from our forthcoming September 2017 issue
Spoiler warning: this feature discusses the ending of Night of the Living Dead
I once wrote that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) was one of the three most important and influential horror films ever made. The others are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Since then – despite being the rank outsider, thanks to its lowly, handmade, non-Hollywood status and spotty, complicated distribution history – it has assumed prime position in that triptych.
Night of the Living Dead took the zombie (in the first film, they’re referred to as ‘ghouls’), hitherto the most marginal screen monster, added the flesh-eating element and envisioned a rising tide of the reanimated dead swarming over the world. Nearly 50 years on, Night of the Living Dead has evolved through sequels, reboots, reimaginings, homages, parodies, imitations and imitations of imitations into a genre that can encompass World War Z, The Walking Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Juan of the Dead, Zombieland, Colin, Resident Evil, Warm Bodies, The Scouts’ Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, The Girl with All the Gifts, In the Flesh and more shot-in-the-garden semi-amateur films than even I can get round to watching. In the past few years, so many films and TV shows – and comics and novels – have derived from a set of rules laid down in Night of the Living Dead (‘kill the brain and you kill the ghoul’) that the zombie apocalypse is a healthier, more prolific genre than the western or the musical.
…and that might not even have been the most important takeaway from the film.
I first saw Night of the Living Dead in the 1970s (trowel killing and flesh eating abbreviated by the BBFC), as a support feature for Peter Weir’s The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) – by then, its reputation had already risen. I remember the cartoonist Glen Baxter, a family friend, recommending the film as the most frightening thing he’d ever seen – it begins in a graveyard and you think you know where you are, then a zombie attacks and the film just doesn’t stop.
The last time I saw the film, only a year or so ago, it was at a midnight screening with Dawn of the Dead (1978) at the Ritzy, Brixton – with a young, predominantly black audience who saw past the scratchy black and white images (it’s not dated because it always looked rough – crude, even – set beside the lush Hammer, Bava or Corman gothics) and a dark print (“Buy a couple of lights,” someone commented) and were caught up in the story. The ending is still a shock, and arguably more so in an era of ‘black lives matter’. Bluntly [SPOILER WARNING!], the smart black hero Ben (Duane Jones) survives the night of the living dead by doing exactly what the stupid white villain said they ought to do (hide in the cellar) then tentatively shows his head only to be shot by a rifleman with the zombie-killing posse that’s combing the countryside getting rid of the ghouls like a good ol’ boy death squad. It’s still a confrontational, appalling punchline – “You can’t end a film like that!” I’ve heard at screenings, usually commingling anger and admiration – even though happy endings are no longer the convention in horror that they were until the late 1960s.
Credit: Kobal Collection
Romero kept being drawn back to the world of the living dead. The Crazies (1974), which deals with a virus that drives people mad rather than revives the dead, is a thematic sequel that has fed into its own cycle of near-zombie films (David Cronenberg’s Rabid, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later…).
Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) are progressive sequels, changing the tone (more comedy, more aggression) as they document the downfall of civilisation. The queasy flesh-eating and entrail-fondling of the first film evolved, thanks to the genius of effects man Tom Savini, into a succession of memorable grand guignol effects – the zombie whose skull-top is sliced off by a helicopter blade as if it were a breakfast egg, the strew of entrails from a dissected corpse sitting up on a slab.
But as important to the films are the ideas about how people react in crises – the character (Judith O’Dea) in Night who is so traumatised by just one zombie and one death that she sits on the sofa in a catatonic slump for the rest of the film was a tonic after so many movies in which a slap across the face jolts anyone out of their terror, and the tooled-up survivalists who make a hollow utopia out of a shopping mall in Dawn are at once admirable Crusoes and too weighed down by their own lifestyle to evolve into anything better.
Credit: Kobal Collection
Later in his career, he delivered a second trilogy – Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009) – which now seem autumnal, melancholy works but still manage to innovate, even after all that seemed needed to be said was out of the way. Land may be, after Gremlins 2 The New Batch, the first horror film to grapple with the figure of Donald Trump (represented by Dennis Hopper’s real estate tycoon). Diary is a found footage film that stages original suspense set-pieces. And Survival has the end-of-the-road feel we now associate with final films, with a finale in which a pointless enmity is literally carried beyond the grave.
The germ turns
Made in Pittsburgh by enthusiasts who got ripped off by distributors when it became a huge hit, Night of the Living Dead showed that a horror classic could be created in any backwater – and creators like Wes Craven (The Last House on the Left), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), John Hancock (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death), Willard Huyck (Messiah of Evil), Larry Cohen (It’s Alive), John Carpenter (Assault on Precinct 13) and David Cronenberg (Shivers) took note. In the 1970s, suddenly, the toughest, most engaged, most frightening horrors were springing up in backyards from Texas to Toronto. The use of a contained setting and a few characters clashing while an external threat besieges is even a template for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which kicked off its own burst of low-budget genre auteurism.
Other filmmakers looked to Night of the Living Dead and took away the simpler message that zombies were big business – indeed, with the third or fourth wave of derivatives, getting on the flesh-eating zombie bandwagon seems to have drowned out the notion of making something original and powerful rather than imitative and pre-sold.
That’s the peril of creating an open-source universe: every year I assume there’s no more to be said about the zombie apocalypse only for someone like Kerry Anne Mullaney (The Dead Outside, 2009), Jeremy Gardner (The Battery, 2012), Christian James (Stalled, 2013) or Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sands Red, 2016) to prove me wrong. It may well be that Romero struggled to escape the living dead the way Conan Doyle struggled to escape Sherlock Holmes – but the greatest Holmes novel (The Hound of the Baskervilles) was written and published while the detective was officially dead, so sometimes turning away from a creation doesn’t still those upstart pendant ideas that are too good to resist.
Beyond the grave
Certainly, the living dead dominate Romero’s filmography, but everything else is worth a look. Jack’s Wife (1972) – aka Hungry Wives or Season of the Witch – is a remarkable little film, melding domestic feminism with witchcraft, and the extraordinary Martin (1978) is still the best ‘realistic’ vampire movie ever made. These too are influential films – in the last year, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch and Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration have drawn inspiration from these lesser-known back catalogue items.
Credit: Kobal Collection
Creepshow (1982), a colourful multi-story collaboration with Stephen King, set the horror comic/1950s throwback tone for much 1980s genre cinema, indulging in nasty fun with its zombie father demanding “Where’s my cake?”, and for the first time using recognisable character actors (Leslie Nielsen, Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall, Adrienne Barbeau) as vivid, venomous caricatures. Monkey Shines (1988) is still underrated – Anne Billson was right when she tagged it as better film about disability than My Left Foot, but it’s also a perfectly-judged suspense film with a strangely sympathetic menace in the helper monkey gone mad.
There’s Always Vanilla (1971), The Dark Half (1993) and Bruiser (2000), Romero’s least successful features, repay return visits the way many hits don’t. And Knightriders (1981), his most personal film, is an astonishing piece – an Arthurian biker movie about a wandering troupe of renaissance fayre performers (with Ed Harris as King) who joust on motorcycles, it’s also a complicated essay about trying work in a creative industry while maintaining integrity, the difficulty of balancing ethics and entertainment (a theme reprised in the monstrous pulp hack doppelganger of a literary novelist in The Dark Half), and an impulse to build a viable alternative to the paranoid, commodity-fetishist, gun-toting America laid bare in the living dead films.