Why We Heart: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

By Andreas Charalambous

It is almost 'Hitchcockian' in the way that it was filmed, as it is very reminiscent of - but more explicit than - the shower scene in Psycho (which again, had all sorts of parent - child subtexts!).

 

This is quite an iconic zombie attack, as she does not attempt to bite her intended victim, but preferring to attack her with the hand tool. It is not until her father discovers her feeding on his wife in the dark depths of the cellar, that we see the true extent of the attack.

 

The nature of the film did not seem to sit comfortably with the film-viewing public of the time. However, one element that still makes for uncomfortable viewing today, are the racial undertones evident throughout. From the back-hander brutally delivered by Ben to a delirious, vulnerable Barbra, through the "You be boss down there, I'm boss up here!" exchange with Cooper, to the bleak climax of the film which is very reminiscent of the Civil Rights protests and subsequent outbreaks of violence and rioting in the streets (complete with vicious German Shepperds on leashes trained to pounce). The lead-up to the end credits, which include the final moments of the narrative presented in a series of grainy black-and-white photo stills leaves you with a sense of emptiness and despair that just when you thought the ordeal of the night before was over, it was all for nothing.

 

Night of the Living Dead is a vicious, angry film that highlighted social issues of its time, but an absolute education in cinema and indie film making!

A film that would meet the approval of many a Horror fan, much like myself - is George A. Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). This film single-handedly shaped an entire horror sub genre and paved the way for the modern 'zombie' film. The film has an intriguing narrative - some of which may seem quite cliché to the modern zombie-saturated audience. However, the viewer must appreciate it's originality and the context of the time it was made.


The narrative begins with a brother and sister driving to the cemetery to visit a loved one's grave. Johnny and Barbra seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as they unwittingly find themselves in a world where the recently dead are reanimating and attacking the living. Following the first modern zombie attack committed to film, Barbra spirals into a nightmare world of survival holed up in a house with other survivors. Another point of historical interest regarding this film, is the casting of a black actor in the role of the protagonist (in the form of the excellent Duane Jones),

which may sound trivial in this day and age, but remembering the context of the time the film was made, the Civil Rights movement was underway in the United States and this was quite a rare event, especially for a horror film.

 

I could sit here and discuss the film's plot in detail - something which you could read on a million other sites online - but as I've stated in my introductory post, this is a personal project airing my own views and opinions of films, and not another outlet for regurgitation of the same information. I hope to approach each film with a fresh angle and with the assumption that the reader is just as big a film buff as I am and is already familiar with the film text. So where does this statement lead this post? As I mention previously, let us look at the context through which this film was made.

 

The United States of America in the late 1960's. Despite all the nostalgic views (those old enough to have experienced it first-hand) this was not a time of total peace and harmony. As previously mentioned, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, the Vietnam War was swinging even harder, the 'Space Race' was being... erm... raced, and a whole generation of flower children were left wondering what happened to all the love that they were going to save the world with. It also didn't help their cause that they were increasingly being tarred with the same brush as Charles Manson and his 'family'. Why are all these things relevant for the discussion of this film? Because it is an angry film representing angry America.

 

This film was made in the same year that man landed on the moon. Along with this great achievement for man, also came man's fear of what lay ahead in outer space and the exploration of the unknown. Many saw the exploration of space as a dangerous move for mankind, as we did not know what the consequences were. There seems to be a parallel drawn in the narrative of Night of the Living Dead where the only (suggested) explanation as to the cause of the dead rising could be radiation emitted from a satellite crashing back into the Earth's atmosphere... As if God was punishing man for trying to play god. The fact that we as the audience are not given a definitive explanation of the cause just adds to the mystique of the film (a sin many modern horror films seem to commit!).

The zombies themselves are reminiscent of the walking wounded, returned from Vietnam clear for all to see. As they shuffle along in the claustrophobic shadows of the film, you can't but help make the comparison with the ultimate payers of the price of The Vietnam conflict... The returning soldiers (both the living but maimed and the variety that returned in body bags). Here were the war veterans stalking the society that sent them to fight a war that many did not agree with in the first place. And it's not just angry war vets represented here, but also the signs of the child rebelling against the parent. In one notorious scene, we see one of the surviving couple's infected young daughter murder her mother with a trowel. We are almost distracted from the fact that she is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off in the cellar, by concentrating on the events upstairs. Then, in the next instance we are reminded of this as she carries out this savage attack in the dark and claustrophobic cellar with some quite sickening audio effects overlaying her mother's screams.