Friday, October 1, 2010

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn't going to solve anything.
--Night of the Living Dead

It's been a long time since I watched and finished Night of the Living Dead. The quote above sums up so much of what Romero wants to say with the Dead films. Too often, though, his characters are so abrasive that I don't want to live with these people for even two hours.

Which is why I usually turn the film off once Harry Cooper, one of the most detestable shits in film history, enters the story and the endless, petty arguments over the safety of the cellar begin. In the interest of keeping this brief, here's some stray observations after watching the film again with fresh eyes.

* Black & white movies are inherently creepier than color films. Don't ask me why, they just are.

* The music is surprisingly good for such a low budget film. Quite effective.

* I don't know why it hit me so acutely this time, but I love that the world has already gone to hell as the movie begins and Barbara and her brother Johnny, driving through the empty back roads of rural Pennsylvania, don't know it yet. Creepy stuff -- especially for those of us with overactive imaginations.

* Something I yelled at the TV the first time Johnny spoke: "Jesus, Johnny, would you hurry up and bust your head open on that tombstone!"

* After Barbara has locked herself in the car, the cemetery zombie that's chasing her immediately goes for the car door handle, finds it locked, shambles over to the passenger side door, finds it locked as well, and then grabs a large rock to bust out the passenger door window. Man, for a zombie, that guy really has his shit together.

* The fact that Barbara becomes and mostly remains catatonic after making it to the farmhouse never stops being infuriating. Forget about all the "weaker sex" gender issues in this film (none of the women fare much better), the film suddenly and awkwardly shifts its focus from her to Ben. Say what you will about the remake, that film validates its existence for completely rewriting the character, making the entire film her story.

* Always appreciated Romero's choice to never openly address Ben's ethnicity. That remains refreshingly progressive to this day. Ben isn't without rough edges, but he's a good man with human frailties.

To say nothing of why George A. Romero cast actor Duane Jones for the part: he was the best person for the job.

* As said before, Harry Cooper is one of the most repugnant and annoying characters in film history. The problem with his power struggle with Ben over the house is that they're at each others' throats within seconds of meeting each other, and they never let up until one of them is dead.

I know, I know -- that's the point. But it doesn't work from a dramatic point of view, since it leaves the characters with no where to go but to yell louder, to grow more insufferable.

* Love that Ben and Cooper argue over Barbara the same way they argue over the food and supplies. Classy stuff.

* Didn't realize until this viewing that Ben never tries to reason with Mr. Cooper. Ben instantly despises the man. Can't say I blame him, but it does nothing to solve their problems. It only escalates them.

* The story of the limbless torso coming back to life on the news. Damn. Proof that telling is sometimes better than showing.

* Ben and Tom's failed attempt to refuel the truck remains almost unbearable to watch. It's here that the film's documentary feel is most effective, showing three ordinary people completely out of their depth, trying to do a relatively simple task under extreme pressure. They make poor, hasty decisions, which gets all but one of them killed.

* Zombie kids are creepy.

* Like the cemetery zombie, the Cooper's daughter and several other zombies still understand how to use tools. Big change from future films, where this happens months, even years after the outbreak.

* This film has just about the right amount of gore for me. Not that I mind gore. It's just that gore simply isn't scary unless it's used judiciously. Forty years and five very bloody sequels later, the final act's gore still remains disturbing in a way the other Dead films lack.

* I've often heard that Romero has grown more cynical and bitter with age, but I'd have to disagree. Night has by far the bleakest ending in the series. The other Dead films end with several characters surviving, and while their futures remain uncertain, one gets the impression that the world is a little better for the survivors still being in it. Hell, the shared look between Big Daddy and Simon Baker in Land of the Dead, where Big Daddy seems to be saying "Don't shoot us and we won't bite your faces off" is downright upbeat in comparison.

It's also the only Dead film that implies that the living may come out of this on top. And from Romero and co-writer John A. Russo's point of view at the time, that isn't necessarily a happy ending.

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