Typically this series features newer releases, but I recently revisited Night of the Living Dead, which gave me nightmares for months as a child. This is an important film to feature, because it should be part of one’s classical education in horror if you haven’t already seen it.
Barbra and her brother go to visit the grave of their father and voilà, we have zombies. Later it’s explained that a radioactive satellite returning from Venus reanimated the dead, but in the mean time, Barbra loses her brother and ends up in a farmhouse with a group of people. The abruptness of the beginning and the simplicity of this story might make someone without a classical education sneer, but remember, this is where the story emerged. Every zombie story since then is telling variations of this one.
- Slow zombies. They don’t have the action-packed allure of the Rage Virus zombies in 28 Days Later. It’s scarier to think you should be able to outrun them, but you can’t. This is because they’re traveling in hordes, one of the original expectations of zombies. When they surround the farmhouse, and you can hear them moaning outside, pressing on the glass, you feel trapped.
- It’s fun to see zombies dressed up in funeral garb. Besides the ones that are bitten and turned, the majority come from cemeteries, something that has gone by the wayside today since most zombies now are biological.
- Ben. He is the first person Barbra meets at the farmhouse. He protects her and helps her recover from her shock. In the 1990 version, her recovery is so complete that she joins a band of mercenaries at the end of the movie. Also, Ben is a bad ass. He’s calm, and he takes control of the situation, even deals with another guy who just wants to hide in the farmhouse basement until help comes.
- Sarah. She’s the little girl in the basement who’s been bitten, that you know is going to come back to life. Not only does she eat her dad, but she kills her mom with a masonry trowel. She’s the reason I had nightmares for months.
Dark Muse Value
The original was released in 1968, so these questions and statements must be considered in the context of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
- How do we remember the dead? At the start of the movie, Barbra and her brother take some stupid flowers to their father’s grave at their mother’s request. The whole way there, her brother is joking, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.” Is this irreverent act all the dead get, people forced to visit them, laying dying flowers at their feet, and then going on their merry way? How will our nation remember all those dying in Vietnam?
- Who can be the hero? Barbra dies in the original, but in the remake, she’s the only survivor, because she gets on board with self-defense. Romero claims that casting Ben with Duane Jones, an African American, was solely because he gave the best audition. Ben was played by Tony Todd, another African American, in the remake, suggesting that ethnicity had become an essential part of Ben’s identity. In a film genre that to this day kills African American characters before white protagonists, this subversion, intended or not, has led to this valuable question raised by the movie.
- True heroes are never recognized. Ben rides out the end of the movie alone in the basement, and when he hears a posse upstairs saving the day, he runs to join them and is shot. They think he’s a zombie. Oops. It’s such a throwaway death for everyone on screen, but for the audience, it’s a bleak moment. Why bother being good when death is your reward too?