Movies for the Resistance: Night of the Living Dead

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, Judith Ridley and Keith Wayne
Directed by: George A. Romero
Running time: 96 minutes
Rating: NR
Year of release: 1974


“Romero started it.”
­– Jordan Peele, director of Get Out

In an earlier column, I discussed the ability of grindhouse movies to speak more forcefully and pointedly about social issues than mainstream films: using the trappings of genre to deflect potential criticism (“lighten up; it’s just a monster flick!”) and relying on reduced budgets to keep the message sharp. Few films demonstrate that potential more powerfully than Night of the Living Dead, which created the zombie apocalypse genre almost out of whole cloth, and whose writer-director George A. Romero passed away from lung cancer this weekend.

Romero seemed rather surprised by the impact of his film, shot for about $100,000 during the last six months of 1967. He’d spent his career before then making short industrial movies, along with segments of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in his lifetime home base of Pittsburgh. He understood from the get-go that guerilla filmmaking let him speak his mind about social injustice, tribalism and humanity’s sad capacity for monstrosity… a monstrosity that easily dwarfs the single-minded terrors of the dead brought to life. His initial effort at feature filmmaking appeared almost 50 years ago, and yet its barbs have lost none of their sting.

On the surface, of course, it’s just another drive-in thriller: quite effective, but otherwise typical in its depiction of a small group of people facing down a supernatural horror in an enclosed space. Beneath it, however, the seething social conflicts of the era came roaring to life: a howl of anger and despair at our own awfulness to each other, tinged with racial undertones and the belief that even something so earth-shattering as the dead returning to life can’t shake us out of our collective stupidity.

The basics hide all of that quite nicely, as seven diverse characters take shelter in a Pennsylvania farmhouse while the dead rise from the grave in search of human flesh. The threat gives horror fans what they crave: unbearable tension (notably in the slow, relentless lurch of the undead) topped by shocking violence that slowly claims the farmhouse dwellers one by one. Romero’s filmmaking instincts lend the scenario a superb punch, and with the nascent MPAA ratings system not yet in place, he got away with a surprising amount of onscreen violence for the time. The simple sight of his undead extras chowing down on what appears to be human flesh created an instant firestorm of controversy (though these days they’re par for the course, especially with zombie stories).

Romero also does an amazing job of evoking a larger global apocalypse with very little money, relying on news reports and anecdotal evidence to convey what the budget simply couldn’t. It’s tough to pull off – there’s a reason people say “show, don’t tell” – but the director has the chops to make it work. More importantly, with the needs of the genre in place, he then has the space to run around a bit… and the message he conveyed hasn’t diminished one ounce.

In simple terms, we just can’t stop digging into each other long enough to look after our collective self interest. The tendency stays low-level, driven more by fear than animus for much of the film, but you sense how much energy the characters waste in pointless bickering while the tide slowly rises around them… and as the threat grows, so too does the infighting. Watching that sick, queasy struggle becomes the movie’s true horror show. When people get scared, they go nuts – even to the point of ignoring what’s right in front of their eyes – and in the process they doom themselves.

It would be bad enough if the collection of protagonists were uniformly awful, but they’re not. Indeed, most of them – notably Duane Jones’s cool-headed protagonist (more on him in a moment) – try keep the better angels of their nature in mind, and step up in the midst of the crisis. The most telling testament to this film’s impact is how little difference that makes: how this particular doom falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

That comes in part from the totality of the threat, as more zombies arise no matter how quickly we kill them. Some of the film’s more cerebral horror stems from that fear: a fear of the mob, and the irony of behaving like an inhuman animal in order to keep from becoming one. (The Walking Dead, in its best moments, provided an elegant mediation on that subject.) The zombies steal our identity by subsuming who and what we are into the faceless unity of a single-minded foe. That makes them an instant stand-in any real-world demographic we perceive as a threat. The right likes to classify liberals as this vast wave of Those Not Like Us overwhelming what they consider the real America, assimilating them and thus destroying everything they believe it. The left sees the exact opposite: reactionary whites responding to an increasingly diverse future with a singular hateful pushback, demanding the expulsion or elimination of any differences that don’t match their monochromatic view of “decent” society.

Those notions don’t fade as time goes by, which is part of why Night of the Living Dead and its successors hold up so well. Even as Romero evolved as a filmmaker, he saw how little the basic equation changed. “Anybody who tunes in to Rush Limbaugh already knows what he’s going to say and they’re already inclined to agree,” he told the press during an interview in 2008. “It winds up creating tribes. For me, patriotism, tribalism, and religion are basically the big reasons why we’re in so much trouble.”

And that wove its way into the film’s subtext almost by default, as historic upheaval overtook the movie while it was being assembled in the editing room during the first half of 1968. Europe exploded with social unrest, Prague Spring ended with invasion from the Warsaw Pact, America’s increasingly flailing involvement in Vietnam effectively ended the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated a few months before the movie’s release. Romero stood at the perfect position to comment on that… and what he had to say wasn’t pretty.

His most powerful symbol came with Jones, whose role in the lead represented a huge gamble at the time. When basic civil rights hung in the balance and presenting blacks onscreen as anything but servants or clowns resulted in an intense backlash from white America, Jones responded in fine fashion. His character comes across as smart, erudite, level-headed and easily the most morally principled person of the bunch. More importantly, he stands up to the (far more foolish) white people trying to override him, notably Karl Hardman’s angry dad, who clearly hates how much sense the black man makes.

Romero avoids overt reference to racial politics, but it still screams at us from every heated exchange. The older white man doesn’t like being shown up by someone he deems inferior, despite massive evidence to the contrary, and his nascent racism ultimately becomes a burden in the middle of an apocalyptic emergency. (“That’s important, isn’t it?” his incredulous wife tells him. “To be right, everybody else to be wrong.”) In the end, it costs almost everyone in the farmhouse their lives, though Jones’ protagonist ultimately survives.

Or so we think, until the final sucker punch arrives. As he staggers out to apparent rescue, the dipshit sheriff’s posse thinks he’s a zombie and shoots him dead: a stunningly nihilistic blow that adroitly encapsulates the film’s entire purpose. What good is intelligence and ingenuity in the face of such casual idiocy? How can we come together when we need to if too many of us turn on each other at the drop of a hat? With race riots on the news seemingly every day and King martyred at the hands of a racist’s bullet, Romero’s statement found cold, inescapable truth that no big studio would dare touch.

The director revised the scenario in Dawn of the Dead – with a black protagonist who survives past the opening credits – and I confess I prefer that take a little more. (It’s more overtly satirical, for starters, and the ending gives reason for hope.) But the darkness in Night can’t be waved away so easily, and in our bleakest moments, we still understand its sad, futile wisdom. The fault lies not in our stars, it tells us, but in ourselves, and while Trump and his feckless crew are happy to exploit our own worst instincts, getting rid of 45 is going be a lot easier than eliminating the all-too-human tendencies that let him seize power in the first place.

In too many ways, nothing has changed from 1968, and whatever comes next, we clearly have our work cut out for us. The greatest fear now is that we may never escape that farmhouse: that we’re not looking at an endgame from a bitter, aging demographic terrified of an objectively better future, but that the battle will simply continue so long as our species walks the earth. It’s a chilling possibility, which Romero understood all too well. Small wonder, then, that this film and its descendants still have such a hold on our imagination.

RIP, George A. Romero (1940-2017)


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