The Zombie Appeal, part 4: Hell is other people, right?

14 Nov

3. Hell is other people, right?

George Romero kicked off the modern zombie craze with Night of the Living Dead. It was a low budget drive-in cheapie, and arguably the greatest independent movie ever made. He made up for his low budget with weird camera angles, a mix of amateur and professional actors, on-location shooting and a no-frills, if very powerful, script. It’s the first night in a zombie infection and a small group of survivors have to overcome their squabbling, their differences, to make it through. If they could work together and make smart decisions, they would probably survive. But they don’t, they can’t, and the true obstacle to human flourishing isn’t the zombies, but rather other people.

The basic pattern of the zombie art form was established: slow but implacable zombies, worrisome only in their immense numbers and driven only by a ravenous hunger for human flesh. A small group of squabbling survivors who are unable to work together. The military response to the zombies itself a type of horror show. And undercurrents of racial, cultural and economic divides in the larger society. Finally the idea that the zombies are strangely innocent in their guilelessness; it is only the living who can betray. Romero and his people set the rules; we’re still living beneath them.

Night of the Living Dead works partially because it isn’t campy—the zombies have metaphoric heft but they are real, flesh-eating creatures—but mostly because Romero and his crew made a lean film with professionals on the fringe of the industry, but no budget. They had constraints, and those boundaries forced them to stay tight and close. The movie feels like an arthouse film, filtered through some grisly pulp netherworld. It’s Val Lewton intermingled with Jean Luc Godard.

Terrifying, yet guileless and predictable and strangely innocent.

Night was a bona fide international hit, and arguably the most influential horror movie ever made. It played for 18 months in Madrid’s largest theatre. Dozens of directors and writers point to it as the first horror film that grabbed them.

Including me.

I first watched it when I was nine. Alongside The Octagon, Beastmaster, First Blood, Over the Top, and Conan the Barbarian, TBS played Night all the time[1]. Due to an error in the credits of the film, the movie was without copyright for decades. The print they used for television was grainier than the original, but the hazy visuals made it seem more real. I saw it half a dozen times before I was a teenager and it scared the shit out of me with each and every viewing. (The basement scene with the daughter remains one of the most shocking scenes in the history of cinema. There’s a little kid munching on her father’s arm! It gives me the heebie jeebies just thinking about it.)

The exact moment when my childhood innocence went out the window.

The ending hits like a punch to the gut. The hero, for those of you who haven’t seen it, survives the zombie onslaught only to be shot in the head by a posse of deputized rednecks. There’s no moral, no balance, no lesson and no restoration of order. It’s just a stupid murder amidst vast, unexplained carnage. It chilled the blood. The stupid hopelessness of the world was laid bare.

I never quite got over it.


[1] This collection says more about me and the formation of my tastes than I would care to admit.

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