For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by horror, reading and watching as much as my nerves would allow. But untill fairly recently I never had much interest in the zombie sub-genre and as a result had never bothered to watch one of the most popular, not to mention influential horror movies of all time – Night of the Living Dead.
The premise of George A Romero’s cult hit is really very simple. Five survivors find themselves trapped in a farmhouse after radiation causes the unburied dead to rise up and wreak havoc. But there’s a lot of smaller narrative strands in there which add up to provide an excellent viewing experience. For example the trauma Barbara goes through after the death of her brother, or the power struggle between the heroic Ben and idiotic Harry, and its in these storylines that the pleasure really lies.
Unfortunately, being a late comer to this classic zombie flick meant I’ve been desensitized to what, in the 60s, would have been terrifying monsters. The low-budget black and white cinematography of Night of the Living Dead means that many of the special effects used are lost in the dark. For the most part these zombies just look like people sporting a limp. Who knows, upon its release that could have made it even scarier, the fact that normal people are capable of committing such monstrous acts. But in an age where the likes of Greg Nicotero and Rick Baker have enabled special effects make up to become so advanced I have grown used to seeing truly grotesque, gut wrenching zombies and unfortunately those in Night just did not live up to my expectations.
That’s not to say that everything has got better with time. One of the things I enjoyed most about the film was Judith O’Dea’s performance, her character Barbara (who was left traumatized after her brother was killed) was practically catatonic for the majority of the film making her essentially useless in terms of fighting for survival. So often in horror (especially modern slasher films) we see the characters watch their friends/families/lovers be brutally killed and then shrug off the event, so it was refreshing to see a more genuine reaction. In fact for me her trauma made the film scarier, it made it feel as though there was no hope for these people, and what’s scarier than that?
My favourite horror films have always been the ones with fairly charismatic monsters, Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist and The Shining all falling into this category. I don’t know why, but their chat just really works for me. So I’d always assumed zombies wouldn’t be my cup of tea, untill I started watching The Walking Dead that is. I soon realised the interest which lies in these films isn’t with the monsters, but in fact the victims and they way they interact with one another. In Night tension frequently rises from a character behaving stupidly and threatening to endanger everyone else, as a result their squabbles make up a good chunk of the film’s dialogue. With a lot of monsters the suspense comes from not knowing where they are, the fact that they are just lingering in the shadows somewhere waiting if terrifying. In Night however, we know exactly where the “ghouls” are they are everywhere. The tension lies in the fact we know it is only a matter of time before one of them breaks through the supposedly boarded up doors and starts gorging on the flesh of our survivors.
As previously mentioned, my insight into the ways of the zombie definitely made it less frightening . While the news bulletins were vital to the potential survival of the characters, it was information I already knew, so the supposedly shocking revelations of the ghouls eating humans didn’t come as much of a surprise. I did however enjoy the stark contrast between the calm television studio and the blind panic of the farmhouse. The dark fields which surround the farmhouse make us aware that the survivors are far away from the safety of the newsroom meaning anything could happen to them. So it doesn’t matter how many times the newsreader tells us theres no danger, we all know this is not the case. One good thing about having a bit of zombie knowledge was that as soon as we met the ill girl down in the basement I knew she would turn and become a threat. This anticipation made her turning sequence even more exciting. This part of the film was genuinely terrifying, mainly because of the reaction of the young girls Mother. As she backed into the wall she had to express both sorrow over her loss as well as the fear she felt as her daughter loomed in with a garden trowel posed in her hand. It all made for a very powerful scene.
As the film got closer to the end it seemed like the lone hero Ben might actually survive this horrible ordeal. When he is killed off in the final scene Night rips away any ray of hope that we could survive a zombie apocalypse, because if the ghouls can’t finish you off a human certainly will. This nihilistic ending left me wanting more, luckily there’s an abundance of sequels for me to get my zombie fix from, not to mention the remakes and spoofs which have all come off the back of this one cult classic.