starring Judith O'Dea, Duane Jones, Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman
screenplay by John A. Russo
directed by George A. Romero
by Walter Chaw George A. Romero's drive-in shocker is not only one of the most important independent and genre films of all-time, but also a dead brilliant civil rights metaphor featuring an unfortunately enduring rarity: a strong, virile, uncommented-upon African-American lead. The casting of Duane Jones came about, according to legend, mainly because Jones was the best actor any of the filmmakers knew. Say what you will of Night of the Living Dead, if you see no other ways that this seminal picture casts a long shadow, it casts a long one by just this merit-based example. The culmination of a lot of themes and trends in the American cinema at that time, the film features neighbour-suspicion, fear of children, fear of provincial National Guardsmen, and the creeping dread that the world may be ending because our government is run by assclowns and nepotists. It's a testament to the undertow of this text (or a testament to how short-sighted we are as a nation) that it still works in the same way over thirty-five years later. But Night of the Living Dead is more than just a devastating metaphor for the class struggle, for the rising tide of suspicion and corruption that tore a chasm through the middle of the United States: it's a tightly-edited, claustrophobically-framed horror film that retains, along with its relevance, its ability to startle and appall.
The mechanics of Night of the Living Dead should by now be familiar. From the opening sequence, in which white brother and sister Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O'Dea) visit a graveyard and are attacked by a shambling ghoul, there is about Night of the Living Dead a feeling of encroaching, lawless dread. Barbra hides out in a farmhouse in the middle of a Pennsylvania podunk, where dashing Ben (Duane Jones), his truck out of gas, seeks refuge as well. Together they fend off a few waves of mindless attackers (a nifty parable, perhaps, for an interracial couple shacking up together in an unforgiving society) before a few more sentient humans and then the National Guard materialize to shepherd one of the most gut-wrenching and savage endings in the history of film.
The intrusion of atrocity into traditional sanctuaries (first the graveyard, then the rural farmhouse where the scene is set) up to and including the dissolution of familial bonds--brother-to-sister, husband-to-wife, mother-to-daughter--is no more deeply felt than when the media appears to be disrupted, with emergency programming suggesting that the once-sacred bond between people and their elected officials may have been violated to disastrous, apocalyptic effect. It shakes up that most sacrosanct of American connections in the television age: the child of the boob tube, torn rudely from the glass teat. Opening in October of the year that in April saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the assassination of Robert Kennedy just two months later, the film speaks of the ways in which the society at large in 1968 had become divided along ideological, generational, and cultural divides. Night of the Living Dead is a cold finger to the pulse of a bewildered zeitgeist that generally believed the world was coming to an end. And that armies of remorseless, thoughtless zombies (tuned-out flower power hippies on the one side, militarized pod people on the other) are to blame.
Not to say that Night of the Living Dead is a Rorschach blot for the viewer, but to suggest that the ways that it criticizes the forces of deception and bad judgment that sought to divide our society are more supple than just a pulpit-splintering diatribe fired from the left. It's that malleability which lends the film its continued importance as American cinema and a form, vital, of American protest art. The movie is to a degree as sharp a dig at the way the wind was blowing as the freewheelin' Bob Dylan diagrammed earlier in that tumultuous decade--and the most appalling realization that one experiences whilst revisiting it is that the straits in which we find ourselves today are possibly more dire than the circumstances that produced Night of the Living Dead. Race representation in film is getting progressively worse, our country is as divided against itself as it's ever been, and, sure enough, there have been three significant zombie films (28 Days Later..., Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead) released in the last two years. (What does it say that only one of them, Zack Snyder's remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead, is American? The answer lies somewhere in this year's spate of films about blindness and forgetfulness.) Understand that Night of the Living Dead is the prototype for the modern zombie picture precisely because it's left itself so open to the real anxieties of its age--it identifies genre pictures as the primary source in film for social commentary and, in my mind, opened the conversation about what it means when a zero-budget grindhouse flicker becomes a unifying trope for an entire disenfranchised generation.
Romero would use zombies as a metaphor again in Dawn of the Dead to excoriate our consumerist (literally in this instance) culture and the straight lines we paint to assume civilization that we find, even after calamity, that we're unwilling to cast aside--maybe we're incapable. (The reduction of humanity to its base automatism is a theme taken on by the Japanese and their animé tradition, brilliantly culminating in the current Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence from director Mamoru Oshii.) Then, in Day of the Dead, Romero begins his critique of systems of belief, drawing the line between the Christian myth and the zombie myth (the cannibalistic implications of Communion with an undead being and the resulting life amongst a flock). Romero's zombie trilogy is vital stuff, living documents, if you will--enough so that expectations for his upcoming Land of the Dead are perhaps impossibly high. Whatever the result, Night of the Living Dead remains a landmark entertainment: The gore, tame by modern standards, is still discomfiting, and its ingenuity working on a zero budget deflates the argument that low production values by necessity produces substandard fare. It's the precious example of independent filmmaking that manages as it entertains to turn on the proverbial light in the attic.
Because the title has fallen into the public domain, Night of the Living Dead appears in its umpteenth DVD release courtesy of Fox and Off Color Films. Yes, it's colorized; J. Hoberman once offered that colorization is the perfect metaphor for the Reagan era (the urge to take the Fifties and slap a shiny new coat of candy-coated spackle over it for ease of ingestion), and finding this classic desecrated in this manner is no less an affront to my sensibilities than any campaign slash-and-burn tactic. I don't know what sort of mouth-breather would actually prefer to watch a black-and-white film in colour (probably the same mouth-breathers who would prefer to view pan-and-scan versions of 'scope productions), but I'd say to them that when folks do stuff like this to old movies for people like you, they're not doing it because they respect your intelligence and taste. The colorized picture, as most colorized pictures tend to be, is flat, wholly without shadow detail or nuance and plagued by this really distracting habit of flickering. Constantly. It's grainy and unnatural, and some of the backgrounds (especially in the basement) seem not to have been colorized at all. So it's not only a bad idea, it's one carried off without any degree of care. As it was playing, though, I did realize what was tweaking at the back of my head during Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: the whole damn $70M thing looks like a bad colorization job.
An audio commentary by "Mystery Science Theater 3000"'s Mike Nelson hammers home the idea that there's nothing like respect involved in this DVD presentation. Watching the film in colour with the Nelson commentary engaged is one of the most painful experiences that people who love films could imagine doing, akin to suffering a double-bill of Shining Through and Crazy in Alabama. As Nelson snarks along about O'Dea's wig and how old the radio is in the farmhouse (hardy har), I kept wondering why he wasn't commenting on the principal's bright, fake-bake orange complexion, on Johnny's pink and purple polka-dotted tie, on Ben's Mr. Robinson yellow cardigan and teal shirt, or on the sets, which, in their pale primary pastels, begin to resemble a Frank Tashlin film. Either he's not watching the colorized version, or he was instructed in a note included with his check not to take the piss out of the process. He's not funny when he's attacking a great film, and now he doesn't have any credibility, either. Unemployment's a bitch, ain't it, Mike?
As for the black-and-white viewing option: it's watchable and in pristine condition, but since it was obviously mastered from the low-contrast print prepared for colorization, it's almost as embarrassing as the so-called colour rendition. Adding insult to injury, an A/B comparison with Elite's THX-certified Millennium Edition reveals that about 10% of the image is lost to a digital blow-up (is this so their crayons would hold out longer?), and that number will increase depending on the extent of your set's overscan because Elite's transfer is windowboxed. (The Elite image also looks a great deal less 'plugged-up.') It's because of substandard moneygrabs like this one from Off Color Films that Romero's acumen with a camera is often missing from the discussion. New DD 5.1 and DTS remixes make poor if any use of atmospherics, leaving the majority of audio information to be squeezed through the centre channel. The 5.1 tracks avoid tinniness for the most part, but the movie sounds just as good in the 2.0 mono alternative.
A "Separated at Death" celebrity zombie game isn't so much a game as it is a dozen or so stills of zombie extras compared to "look-alikes" like Jiminy Glick, Jessica Simpson, and Vince Vaughn. It's another unjustified and juvenile jab at Night of the Living Dead, in other words--the whole disc reeks of ignorance and puerility. This feature, along with two trailers for this film plus trailers for Carnival of Souls and Flesh Eaters (both colorized), round out the disc. You know what, though, for the sake of your soul buy the Elite release, if any; it's all I can do not to burn this thing. Between the colorization and Nelson, tossing it onto the proverbial pyre is the only humane thing left to do. Originally published: October 5, 2004.