Monday, April 02, 2018

Kissing Cousins: Night of the Living Dead

When I read the Living and the Undead: Slaying Vampires, Exterminating Zombies I decided that I should, at some point, look at this 1968 George Romero classic. Not that I agree with David Pirie who classed this as a vampire film in the book the Vampire Cinema but because of the place they came from and where this film led.

There is a connection between vampires and zombies on a cinematic level – and a blurring, hence the phrase zompire. However, Night of the Living Dead did not technically feature zombies. At the time most zombies in movies were modelled on the Haitian zombie and, in Romero’s view, these were something distinct from those zombies. In the film they are referred to as ghouls (another creature that has conflation and cross-over with vampires) and it was with his later films in the “Dead” series that they became referred to as zombies.

zombie nosh
Of course the film is famous – not only because it is seen as one of the primary launching pads of the zombie genre but because it was (due to an error) not copyrighted. As such many is the film that features Night of the Living Dead playing in a cinema or on TV (likewise with Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens). However it is perhaps not as widely known that one of the inspirations for the film was Richard Matheson’s post-apocalyptic vampire novel, I am Legend.

nosh in colour
Romero said “I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I said if you're going to do something about revolution, you should start at the beginning. I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said we got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit. I couldn't use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, so what if the dead stop staying dead?” (Taken from Wikipedia)

Barbra and Johnny 
The film starts with a car coming into a cemetery (except in the 30th Anniversary version). Johnny (Russell Streiner) and his sister Barbra (Judith O'Dea) have driven three hours to put flowers on their father’s grave (on behalf of their mother). Johnny teases Barbra (reciting the famous line, “They’re coming to get you Barbra”) and points out a man (S. William Hinzman) stumbling towards them. As the man comes closer he grabs at Barbra, Johnny comes to the rescue but cracks his head against a stone grave marker and the man continues after Barbra.

the graveyard zombie/ghoul
Barbra gets in the car, locking herself in but Johnny had the keys. What is interesting, however, is the way Romero actually dealt with the dead. Not as mindless as the later Italian cinema zombies, these ghouls would use rudimentary tools and basic reasoning. Having pulled at the locked door’s handle, the ghoul goes round and tries the other door before picking up a rock and smashing the window. A panicked Barbra releases the parking break and the car rolls downhill, until she crashes into a tree. With the ghoul still in pursuit Barbra runs to a farmhouse and enters through a rear door.

Duane Jones as Ben
Within the house she finds, eventually, a mangled corpse and runs out again. Headlights blind her and a man, Ben (Duane Jones, Ganja and Hess, Fright House & Vampires (1986)), gets her back into the house and safety. Given when the film was made, casting an African American as the film’s lead and hero was a risk and a big deal. The dialogue was re-written as Ben was conceived as working class but Jones was so erudite that the dialogue was changed to make it more educated in tone. Producer Karl Hardman attributed the changes to Jones himself. Despite this,I have seen Romero confess that his treatment of the female characters in the film was not nearly as progressive.

Karl Hardman as Harry
Eventually it is discovered that a married couple, Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen Cooper (Marilyn Eastman), with their ill (and bitten) child Karen (Kyra Schon), and a young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley), have been holed up in the cellar all along. There is immediate tension between Ben and Harry – Harry insists that the cellar is the safest spot, Ben calls it a death trap. They also find a radio and, later, a TV. It is through these links with the outside world that we hear a potential background to the phenomena.

grabbing a bug
The return of a probe sent to Venus and a mysterious radiation are mentioned and it is suggested by a scientist (although refuted by another) that this is what is causing the reanimations. It is the recently deceased who come back and as well as rudimentary tool use (a further example includes using a rock to break a truck’s headlights as the dead seem to dislike bright lights and fear fire) there is also weapon use with a turned Karen picking up a trowel deliberately and using it to repeatedly stab at a victim. Head shots (and cremation) are the order of the day and the ghouls will eat things other than human flesh – we see one (also Marilyn Eastman) deliberately pick a bug from a tree and eat it.

Karen in colour
One of the reasons that the film was so successful was that it concentrated on the characters – rather than the monsters – and their interactions. It also made (as did the other Dead films) a social commentary. Because it was out of copyright there are many prints out there (a new 4K print is said to be magnificent), including several colourised versions. Co-writer John Russo filmed additional scenes for a 30th anniversary version but the scenes are poorly acted, unnecessary and bring in a religious aspect; given the poor acting it is hard to tell whether the religious side was a genuine addition or an attempt at satire. That edition also cuts several scenes so that the whole film (with new scenes) runs shorter than the original.

they're dead, they're all messed up
The film was remade by Tom Savini and released in 1990, in which the Barbra character (played by Patricia Tallman) is reimagined as a capable and practical character – rebalancing the original. Barbra returns in a sequel to be released called Night of the Living Dead: Genesis – in which Judith O'Dea reprises her Barbra role in the future. The idea of Barbra surviving was entertained by Romero in his Empire of the Dead in which the character Penny Jones is the sister of Barbra and Johnny. She relates that the reanimated Johnny saved Barbra, displaying a conflict between memory/emotion and the desire to eat flesh. Interestingly Romero added vampires into his dead world with this volume. I should also mention the film Mimesis: Night of the Living Dead, in which life imitates art as a group of psychopaths try to recreate the film for real. This is not an exhaustive list of remakes/related films.

Night of the Living Dead is the film that (essentially) launched a genre and its ghouls/zombies are most definitely a kissing cousin of the vampire – thanks to I am Legend. The imdb page is here.

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