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August 19, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #85 - Night of the Living Dead

I'm pretty sure that people like myself have covered Night of the Living Dead pretty thoroughly over the past 43 years.  So if I'm gonna cover it here and give it my beloved Midnight Movie of the Week title - and if you think I would consider having a list that didn't include it, then you clearly have some issues - I'm probably going to have to do a little more than just tell you it's a good movie.  So, I'm gonna tell you why Night of the Living Dead just might be the most important horror film made in the past 50 years.

I know there are criticisms.  A fantastic recent book on the directors who changed the face of horror singled the film out as having lost its edge over time.  Young horror fans have criticized the film for the same reasons, and I've even heard some horror fans I respect greatly drop the dreaded "Overrated" bomb on George A. Romero's original Dead film.  I'm not here to tell them they're wrong - and I agree that catatonic Judith O'Dea is just a bit ridiculous - but to point out that I've never once seen the movie they see.  There are plenty of timeless, everlovin', blue-eyed things I love about Night of the Living Dead. And I'm not gonna let them die.
(On a tangent, it should be noted that, for whatever reason, Night of the Living Dead was the one horror movie that a) my parents told me was too scary to watch and b) I actually listened to them about. I don't know why, except that I was a good son.  The VHS tape was in our basement for at least 10 years. I snuck in plenty of viewings of Dad's copy of Body Double, I was encouraged to watch Clownhouse on a regular basis.  Yet I was a good little boy and waited til I was like 17 to watch Night of the Living Dead.  At that point, I was old enough and cynical enough to have figured out whether or not it was slow and old.  Considering the fact I'm talking about it now...well, the proof is in the pudding, I guess.)
(Yes, sometimes I call my posts here "pudding". It's a pet name, deal with it.)
To me, the importance of Night of the Living Dead isn't in the film anymore.  I still feel the film is tense, dramatic, thought-provoking and beautiful, but that's not what I'm here to talk about.  Because when I look at Night of the Living Dead now that I'm someone who's spent more time then any human should studying the kind of films most would scowl at - I see that it saw the future of horror and influenced countless films and filmmakers to come.
It influenced what is commonly called the "siege" movie, or what is more commonly called the people "people trapped in a difficult to secure area while trying to survive outside attackers" movie. The plot device was generally reserved for westerns like Rio Bravo or (obviously) The Alamo in cinema's earlier years, but by the last '60s the western was a dying breed.  Night of the Living Dead was one of the first movies to show what that concept could like like under modern circumstances, and it wasn't long after that the likes of Straw Dogs and Assault on Precinct 13 took the idea in different directions.  The implication that the world is literally crashing in on the characters is one of the more frightening ideas that a story can tell, and Romero's film shows an understanding of this.  It opened the door for films in many genres - from horror to action - when it turned a Pennsylvania farm house into a fortress.
There had to be drama inside that fortress, and Romero's approach to this problem also provided a blueprint for future filmmakers.  Night of the Living Dead mastered the concept of what I like to call "the unhappy family".  They aren't a family in the traditional sense of the word - though usually the group includes a few people who are (or have desires to be) family.  They're the people in a horror movie who simply do not mesh, but who have no choice to accept that truth.  The mismatched group of potential victims has become a necessary part of horror cinema - see any Friday the 13th film for proof - because things are more interesting when the characters don't like each other. Do you know what happens if the characters all get along? Scooby-Doo happens. That's what happens.

There are plenty of other things to point out about the film, from its use of an African-American hero to its refusal to explain away just why there are creatures attacking these feuding humans.  But the point remains the same: Romero and his crew pushed the boundaries in every regard while making his film.  And that might be their greatest legacy.  Night of the Living Dead revolutionized independent horror filmmaking, and Romero established himself as one of the first soldiers on the front line of the modern horror revolution. 
Again, I don't think Night of the Living Dead is great because it's old and other people copied it.  It's great because it's well-written and interesting and violent and shocking and all that other stuff I said earlier.  But the film's legacy has to be pointed out, because it casts a far reaching shadow over so much that has come after it.  And if I'm making a Noah's Ark style list of horror movies to preserve, Night of the Living Dead is gonna be one of the first films selected.

Oh, I almost forgot about that whole zombie thing...that's a big part of the movie too.


therealphoenixanew said...

You hit the nail right on the head - it's the dynamics between the group of individuals trapped in the house that really make this film great. I watched this movie for the first time last year. I had seen plenty of "people trapped together" movies before watching it, but every one I have seen since gets compared to this one in my mind now.

Michele (TheGirlWhoLovesHorror) said...

Very right! I think so many people think that we should like all these classic movies simply because they are classic or old and others have told us for years that they're amazing. Sometimes that's not true, but most of the time it is. They are good movies, not just for their time, but because all the elements that make a good movie are actually there.