Monday, April 21, 2014

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Until the day I die, I will continue to praise black & white films and will usually choose to watch one over a more modern movie-any time, any day, any place.  The moods of these films are better, especially for an old horror film, and it definitely seems like an art form to see these films play out.  Seeing that color film was available as early as the 1930s, it's a wonder films were still being made in black & white as late as the 1960s.  But just like introducing CGI in the 1990s as a very expensive technology to put into a movie, filming in color was more expensive due to the price difference in film stock.  However, nowadays, most films are shot digitally and if they're not, color film stock is the norm.  In fact, converting a movie to black & white nowadays (like Frank Durabont wanted to do with The Mist) is probably a bit more costly.

Even though I've always been a fan of watching black & white films, there was one film I wasn't familiar with-nor had heard about-until it aired one night on television back in the early 90s and that film, of course, was George Romero's 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead.

A quick story to how I had come about this flick dates back to living at home in my early 20s, sponging off my mom and dad, and constantly watching MTV.  I was sitting at home on a Halloween afternoon and decided I was going to call up my good friend, Ron, and see what was going down that night.  But, when I did, he had some plans with a girlfriend and wasn't going to hang out with the guys.  When trying a few other friends, it seemed to be the trend with all of them.  Being single at the time, I decided to spend a quiet night at home.  We never really had too many trick-r-treaters back then-and if we did, my mom probably handed out the candy that night-so I decided to channel surf the television to see what was on.  I happened upon MTV and I was expecting to watch some music videos, but the VJs were just finishing introducing how they were going to showcase a classic as a special for Halloween, with no commercials.  Since I had missed what movie they were talking about, I left it on the channel and decided to see what this classic was.  From beginning to end, I watched...spooked a little...and became a fan of Night of the Living Dead instantly.

The film begins with Barbra (Judith O'Dead) and her brother, Johnny (an uncredited Russell Streiner), driving to visit their father's grave in some remote cemetery.  As they argue a bit, they notice an odd-looking man approaching them.  Johnny begins to tease his sister, saying, "They're coming to get you Barbra," as the man walks closer.  The man tries to attack Barbra and Johnny pulls him away, beginning to tussle with the man until he falls and hits his head on a gravestone, knocking him out or killing him (it's never clear).  Barbra tries
to get away in the car, but can't start it because Johnny had the keys, so she puts it in neutral to roll away from the pursuing man.  Crashing into a tree, she gets out of the car and flees, finds an abandoned farmhouse and goes inside.  Shocked by what she finds, but relatively safe, she's soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who shows up after an ordeal he went through himself.  Clearly freaked out and catatonic, Barbra only sits as Ben checks the house.  Soon they're joined by five other people, led by an asshole named Cooper (Karl Hardman), who all happened to be hiding in the basement the whole time.  Cooper and Ben are at odds with each other from the start as they both have different ideas on what decisions to make for the whole group, but above all else, they have to deal with the horrors outside that are trying to get inside.

From the first minute of this movie, I was enthralled and surprised I had never-at the time-heard of it before.  I was still a novice movie-goer-and even more of a beginner when it came to the horror genre-but the way the VJs were speaking of the film before playing it made me think it was a world renowned classic.  Turns out they were right, but I hadn't known it at the time.

Sitting there at home, by my lonesome, and watching this flick really had gotten under my skin.  I wasn't by myself in the house, but I was sitting in the dark in our family room and thinking there were zombies right outside the house as I was seeing this for the first time.

The black & white film experience really adds to this movie, as it gives an ominous atmosphere and with the grainy look to it, you really can't see what may come out of the shadows while our protagonists are held up in the house.  However, at times, the scenes seem tame as you really can't tell when things get gory, and that's when you feel safe.  Because during those times, that's when Romero adds scenes with these zombies eating flesh and it kind of makes you sick to the stomach.  Overall, you really go through a rollercoaster ride when watching this.

The performances are very believable for its time period.  A lot of films from the 50s and 60s have that stage play feel to it, where the actors speak a little too loudly and use too many hand gestures to get their points across.  In this one, you really believe what the characters are going through, feeling their fear and anger, as they're defending themselves from the threat and dealing with being confined with each other, causing them to be at each other's throats.

Duane Jones does a magnificent job as the leading man which, during the 60s, was unheard of, especially in a movie where the majority of the cast is white.  I'm surprised some of the scenes didn't cause an uproar back then (maybe it did, I really don't know), like when Ben tries to snap Barbra out of it by slapping her in the face or how he shows dominance over Cooper for control of the house.  I had really enjoyed Jones's performance because I felt you couldn't help but root for the guy since he knew what to do and had all the right ideas.  Seeing that Judith O'Dea's character was silent from shock throughout the beginning and the characters in the basement hadn't turned up yet, Duane Jones had to take control of the scenes that led up to the rest of the story.

Judith O'Dea as Barbra was your typical character of a damsel in distress back then, where trouble arises and the female would typically fall to the wayside to be saved by the leading man.  It's a shame, but that's the way most films were storied out back then, not giving female characters strong roles but rather the victimized maiden.  With all that, O'Dea still puts on a strong performance as someone so freaked out by unexplained horrors that she resorts to being in a state of catatonia.

Karl Hardman as Cooper might've been a bit two-dimensional in his portrayal, but I feel the film needed that.  We didn't need to see why he was a jerk to Ben-I guess we can assume it was because he didn't want to be
taking orders from a black man-so the lack of his character development was understandable.  Keith Wayne as Tom did all right as the neutral guy who kept Ben and Cooper from going too far in their fights.  The rest of the cast did fine, nether memorable or forgettable.

One interesting thing you'll notice in this film, especially if you've seen all the modern day zombie films-whether the zombies run or shamble-is that some of the zombies know enough to use tools.  The first zombie we see during the cemetery scene picks up a stone to try and break the car window.  Cooper's daughter, when resurrected as a zombie, picks up a trowel in the basement and uses it to kill her mother.  For the most part, however, the rules of zombie engagement have been, more or less, the same as it's been since this 1968 classic.

Night of the Living Dead is definitely a masterpiece and, although Romero directed countless sequels since, this film stands above as the one that started it all.  The story of zombies has been around for ages, so we really can't say that George Romero is the father of zombie films, but he really put his stamp on it when he made this one.  Before this, zombies in film were represented by people under mind control or voodoo rituals-sometimes able to speak, sometimes not.  I'm not completely sure, but I believe Romero's zombies were the first to devour flesh.  Any way you slice it, however, George Romero's name is synonymous with zombies.

Although Romero gets the recognition that he deserves with this film, when you hear the backstory of this film, it's a little heartbreaking, in my opinion.  For those of you that don't know, when he made this film, it was originally titled, and copyrighted as, "Night of the Flesh Eaters."  The film was about ready to be distributed when it was decided to be changed and named what it was named.  However, after the title change, the copyright wasn't put in the new film, so the whole movie was placed in the public film domain right away.  I'm not that much in the know about these things, but because of that, Romero doesn't get a cent of money for all the ticket sales and home media sales.  Not only that, but anybody can take this film, edit it anyway they want, include additional footage or dialogue, then reproduce and distribute it for sale, all legally with no piracy laws broken.  I found out the hard way not too long ago when my wife bought an inexpensive DVD of Night of the Living Dead.   I was pretty happy, but that soon changed when I saw the quality of the sound and picture.

What's my final "bit" on Night of the Living Dead?

Good, scary fun is what you're going to have when you sit through this.  You'll come to understand why Romero is considered the founding father of the modern zombie film as you'll see so many cues that other filmmakers have used in zombie films today.  He made the rules with this one that have stuck for over forty years and you'd be hard-pressed to see any filmmaker who'd want to go against those rules.  You're going to
want to lock up your windows and doors as you watch this, because it just gives you a sense of foreboding in your core.  Whatever you do, stay away from the countless cheapie DVD copies that have bad quality and added scenes to the film and ask around for the best copy to get.  Romero's classic should not be missed.

Thanks for reading and I welcome any comments!

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