It really isn’t all that…
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was a film that I desperately, desperately wanted to love. I had heard stories about a low-budget arthouse film that inspired every zombie movie since, including my favourites 28 Days Later and REC.
As a precursor, I would like to mention that I have no particular prejudice against older movies or those in black and white. Despite my youth, I love older films. Pyscho, in my opinion, is the most excellent movie ever made and I adore classic sci-fi like 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man based upon Richard Matheson’s earlier novel. Films of any age can and do teach us valuable lessons as useful today as they were at the time of release.
That said, I struggle to enjoy this film. Having watched it in its entirety at least three times now, every time I have failed to find the magic that comes so easy to everyone else! It breaks my heart as I know I should be in awe of this trailblazing movie, but I just don’t enjoy it. Heck, it can’t have a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes for nothing! I can find things to admire, but just not enough to overpower the bad.
To begin with, the zombies. Or the titular living dead if it pleases you. In this movie, they come across as perhaps the most non-threatening villains in the history of horror cinema. As the film progresses and we hear that these ‘ghouls’ are sweeping the nation, the question I couldn’t help but ask myself is, how?
How could these slow, shambling things have spread across the most powerful nation on Earth? More frustratingly, the public already know that a blow or shot to the head stops the zombies! So how could a country that is in ownership of so many firearms fail to stop them? It’s an infuriating idea that hinders my suspension of disbelief as the film goes on. Yes, there was no social media in the 1960s. But word would have spread about how to defeat the undead via television, radio or word of mouth.
Now zombies don’t HAVE to run or sprint to be scary. I find AMC’s The Walking Dead to be frightful (at least in the earlier seasons) and of course, Dawn of The Dead, the sequel to Romero’s first zombie outing is excellent too. Slow undead can be terrifying, but here they just, aren’t.
As I watched this, I felt like I could outrun them or outsmart them. The fact that only one survivor makes it through the night just beggars my belief. The undead move at a snail’s pace and even in great number take time penetrating the house’s defences. One character could have easily found a different vehicle and brought it back to the house, whisking our survivors away to safety and averting any of the ensuing tragedy.
If during a horror movie, I feel that I could legitimately outrun or overpower my adversary, then something is seriously wrong. Not in my wildest dreams have I ever imagined escaping Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers, because they have strength and speed on their side. (Yes, I know neither of them exactly run, but they do have the uncanny ability to keep pace with protagonists throughout their movies).
Furthermore, in my opinion, one of the greatest mistakes this movie makes is the lack of a clear and definitive explanation of the zombies’ origins. Yes, I enjoy the mystique that surrounds the zombies and have spent many hours pondering their origin and creating my own exciting backstories for them in my mind. But I still feel a little snippet might have done wonders for the rest of the movie.
Allow us to take a more contemporary zombie film as an example. 2002’s 28 Days Later began with a short scene that introduced the audience to the zombies, briefly demonstrated their abilities and told us their origins – a science experiment that has broken loose thanks to some hapless yet well-meaning activists. All of this within the space of five and a half minutes. Consequently, this leaves the rest of the film to focus on the human action and interaction that drives the narrative forward, all the while removing any distractions or speculations over the origins of the infected. Within the first scene, the audience knows their enemy, their origins and the danger they pose. It’s quite simply brilliant.
On the other hand, speculation over the origins of the Zombies in Romero’s movies has become so diluted both in-universe and by fans that I feel we may never know the truth. The character’s themselves do not spend much time on this speculation, aside from the newscasters who offer several opinions through the film, but as moviegoers, it is difficult not to postulate and sit in wonder of what exactly could have created these monsters. For me, at least, this question was simply too burning, and not being given any answer (satisfying or not) harmed the movie.
Furthermore, as a film recognised for its social commentary, I feel that including an origin for the zombies would have been an ample way to further the insight into society that the film was aiming to explore. A failed military experiment, the result of a nuclear test, or a biological weapon sent by the Soviets are all appropriate explanations for a film premiering during the Cold War and preying on mid to late twentieth century anxieties. Ambiguity usually is horrifying, but here I feel a little more detail may have worked in the story’s favour.
Narrative issues aside, let us move on to another important facet of any story, the characters. Almost all of the characters in the movie are well rounded and manage to engage the audience. It was hugely satisfying to see Duane Jones’ Ben step nicely into the role of the hero. However, the character of Barbara is entirely the opposite. She is left in a catatonic state for much of the film after seeing her brother killed in the opening few minutes and is relegated to screaming and complaining for much of the film afterwards.
For a film that is so progressive for the time, I feel a huge opportunity was missed with the Barbara character. She is more of a literal scream queen when she could have been the heir apparent to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane. In a world falling apart, it would have been much more gratifying to see Barbara take a stand and, if not lead, at least be useful and willing to fight. For the majority of the film, she fulfils the role of a weak and dependent female. It’s hugely disappointing, if she had stepped up tot he mark we could have another early movie heroine akin to Ellen Ripley or Laurie Strode, breaking down barriers and fighting the status quo.
So there it is, all of these factors come together to make a pretty middling film in my opinion. While a pioneer of the zombie sub-genre and grandfather to all the more recent movies that I love, there just isn’t enough there for me to be able to enjoy this one.
That’ all for today folks. Come back next week to ready why I think James Cameron’s Avatar is overrated!