There was a time not so long ago when the world was infected with zombie madness.
I’m thinking between the mid-noughties to the early tens, starting roughly with Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake and Shaun of the Dead in 2004 all the way to World War Z in 2013 (which also saw the release of Day Z, State of Decay, and Dead Rising 3 in the gaming world, which felt the force of the zombie craze hard).
Although I’d say that trend has somewhat calmed, it has never died. The infection remains, never to fully leave us. Recently we’ve seen a couple of big Z’s drop with the return of Zombieland and Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die.
It’s a trend I’ve never really cared for. Not to say I’ve never been touched by anything Z-related, no, I love Shaun of the Dead (because I’m not a gibbering idiot) and Max Brooks’ World War Z is a fantastic book full of imaginative storytelling that really took me by surprise.
It’s just that blood and gore and unrepentant misery tends to leave me cold. Also…I’m pretty ignorant on the classics of the genre and since these movies tend to be so self-referential I feel like I’m missing the point sometimes. Which is as good as excuse as any to go back, all the way back, to the birth of the modern zombie as I continue on my classic horror journey.
Night of the Living Dead (1968, dir. George A. Romero) is one of those movies which has become so influential that everyone involved in its creation has been forced to say, on multiple occasions, that of course they had no idea how big their little picture would end up being.
And how could they? The legacy of this film goes beyond just defining the modern zombie.
Let’s start…at the start. A car winds along a lonely dusty road and pulls past a bullet-riddled sign which reads: ‘CEMETERY.’ If you didn’t know what sort of film you were watching, you do now. It’s a gloriously understated opening to a horror movie, with a really off-putting score which shifts you to the edge of your seat.
The couple in the car are brother and sister, Johnny (Russell Steiner) and Barbara (Judith O’Dea). They’ve driven three hours to the cemetery to lay flowers out for their father. Johnny isn’t pleased about it, and neither is Barbara – cemeteries creep her out. Johnny winds her up with the iconic line:
‘They’re coming to get you Barbara!’
Little does he know, they are coming. A lumbering passer-by attacks the pair, and Barbara runs from the cemetery all the way to a little farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. She doesn’t know what happens to Johnny (ZOMBIE) but the attacker pursues her with that demented determination which is so familiar to modern audiences.
Zombies want only want one thing, and it’s disgusting.
Eventually Barbara is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), the true protagonist, and he helps barricade the house, protecting them from the ghouls but trapping them inside until help comes. Eventually a small group of survivors emerges from the basement as well, and they have some different ideas about how to deal with all this terrifying nonsense. That’s when the real movie reveals itself: a unique human drama in the midst of an existential threat.
The thing is you see, Duane Jones is a black man. A small detail, but a vital one for the story and also the context in which this film is remembered. One of the other survivors, Cooper (Karl Hardman), is a father trapped with his wife and bitten (uh-oh) daughter. He frequently takes issue with Ben taking the lead and becoming the de-facto captain of their little group. Cooper never says directly that he considers it wrong that Ben should be able to order him around, but it seems pretty clear that there might be something which is troubling the poor, racist, arsehole Coops.
An interesting side note here – the character of Ben wasn’t written to be black and wasn’t re-written when Duane Jones was cast. The fact that I, and the entire universe of viewers who have seen this movie assumed that something racial was at play says plenty. Romero himself says that it became clear that this was a “black movie” only after Martin Luther King was assassinated, before that he thought that having a black lead in a movie like this would mean very little in the so-called-progressive 60’s.
He was sadly wrong, and that tragedy proved it. Things were not alright, and they still aren’t today.
Although the weight of the casting was accidental, it is still a movie which seeks to explore problems amongst human society, so let’s give Romero and John Russo some credit. Even in the midst of a major crisis the men of the house bicker and command “their” women around like pawns on a chessboard, as if they were incapable of making their decisions or helping in any other way than sitting around quietly, offering gentile words of support whilst taking responsibility of the sick. Instead of coming together to battle the most terrifying threat of their lives, they continue to play out a game of upstairs/downstairs, more interested in their perceived position within the group than they are in genuine survival.
Or, at least, Cooper is.
He really does suck.
Perhaps this decision was made due to the small budget as it’s far cheaper to focus on the humans of the story than on the intestine-scoffing zombies which fill the screen in bigger budget features. Far cheaper and – to me at least – far more compelling.
Not to say there isn’t gore, and what there is holds up pretty well, perhaps because it’s hidden in the black and white or perhaps because there is a lot to be said for the effectiveness of practical effects. When the zombies get hold of some sweet sweet innards it looks just as good as anything I’ve seen this decade, although perhaps good is the wrong word…
Despite all the positive things I have to say for this film, it’s the finale which really sets it apart.
This film is 51 years old, I shouldn’t be worried about spoilers but…I didn’t know what was going to happen. I have no idea how I’ve never come across the ending to this movie, or perhaps I have and have simply forgotten it. The twist is one you can see coming, but that only increased my sense of dread as it was tentatively approached, and then suddenly delivered with ice cold cruelty. It is an ending which makes perfect sense in the world put forth on screen, and in the way it reflects the injustices of our own world.
Of course, I thought, of course that is how this all ends.
On purpose or not, this movie is about far more than the walking dead.
Its legacy will endure as the zombie tale is told over and over and over again, but as an individual piece of cinema it deserves to be watched regardless of what followed and what is still to follow. I was a fool for having not seen it already. If, like me, you’ve somehow avoided the details of its plot, go and watch it.
It’s in the public domain!
It’s on YouTube!
Now get out of here and watch it because…
They’re coming to get you…