Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Section 3: Night of the living dead

Section 3: Night of the living dead

Welcome to section 3, home to the near nasties, the movies that the police would happily pilfer from your local video store. This episode I have for you a bit of a classic, well okay a lot of a classic. Zombies roam the earth with a taste for human flesh as we take a look at the god father of zombie films, the one that wrote the rules and set the benchmark. Lets have a look at George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead.

When Barbara and her brother go to visit their grandfathers grave they are inexplicably and brutally attacked by a strange looking man. Escaping the scene Barbara manages to make to a farm house that's abandoned with the exception of a brutalised body only to run into Ben, another person on the run and together they barricade the house against the gathering ghouls. Discovering that the house is not as empty as they thought, a struggle for authority quickly becomes a bigger issue than the apocalyptic events outside. It's clear it's not just the zombies that are going to claim lives before this long night is through.

Night of the living dead is of course one of the most well known films I'm likely to critique, it's one of the most clearly genre defining films ever and its influence is still felt today. George Romero and his crew put this film together for the kind of budget that would make any Hollywood studio laugh you out of the office but what resulted was a work that resonated throughout the horror world.

When watching this film these days it's easy to feel a high degree of cliché loaded in to this film. Much of this is down to the fact that this of course this is where most of the clichés came from as Nights influence

The story works in part in because not too much is explained, as so often is the case the atmosphere is generated by what you don't know as much as what you do. Fear of the unknown is almost always so much more potent and there are only snippets of vague information that we learn along with the protagonists. It's the utter sense of claustrophobic paranoia that pervades this film that pushes the focus towards the people and not the monsters that are outside. If ever anything was going to metaphorise the monsters of a movie it's this kind of approach. The zombies are not the defining feature of the film, it's the interactions and responses of the human characters that is the primary focus. The result of this is that we actually have more of a study of society in a crisis, it's a miniature version but all the parallels can be seen with more clarity because we can see the bigger picture in this small situation.

Night of the Living dead is certainly very much indicative of the darker aspects of the era of its creation, with cold war paranoia and the threat of nuclear destruction hanging over the world, information was scarce as to what was going on. It was a rather fearful and in many respects and politically a tumultuous time in the US itself. The brutality of the horror certainly resonates with the events and fears of the time and particularly, if incidentally, the conflict between Harry and Ben has parallels with the politics of race relations at the time. The characters themselves are almost a parody of society in their own right. Barbara, the girl from the beginning of the film is a rather, though understandably, hysterical figure, and while she does appear to be a rather traditional, slightly misogynistic portrayal, straight from a 1950's b movie in many ways, she's also one of the most humane as she is the one who is concerned not with the escalating power struggle within the house but with the welfare of her brother. She is though too helpless to do anything about it, this for me feels like the most real character trait of any of the characters in this film. The most notable characters in this film are really those of Harry and Ben. Ben is a strong, almost robotic man in terms of emotion, though his feelings are betrayed on several significant moments. The fact that he's black it seems was incidental, the actor Duane Jones was simply the best actor for the role according to Romero123 and that was the extent of the reason for his casting originally and this kind of thing is something I think happens more often than Romero would admit however it does add a incredibly significant dimension to the story.
[ text quote ]
"It never occurred to me that I was hired because I was black. But it did occur to me that because I was black it would give a different historic element to the film." (on being cast as Ben in "Night of the Living Dead")

The story, quite aside from the incidental racial dimension, portrays a microcosm of society as the protagonists adopt the familiar Romero formula of creating more problems for themselves than need exist. This is the archetypal slow zombie scenario. The zombies are the threat, but they are of course slow and ineffective should the potential victims keep their eyes on the real problem and work together instead of indulging in petty arguments about who's in charge. [clip] “you're in charge down there, I'm in charge up here”.
It's the tensions between these characters that makes the film. The zombies are very much in the background for the majority of the film but while the bitching and fighting is going on inside, taking the attention of those trapped inside, the fact is they could easily have walked off into the sunset, possibly to safety, if indeed it even exists. Instead the unattended problem of the massing undead outside the house is allowed to go unchecked until it's way too late. The overall feel of the film is one of deep frustration with the protagonists. Not one of them is particularly likeable, even the character regarded as the hero by most, Ben, is frankly as petty in many respects as Harry, his rival. The pig headedness of both these characters is what ultimately brings them down of course, whether this was always meant to mirror the way society was or is supposedly going is not important. It does however present a frustrating and illuminating mirror image of the world around us. Of course the interaction between Ben and Harry takes on a different, if incidental, spin because of Duane Jones's ethnicity and Romero apparently regrets to a degree the unsympathetic approach to the character who is frankly very often as abrasive as anyone in this movie. Given the time this was released it is very easy to read more political subtext into the film than necessarily it warrants, though this doesn't make those observations invalid, it does strike me in some ways as being tribute to the richness of the films narrative and aesthetic as much as intent on the behalf of the director. Romero has often struck me as being the kind of director that has a knack for leaving an open narrative, ambiguous enough in content but consistent enough in structure and writing to allow a lot to be attached to it.

His later works had a more thought out social thread to them in many respects, maybe Romero picked up on that element of the critical response and went with it, Night doesn't feel to me to be that deliberate or rather direct in political intent, at best it feels to me to be more a solidly made film that has enough openings for political readings to seep in and take root. Partly this is down in my opinion to the use of a very familiar theme of taking a bigger picture and compressing it into a small place. The conflict between the characters is a very recognisable thing and can be applied to many aspects of real life, the same can said of the casting of Jones as Ben and the conflict between him and Harry. Where there does seem to be some political leanings it strikes to a large degree to be less of a deliberate act on behalf of Romero than it was the product of the time this was made. Romero did seem, particularly for this, to manage to somehow capture certain elements of the social tensions around him, but oddly much of it seems to have worked its way in on an almost unconscious level and critical responses seem to have built upon that, adding to what in many ways was a straight up, though very effective, horror film.

The story and its implications have been well explored in other writings so I won't dwell any more on this well explored subject. Night of the living dead, apart from being fascinatingly reflective story of its time is a low budget masterpiece of film making, it's a masterclass in how to put a film together. While in many respects it is rather retro even for its time, it certainly has an air of the classic horrors of the 40's and 50's, it builds itself up slowly to heights that were rather unexplored at the time. This really isn't necessarily in terms of on screen gore though. Herchel Gordon Lewis for instance was making much more visually explicit stuff before this, but what Romero brought to the table however was a very dark edge. The violence and horrific acts are portrayed with a complete lack of humour and despite the relative lack of explicitness it's certainly a lot more visceral in tone. It's this marked overtone of utter nihilism that makes Night such an effective film. The violence may be of a lower explicitness but its impact is rather vicious with scenes of zombies eating the bodies of the young couple newly barbecued by the exploding truck, main characters being dragged off to their inevitable and violent deaths and even a child zombie murdering her mother with a trowel. What it lacks in on screen detail it certainly makes up for in the brutality of the event and the tragedy of consequences.

The entirely depressing and shocking ending is something that would have rattled a few people at the time and even to this day is something that mainstream studio works tend to shy away from. I've never really considered Ben to be much more of a hero than Harry is, he's more capable, certainly braver but not really that much more noble. If there are any heroic characters here then Johnny counts as one and Tom is another, both put themselves in danger with mortal consequences for the sake of others. Ben kinda loses points for being a rather pig headed character who makes no effort to keep the peace, in other words he is as much a part of the problem as Harry, and Harry at least had the bonus of being right in his assessment of the situation. Not a noble position by any stretch but the fact remains that they would have all been alive and with a TV for information had Ben not been so ready to fight. His frustrations are understandable and my criticisms of the character and his flaws do not diminish from what a great portrayal of an interesting and textured character he is.
The acting is well known to be a bit patchy in the film though, Judith O'Dea in particular is often criticised for her performance and while it's clearly the performance by a novice it does occasionally hit convincing note. For me she was not the irritant that some found and some of the faults in her performance maybe could have been avoided with some more supportive direction. To some extent the characters faults it seems were partly created by allowing O'Dea to be comfortable with what she was doing, the character was allowed to be more passive and less strong than the original intent. Possibly Romero could have pushed her a little to be more confident in herself as she does display some moments that demonstrate that she can be convincing in her role.
For me though this is a minor fault, Barbara is a old school horror damsel in distress at the end of the day though she does come through at the end for a moment.

The beauty of the script is that it is very simple, it's almost entirely uncluttered and is focused into the world of these people and these people alone. We never travel outside their world other than via the TV, there are no flashbacks and no detours from the situation other than to briefly see the deteriorating situation outside. For the entire movie we are in spitting distance of what's going on. The characters relate their stories and Ben has a rather major arsehole moment when he almost breaks down telling his story, then gets annoyed when Barbara relates her own. Perhaps budgetary constraints prevented the visual depiction of these stories but they work rather well for being related. Interestingly Barbara does alter her story somewhat from the reality, maybe this is a comment in its own right.
Romero's camera work and choice of shot is integral to how this film manages to build tension. He gets right in the middle of the action when there is any, the editing is tight and fast, the use of framing is imaginative and focuses the action right at the audience and virtually makes us a part of the action. In the absence of.3D this movie is surprisingly effective at making the viewer feel involved in what's going on. One of the most celebrated shots really provides both a three dimensional aspect to the flat image demonstrating the threats growing scale, it's a shot that not only gives us an elegant reveal of the terrifying escalation of the problem, it is an example of how Romero uses even the depth of the framing to its best advantage. All this without the need for pointless glasses and poking stuff at the camera. Even the aftermath of the truck explosion has us right in with the living dead as they claw and gnaw at the roasted remains of two characters that by normal standards would have been spared. Here though, Romero has no mercy for the innocent. They are cooked by the only means of escape and duly eaten like BBQ chicken. It's a grim world, there is no comfort, there is no happy ending.

Night of the Living Dead still stands as one of the most influential films of the horror genre, it wrote the book on what a zombie was and delivered a grim, downbeat story along with it. While the following sequels upped the game significantly, Dawn being probably the favourite of the lot for most fans, Night not only rebooted the zombie genre and infused the horror genre in general with a more serious and grown up attitude and reception, it demonstrated that the genre was capable of being smart. It utterly defined what zombies were until the recent batch of fast zombies came along, something which has created a lot of arguments amongst horror fans. Night, and indeed the dead series overall, is the most clear demonstration of the difference between the two, in many ways it has a deeply traditional approach to monsters, that they play most effectively when they are not just mere monsters but a way to mirror our shortcomings, fears and failings. Fast zombies will always be monsters, this is how they function. Howard Ford put it most simply when he said that a fast zombie forces the scene to become an action scene, and action is all very well, all rather fun, but essentially empty and meaningless. The Night of the Living Dead will endure much longer than the likes of 28 days later and resident evil, and spare me the comments of how they are NOT zombies, they're infected, just because the infected are not called zombies doesn't make them any less zombies than Nights zombies which also are not referred to as zombies and the living opposed to dead thing, well just check out the serpent and the rainbow for my response to that. A zombie by any other name is still a zombie. The point is that as a piece of film making it's always the ones that have more content, more going on under the surface, or as with the Nasties, have been immortalised by circumstance or are infamous by association , that will tend to last the distance. Night of the Living Dead will always be the definitive zombie film, even Tom Savini couldn't topple it with his version. It's simply low budget film making at its finest and the breakout of a director that would shape not only the zombie film genre but Horror films overall.

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