humanity and held a frightening fascination for my young mind. Maybe this is why Night of the Living Dead is still my favorite horror movie.
Zombies are huge these days, more popular than ever thanks to smartly written shows like The Walking Dead, and an endless glut of zombie movies, and zombie merchandise including zombie plushies. Hell, Zombie Crawls now take place all year round—no longer confined to just the Halloween season. But zombies weren’t always so popular. Zombies first entered into the public perception as mindless minions of evil masterminds created by Haitian voodoo rituals as popularized in old movies such as White Zombie and I Walked With a Zombie. Later, zombies evolved into animated corpses as seen in the horror comics of the late 40’s and early 50’s– usually seeking revenge against the person who murdered them. But it wasn’t until 1968’s Night of the Living Dead where zombies become the shambling creatures that we all know and love today that eat the flesh of living human beings.
I was two when the movie came out and was unaware of its existence until the age of eight when I thumbed through a book on Midnight Movies during a visit to a bookstore. I came to a chapter on Night of the Living Dead and was captivated by the image of a zombie eating what looked like a severed hand. Then I read the entry on the movie and was horrified by the synopsis. Until then, the scariest creatures I encountered were the ones that starred in the Universal monster movies; Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf-Man, and The Mummy. But zombies were a entirely different kind of scary. Death was no longer the scariest concept to me. After-death became much scarier. I was preoccupied with deciding which situation was more frightening; being chased by the re-animated corpse of a loved one wanting to eat me alive, or being the one who was dead and chasing after my friends and family to devour them.
It wasn’t until I was 12 that I finally saw Night of the Living Dead late one Saturday night on Creature Feature. Allegedly, local legend and horror host Count Gore Devol was the first to run it unedited on television. By this time I pretty much knew the outline of the movie having read a lot about in the years between my initial discovery of the film and finally watching it. It did not disappoint.
I am not really summarizing the movie because I am assuming that all of you reading this have already seen the original 1968 movie. If you have not seen the film then you really should stop reading this and go stream it on Netflix right now. Seriously…. Go. Watch it. Now! It is not only an undisputed classic horror film, but also a classic film. Still with me? Good.
I have heard some younger people have trouble watching older classic movies. To truly appreciate an old film people must place themselves in the era in which it was created and judge the film on those merits. Night of the Living Dead is a visceral experience. Almost every standard trope of the zombie genre comes from this film; the group of strangers, who are a microcosm of society- representing the best and worst of humanity, are banded together to fight for survival against flesh eating ghouls only to discover the worst horror often comes from within the group of humans and what they will do to each other in the name of survival. The film was highly controversial when it was first released. Matinees of Night of the Living Dead were shown at theaters where groups of children came away deeply traumatized by the experience. The MPAA movie ratings were not in place yet (they would come a month later) and viewers were not prepared for those graphic scenes of zombies feasting on the entrails of Tom and Judy after their failed attempt to gas up the car to facilitate their escape. All of It was incredibly shocking to movie audiences of 1968. Nothing like that had ever been so realistically portrayed in a film before. Personally, I still think the entrails eating scene is more effectively horrific being in glorious black and white than it ever could be in color.
Though the film set the standard for every zombie movie that followed for many years, not every characteristic of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead carried over into later zombie films. While slow, the zombies aren’t entirely mindless. In the opening scene, and later in the final assault on the farmhouse, they pick up objects to smash or batter away the obstacles to their meal, something you don’t see slow moving zombies do on TV or films these days. Also Karen, Harry’s daughter, who in the final moments of the movie, finally succumbs to her wounds and re-animates, and kills her mother by stabbing her repeatedly with a gardening trowel instead of biting her repeatedly like zombies of today would do.
Another zombie movie trope that originates from Night of the Living Dead is the illusion of a hopeful ending. The protagonist(s) have finally survived the ordeal and salvation is at hand only for that salvation to be revealed as a false hope. Night of the Living Dead famously ends as it is now morning and a posse of armed men comes through clearing out the landscape putting down the hordes of zombies with their guns. The protagonist, Ben (the first black protagonist in a film with an otherwise all white cast) hears the gunshots and emerges from the safety of the boarded up basement. At this moment the viewer is breathing a sigh of relief, the hero has survived and humanity endures, until Ben looks out a window to see if his nightmare was indeed truly over and is shot by one of the sharpshooters-mistaking him for a zombie. Or so you hope that’s why they shot him. It’s a very nihilistic ending.
The ending of Night of the Living Dead is still shocks today. Ben’s death at the hands of the redneck posse, who then unceremoniously toss his body onto the bonfire with the bodies of the ghouls (they were never referred to as “zombies” in the movie) as the credits roll, holds many racial overtones. All the subtext throughout the movie is suddenly in your face. In those final moments, Night of the Living Dead transcends from a mere horror movie into a powerful social commentary on the societal power struggles that were taking place in 1968 and are still taking place today. So for my 12 year old brain, Night of the Living Dead was a truly revolutionary and frightening movie experience that I have yet to top.