Posted by Richard Harland Smith on October 28, 2008
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.”
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.
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