George Romero is, without doubt, one of the fathers of the modern horror movie. There were many who came before who touched on what we now know of as “horror”, names like Herschell Gordon Lewis come to mind, but never before did someone consistently attempt to elevate the genre to something more than what it was.
Romero’s movies owe more to a European style of film making than they do to those of those made in contemporary America, moments in Night of the Living Dead bring forth comparisons to the great works of German expressionism. No, Night is not an expressionistic film, but it is a fantasy of sorts; though obviously a particularly dark one, but the visual style often breaks down into the Dutch angles and drunken pans than viewers associate with early German cinema.
When compared to domestic movies from the same time Night stands nearly alone, only movies like Robert Wise’s The Haunting or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane show a similar level of expressionism in what is essentially a popularized horror movie. However this is not what makes his work special, it is when we start to examine the use of story in Romero’s work that he takes a confident step ahead of his peers.
The word complexity simply does not do Night of the Living Dead any kind of justice. From the outset the bickering of siblings tell the viewer that something unusual is about to happen, with a bickering that revolves around new versus old thinking. Barbara is a woman older than her years and her brother epitomises everything new and decadent about the age. Perhaps this is why he is the first to die in the picture, the progressive personality dying first and leaving the superstitious age represented by Barbara to fend for itself. However before this happens we are treated to a striking and unheard of moment of self awareness within the movie when Johnny presents an eerily passable impression of Boris Karloff with the movies signature line of dialogue: “He’s coming to get you Barbara!”
This line signalled an approach that completely changed the face of modern horror, placing the carnage squarely in the modern day, the very moment in which the audience were viewing it. By this reference the film presents the forthcoming action as a direct commentary to those times, not as a representation of some far off time or place but rather a representation of the here and the now.
Much has been made of Night’s debt to Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, and there’s little doubt of that classic novels influence, but Night goes far beyond what I Am Legend began. Taking the same basic premise Night layered on a plethora of meaning so effortlessly that much of its audience (even to this day) seem oblivious to the deeper meaning the film presents.
The importance of this approach cannot be over-emphasised, not only does it put Night firmly in the modern era, and by extension the social and political upheavals this carries with it, but it also sets the continued tone of the remaining “Dead” movies to come; and perhaps Romero’s whole film oeuvre. With a single line of dialogue Night says something immediate and startling to its audience; it says “we are you”.
It could be said that this is why there is little attempt to create characters that are blindly “good” or “bad” in this movie. Those who are broadly thought of as “good guys” often show as much bigotry and stubbornness as their antagonists. Even the woman who we follow into the story does nothing to label her as a “heroine”; in fact she does little at all during the picture. Barbara disappears into herself, never to return and it is something of a kindness when the inevitable happens.
If she is us, and if the racial undertone in which the film later dissolves is any indication, the film represents the most damning commentary on which we are that the silver screen has ever presented.
Indeed if this is true then there’s even something to be said for the method of Barbara’s demise, as she is dragged into the night by the hands of her dead brother, hungry for his sisters flesh.
Very few moments are wasted in Night of the Living Dead. Each character and scene encompasses something to drive the plot onward or add a new layer on which the viewer can contemplate.
The character of Ben is the closest we get to a “hero” in this movie, though he is anything but typical. Ben is African-American who takes the lead in a movie made at the height of the violence and hatred of the civil rights movement. He acts with assurance and intelligence, but he is tempered as a character with more than a little arrogance and stubbornness. Often his actions are wrong and he is led sometimes to behaviour or decisions merely because his main antagonist wants the opposite of the actions in question.
Strangely I think of another movie at this point, Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and the words of Herr Schindler himself.
“War always brings out the bad in a person, never the good.”
This is what we see in Ben, though he makes better of the situation than some of the characters in the movie he is still slowly succumbing to the darker side of his nature and it seems inevitable that at some point his will to do what’s right will break. In many ways Ben exists in the same world as Barbara’s deceased brother, and as such it is fitting that he becomes her protector, of sorts, though a particularly brutal one at times. Ben is no compliant underclass; he thinks nothing of striking Barbara back when she slaps him, or muttering a blasphemy when faced with something horrific, Ben is progressive but progressive as only a struggling underclass can be. He is not the comical irony represented by Johnny, a “university rebel” protected by artistic expression and rich parents, Ben is someone to whom failure brings with it far darker results.
The night is fought and the morning dawns, and Ben stands alone in some form of triumph over the situation. Across the fields a rag tag group of men are “mopping up” what we presume to be what’s left of the walking dead. Ben hears the gunfire and peers through one shattered window and a clean single shot ends his life.
What starts as something akin to the 50’s atomic movies in its basic premise, a radio broadcast even attributes the walking dead to the crash landing of a satellite, evolves into something that defied common interpretation. The chaos of the Night not only gives way to the Dawn of a new world within the film but also the dawn of a new age OF film. The photography, its use of character and multi-layered symbolism began with Night became stock technique in the later entries in the “Dead” canon of movies.
Not to mention in the many imitators, homages and plain rip-offs the admiration of the film produced.