“I know you’re afraid. I’m afraid, too.”

I met the challenge this Halloweek to discuss “the movie that scares you the most” with a bit of a groan… the kind of groan to which old ghosts were prone back in the day before the restless dead became our life coaches and guardian angels.  You see, as much as I love horror movies, there isn’t much that scares me.  And I mean hide-your-eyes, peek-through-your-fingers, wake-up-screaming scared.  Too much exposure to grim material and almost 20 years of living in New York City have toughened me, I guess.  So if you’ll permit me, I’ll do a bit of semantic jiggling and answer the question by telling you not about the movie that scares me the most… but the one that bothers me the most.  And that would be NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD turns 40 this year and it’s never looked better.  Made by young hopefuls at a time in our history when (as now) things didn’t look so hopeful, the film reflected the anxieties and doubts of Baby Boomers squeezed between Cold War paranoia and the lunacy of political assassinations, foreign wars and such societal freakouts as Kent State, Manson and Altamont (events that could be name-checked in one or two syllables, like Civil War battlefields).  Mind you, George Romero, John Russo, Russell Streiner and Karl Hardman (et al) were just trying to make a profitable horror movie, but other stuff got in… and no fright flick illustrates the horror of stuff getting in better than NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

I read NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD before I saw it, courtesy of John Russo’s novelization at some point in the mid-70s.  I lived with that paperback book for months, reading and rereading the most terrible passages.  (I don’t normally recommend novelizations, which are most often cheap cash-ins of popular movies, but this one had a sledgehammer impact and lingered on one aspect of the ghouls that no movie ever really has… their terrible rasping.)  So by the time I actually got to see the movie, in 1980 (on the heels of the success of its first sequel, DAWN OF THE DEAD), the events and characters seemed more folkloric or mythic than fictional.  Because I knew what was going to happen, there weren’t many surprises in store for me during that late night TV broadcast (viewed home, alone, at night, in the country) and yet I was bothered. Oh, I was bothered but good!  Something beyond the mere events of the film – the flat, documentary-style photography, the oppressive soundtrack (which segues without warning from stock library cue bombast to nerve jangling musique concrete),  the unsettling moments of beauty and grace (Barbra’s encounter with a music box, Tom and Judy’s last kiss) – got through to me on an atomic level and bothered me to the bone.  During commercial breaks, I switched on the back yard light; taking a bathroom break, I peeked behind the shower curtain before turning my back to the tub – I knew there were no ghouls there.  But still.

The genius of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is that it doesn’t stop at merely making you fearful of dead people who want to eat you… it wants you to doubt eveything.  It makes you cynical, but rather than hardening you into slate it reduces you to jelly, makes you useless like the character Barbra (played by Judith O’Dea), who sinks into a kind of catatonia by the half-hour mark.  Like Barbra, we can do nothing but look on as “this incredible story becomes more ghastly with each report” and the world falls apart around us.  When I was asked to contribute to THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR, I made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD number one in my collection of “Horror Films That Suggest Life is Unlivable.”

“The best of the bunch bears the worst possible news: when the chips are down and we need one another the most… we fail.  Live with that.”

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been called everything from a Vietnam allegory to a prediction of the governmental failure during Hurricane Katrina but its power, its brute force, its ability to bother all go beyond such neat categorizations as history or current events.  NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD isn’t a movie about monsters but about people… people who are separated by their tastes, their philosophies, their skin color, their gender, their age but who are united in common cause… people who want to live but, through fear and stubbornness, choose something considerably worse than death.  Multiple viewings later, I find the undead ghouls creepy to be sure but nothing bothers me so much as watching the lines of communication stretch and snap between the living.  Some nightmares you just can’t make up.

If you want to read more about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the blog Pop Matters is doing up the film’s 40th anniversary in a big way.

10 Responses “I know you’re afraid. I’m afraid, too.”
Posted By Keelsetter : October 28, 2008 9:16 pm

I read John Russo’s novelization before seeing the film too. I just checked to see if it was still on the ol’ bookshelf (yup). In anticipation of seeing a theatrical adaptation (“The Classic Zombie Thriller as it was never meant to be seen! Live! On Stage!”) I recently screened it on 16mm for some friends. It still has power – on so many levels. I’ve always wondered if, given how the main part went to Duane Jones – not because he was black, but because he was the best actor who auditioned – it was one of the first “color-blind” films out there? Once he got the part, rewrites explain the incredible ending of grainy still photos that are so disturbing and which evoke memories of a lynch mob.

Posted By Keelsetter : October 28, 2008 9:16 pm

I read John Russo’s novelization before seeing the film too. I just checked to see if it was still on the ol’ bookshelf (yup). In anticipation of seeing a theatrical adaptation (“The Classic Zombie Thriller as it was never meant to be seen! Live! On Stage!”) I recently screened it on 16mm for some friends. It still has power – on so many levels. I’ve always wondered if, given how the main part went to Duane Jones – not because he was black, but because he was the best actor who auditioned – it was one of the first “color-blind” films out there? Once he got the part, rewrites explain the incredible ending of grainy still photos that are so disturbing and which evoke memories of a lynch mob.

Posted By rhsmith : October 29, 2008 10:46 am

Duane Jones’ race give the movie an intriguing “elephant in the room” quality that only adds to its value. Although Jones was allegedly the beneficiary of color blind casting, I feel like his character’s blackness affects how the other characters behave – Barbra becomes helpless and servile, Tom overeager to please and Harry combative and resentful. And I know I’m not imagining a smoldering sexuality coming off Helen Cooper… which I imagine is what drives Harry to be so difficult and ultimately (not flat-out traitorous but) self-serving, leaving Ben to the mercy of the ghouls and precipitating the end of everything.

Posted By rhsmith : October 29, 2008 10:46 am

Duane Jones’ race give the movie an intriguing “elephant in the room” quality that only adds to its value. Although Jones was allegedly the beneficiary of color blind casting, I feel like his character’s blackness affects how the other characters behave – Barbra becomes helpless and servile, Tom overeager to please and Harry combative and resentful. And I know I’m not imagining a smoldering sexuality coming off Helen Cooper… which I imagine is what drives Harry to be so difficult and ultimately (not flat-out traitorous but) self-serving, leaving Ben to the mercy of the ghouls and precipitating the end of everything.

Posted By Kevin : October 30, 2008 7:01 pm

It is the most inspirational movie I have ever seen. It inspired me to both work in movies and make movies. Best movie of it’s kind ever.

Posted By Kevin : October 30, 2008 7:01 pm

It is the most inspirational movie I have ever seen. It inspired me to both work in movies and make movies. Best movie of it’s kind ever.

Posted By Allen Garrett : November 4, 2008 1:54 pm

Why do I keep coming back to this movie? I also judge other horror films by this one. I guess because when I first saw it in 70′ I
didn’t have all the sophisticated images burned into me from all films since then! Before then film makers didn’t show such graphic
horror in their stories so this jumps out at you. It took me a while before I walked in the dark unafraid! I’m still afraid!

Posted By Allen Garrett : November 4, 2008 1:54 pm

Why do I keep coming back to this movie? I also judge other horror films by this one. I guess because when I first saw it in 70′ I
didn’t have all the sophisticated images burned into me from all films since then! Before then film makers didn’t show such graphic
horror in their stories so this jumps out at you. It took me a while before I walked in the dark unafraid! I’m still afraid!

Posted By Al Lowe : November 6, 2008 11:30 am

I’m proud to say that the movie was made in my hometown, Pittsburgh. It scared the heck out of me the first time I saw it.

This next comment is for the benefit of outsiders because Pittsburghers know this. The TV personality featured near the end is Bill Cardille, who, during the 60s and 70s hosted a late night Pittsburgh Saturday show featuring classic and not so classic horror flicks. It was called Chiller Theater and he was called Chilly Billy.

Posted By Al Lowe : November 6, 2008 11:30 am

I’m proud to say that the movie was made in my hometown, Pittsburgh. It scared the heck out of me the first time I saw it.

This next comment is for the benefit of outsiders because Pittsburghers know this. The TV personality featured near the end is Bill Cardille, who, during the 60s and 70s hosted a late night Pittsburgh Saturday show featuring classic and not so classic horror flicks. It was called Chiller Theater and he was called Chilly Billy.

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies