Sunday, November 13, 2005

Picked Flick #70: Night of the Living Dead

The opening shot of the lonely gravel road, circuitously joining two unknown points, is held several beats longer than is strictly comfortable, and right from that single choice, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead sets itself apart as both a smart formal exercise and a new kind of horror film. Minutes pass as a frankly annoying thirtysomething called Johnny taunts his sister Barbara, a piece of gleaming ivory who'd look endangered and overchallenged in almost any circumstance. Johnny's petulance and Barbara's shrill anxieties, both of them shallow reactions to mortality, virtually incite the vengeance of the dead—inviting the zombies to stand up for themselves, as it were, and sock these two into a more genuine confrontation with the terror but also the slow, lumbering fact of death. It hardly matters that these two will never receive any lifetime achievement awards from SAG, though it's also quite easy to underestimate the skill of the film's performances. From a standpoint of technique, the opening of Night of the Living Dead is a tour-de-force in hobo's clothing, splicing its cheap-looking footage into brilliant orchestrated sequence, using severe montage to lend credence to the hysterical, teetering camera angles. What best depicts the barrier between life and death—the stark and horrifying way the film dives from simple, straight-on full shots to canted, quaking, handheld panic? Or the nagging likeness between the glassy, one-dimensional humans and the lockstep, frozen-faced undead? Or the inexorable, ungainly momentum with which these hobbling bugaboos skulk toward their prey, who will all die later if they don't die now?

Romero, using Zapruder-grade black & white film, founds a hellblazing film and in fact a stout, hardy franchise out of these basic yet wittily debatable oppositions. Having whipped together such a tense scenario in his opening scenes, Romero bunkers Barbara into an old, lonely house, as undermined in its pastoral, self-protective isolation as the Clutter estate in In Cold Blood. Barbara's only companion there, at least at first, is the lucid and capable Ben (Duane Jones), a black man who knows that Barbara's almost pathological inertia and inward-turning fright in his presence may only be proximately rooted in their ghoulish state of siege. In his combination of competence and impatience, generosity and ire—all the more easily stirred when he meets the jittery bigot hiding in this American basement—Ben is the most fully dimensional character in the movie, not to mention a more believable person than almost anyone Sidney Poitier played at any point in the 1960s. That this is the case says less about Poitier than about Stanley Kramer, Norman Jewison, Ralph Nelson, and other big-studio directors who honorably assayed racial themes in their films, though they were at best inconsistent at realizing that the Hollywood mainstream was hardly the place to achieve or even expect the kinds of stories or ideas adequate to the issues. It's incredible to observe the sharp, cutting brushstrokes with which Romero draws attention to the racism, chauvinism, cronyism, naïve romanticism, and other diseased attitudes that torque this ragtag outpost's ability to properly forestall the slow zombie onslaught. The nuclear family intrudes meanly on the wider social unit, as the distraught Coopers demand both privileges and privacy as the birthright of their domestic bubble, lesioned though it already is with an ailing, probably monstrous daughter. Even the Red Scare starts to infiltrate the Dead Scare, as newscasters pontificate about nuclear radiation as a possible explanation for this clearly inexplicable phenomenon.

Night of the Living Dead, still my favorite from among Romero's excellent series, is a brilliant allegory of how people and especially strangers act in a crisis, rather than how we might prefer to act or how we remember ourselves as acting—and yet, as any viewer can attest, Romero's obvious conviction in mounting this critique does nothing to slake the force of the tooth-gnashing, clobbering, apocalyptic plot. Quite to the contrary, Night of the Living Dead's basis in genre only amplifies its thematic parries, since the palpable, lethal urgency of the crisis underlines both the tragic, angry rendings of the social canvas and the hopeful glimmers of alliance and entente in a way that In the Heat of the Night's more peremptory and self-enclosed plot—much less the dinner with Mr. Guess Who—can't really equal. Every dimension of the movie culminates in the incomparably brave final shots, and rarely has "shot" seemed like such an apt name for what can be stirring, powerful, complicated, dangerous, and almost exhaustingly entertaining in this popular medium. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger Dr. S said...

I once watched this movie at a friend's Halloween party, out in rural Indiana. And then I had to drive home, alone. Even though I was back in town within about ten minutes, those ten minutes were some of the most knuckle-whitening of my life, and I didn't really feel safe until I was back in the house. Now, why did I feel safe in the house? If those Living Dead proved anything, it was that houses really didn't pose much of a problem. I still get shivery creepy spine tingles even thinking about that night, and I have not yet been able to bring myself to watch the movie again. The Evil Dead freaked me out more--to the point where I was, I think, actively crying and about to be sick, I was so scared. These two movies are a big part of the reason that "horror" movies have to be Them! or Plan 9 bad before I can watch them. That 1980s HBO standby Poltergeist did its share, too, though I never even watched the whole movie. Buuuhhh. Jesus. How am I going to sleep? Between Swinburne and horror movie thoughts, I'm in for some real doozies in dreamworld tonight.

Glad you're back on, by the way!

11:37 PM, November 13, 2005  
Blogger Brian Darr said...

I consider this film the biggest single gap in my own film (self-)education. The film everyone else has seen that I feel most left out about. I actually watched the first few minutes at a friend's 11th birthday party, but was so scared by those minutes that I just escaped into the lobby and drew pictures while waiting for the movie to end. I really didn't start watching horror films (with a few exceptions) until college. For the longest time I avoided VHS copies because I heard they were of poor quality. I guess there's a nice-looking DVD of it out there now but I keep holding out hope for a chance to see it with crazed fans in a ratty theatre, maybe even at a midnight show. No such luck, so far. And so it remains unseen. When I finally do watch it, maybe I'll try to write a piece like those great ones in the latest issue of Reverse Shot.

4:17 AM, November 20, 2005  

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