Review of the Dead - Night of the Living Dead
In July of this past year, we lost a master…the godfather of the modern-day zombie, George A. Romero. As we get to the closing days of October and ever closer to Halloween, we’re going to plow through his zombie films with a series of reviews. Naturally, we have to start with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.
[And hey! Ol’ George is getting star on the walk of fame on October 25th! – Ed.]
So, how do you review a classic? Especially with something that’s been combed over time and time again such as Night of the Living Dead. Do you talk about what everyone else has talked about, but putting your own spin on it? Maybe, and I’m sure I’ll go down that path to some degree. Do you talk about the minutia of the film…how it was made, why it’s in the public domain and so forth? Nah. There are websites and videos out there that cover that stuff much better than we could here. No, instead I’m going to try to talk more about the impact of the film on me, why it still creeps me out with each viewing and, because it might prove helpful, how to track down a copy of this film that isn’t out there simply as a cheap cash-grab…how to get a home video copy of the film that treats the movie like what it is…a classic.
The story is simple enough. We start off with Barbara and her brother Johnny arriving at a cemetery 3 hours away from their current home in Pittsburgh to lay a wreath on their father’s grave. While Johnny prods Barbara with the now famous line “They’re coming to get you Barbara” over her fear of graveyards, they notice only too late the disheveled fellow shambling toward them. Barbara manages to flee to a nearby farmhouse. Johnny doesn’t make it. We’re introduced to other characters either already in the house or who make it there through the first act: Helen and Harry Cooper with their injured daughter Karen and young lovers Tom and Judy who are holed up in the cellar while Ben arrives after escaping a gas truck explosion at a nearby diner. Ben’s truck is out of fuel…and yet there appears to be a locked gas pump on the farmhouse property…but it might as well be in another state as the house gradually becomes surrounded by the living dead. The first step is to fortify the farmhouse…which eventually gives way to finding a way to escape to the nearest rescue station in the nearby town of Willard. Can they make it? Or will they fall prey to the ever increasing number of zombies outside?
Like I said…simple. No, the strength here is the interaction of the characters and the social commentary laid bare in that interaction. Ben, a black man trying his best to survive this and save as many within the house as he can butts heads with Harry Cooper, the typical conservative family man in the mold of what we’d expect from the mid to late 60s. Tom and Judy [Was Romero doing a little bit of a twist on Tom and Jerry here? – Ed.] end up transitioning from following Cooper to throwing in with Ben. Many commenting on the film say that there is something to be said about the Vietnam Conflict that was raging as the film was being made and when it was released…but truth be told, I don’t really see much of that. To be fair, though, I’m kind of missing a vital frame of reference. One thing that is very plain, and remains relevant to this day, is the racial angle…whether it is the friction between Cooper and Ben, the hesitance of Tom to transition from the increasingly irrational Cooper to the more methodical nature of Ben or the way the film itself ends. While it’s easy to say that this was made at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and as such the film reflects those sensibilities, unanswered questions from that movement linger to this day. For example, would the police of today react the same way as the police depicted in the film? In many areas of the country, that answer might be a bit of a shock and show either how much progress we have indeed made…or how precious little things have actually changed. And that’s the hallmark of a classic. This film remains just as deep today, in spite of its relatively simple plot, as it was when it released.
So what’s my personal attachment to all of this? Well, first thing’s first, the movie still scares the crap out of me…even after many repeated viewings. There are two things I can point to…the first just being a good horror movie moment, the other I wouldn’t be afraid to say is an unsettling moment of existential dread. The horror movie moment is when the Coopers’ child, Karen, finally succumbs to her wounds and turns into one of the undead…and, as such, kills her mother with a trowel then starts eating her father. Heh. Dr. Freud, you have a call parked on 101, Dr. Freud, 101. Seriously, for the next week, now that I’ve rewatched the film for this damn review, I’m going to wake up with nightmares thinking that damn kid is at the foot of my bed munching on my damn toes. Second, the deeper existential dread part, is the fate of Ben. Sure, Romero could’ve just filmed what happened, but he doesn’t. Instead he opts for a far more powerful delivery of the information. We’re presented with a slideshow of photos that sequentially tell the final moments. And those pictures line up directly with photos that permeated American culture throughout the Civil Rights Movement. In some way, the stillness of the photos makes this ending feel more stark and impactful than it would have been had motion been introduced. In a way, we’re shown ourselves in the harshest of mirrors…and anyone leaving this film that doesn’t feel like they’ve at the very least been punched in the gut, I feel comfortable in saying, clearly has no soul. [Was that a pun? What did I say about puns? – Ed.]
Oh, then there’s location. Location, location, location. I grew up in a small town in northeast Ohio…about halfway between Akron and Cleveland…and yet the TV stations we got the strongest signal from were out of Youngstown…a location named in the film as having a rescue station in it. To take it further, Sharon PA was home to Quaker Steak and Lube, home to some of the best and hottest wings I’ve ever had and Mercer County PA was home to probably the most severe weather I can remember growing up. Other locations I remember from the occasional trip with my brother to Pittsburgh to watch the Penguins play. Good times…and the names of these places trigger both the “HEY! I know that place!” and the nostalgia responses in my brain. We even made it a point to drive through the area where the film was shot…though I did not get a glimpse of the infamous farmhouse.
Okay, nostalgia out of the way, we should at least talk a little about the acting…and it’s a mixed bag. My first impulse is to be critical of Judith O’Dea’s performance as Barbara…but the more I think about it, I’m not really sure if it’s fair or warranted. Sure, she comes off a bit wooden in the opening…but after the initial encounter with the zombie in the graveyard, Barbara begins to unravel and is never able to put the pieces back together again. While she never devolves to gurgling while curled up in fetal position, you can tell that’s the road she’s going down. She manages to tie a couple of shards of sanity together loosely near the end of the film…but that fragile binding comes undone the instant that she sees that Johnny has joined the ranks of the undead. I guess that leaves me at the verdict that it’s a somewhat uneven performance. Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley as Tom and Jenny respectively inhabit that lower end of the spectrum with O’Dea with their performances falling into the ‘mostly harmless, but definitely amateur’ realm. Marilyn Eastman as Helen Cooper…meh, she was alright. Kyra Schon has the easiest role of the film…just look creepy…and boy does she ever. Top marks. Karl Hardman does relatively all right as the combative Harry Cooper, sure, it’s not a polished performance…but his performance does get you to despise him…and as always, that’s the mark of a good actor. But by far and away, the late Duane Jones as Ben steals the show…hands down. Jones runs the gamut of emotions, as you’d figure Ben would in this situation, and the gravity and intensity he brings to the role manages to do two very important things; it allows you to look past the weaker performances of those surrounding him and allows you as an audience member to fully buy in to what’s happening on the screen.
Now, since the film does reside in the public domain, when it comes to getting a copy of the film, well, that’s easy. But I’d highly recommend hunting down a QUALITY presentation of the film…particularly if you’re a fan of film in general or zombie films in particular. Even though it’s been out for a while and may be out of print…track down Elite Entertainment’s Millennium Edition DVD, which seems like it can be found rather cheaply on Amazon HERE. This disc still has one of the best prints available, with the film having been THX re-mastered with the best materials that George Romero had on hand. This, combined with a few commentary tracks, the last audio interview with Duane Jones and the parody ‘Night of the Living Bread’, makes for, at the time of this writing, the best domestic release available. If you want to stretch your legs overseas though, check out the 2008 Blu-Ray release from Happinet in Japan. While it is a little skinny on extras, containing only the aforementioned audio interview with Jones, a theatrical trailer and an all new 40th anniversary documentary ‘One for the fire’, it retains the clear picture…perhaps even a touch clearer…of the Elite release. And the kicker…you can find it on the cheap. I ordered my copy from CDJapan and with their slowest shipping option, I still had it in about a week and a half…and the cost didn’t exceed $20…I think my final total was around $18. To be fair though, I’m on the west coast now…so that probably sped up the delivery a touch. While it might be easier to find and similar, if not a little cheaper in price, Mill Creek Entertainment is selling what they’re calling a 50th anniversary edition…and I can honestly say AVOID THIS RELEASE AT ALL COSTS. No extras and probably one of the worst transfers I’ve ever seen with extremely poor image quality and, unfortunately, we have a quick cash grab trying to pass itself as some sort of special anniversary edition. With the 50th anniversary of this film coming up, fingers crossed that a carefully, lovingly constructed anniversary edition with a print at least similar in quality as the Elite or Happinet releases and extras on the level of the Elite release is on the way…although no official news has broken at the time of this writing. Since George has passed though…it’s hard to say if one is coming or not…though there were rumors that he was working on a restoration of the film with Martin Scorsese. I for one am hoping those rumors are true.
With the popularity of zombies in the media right now, whether it’s The Walking Dead or countless iterations of B-movies, if you have even the slightest inclination toward the genre, then you owe it to yourself to track down a GOOD version of this film and watch it. [If you’re one of the, like, 4 people on the planet that hasn’t seen it yet. Just sayin’. – Ed.] It’s patient zero. It’s where everything you know about zombies starts…all in one fateful NIGHT…
And now, we move on to the DAWN…