Thirty years of horror: Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead

Tom: Although you can see kernels of zombie mythology in other sources, no single source is as influential as Night of the Living Dead. This is a movie that basically assembled an entire mythology. The shambling, the cannibalism, the undeath, the headshots, the child zombie, the confused newscasts, the asshole survivor undermining the group, the procedural elements of scavenging and barricading a house, the turning of infected victims, the relentless numbers, the misguided military response, the inevitable overrun, the merciless nihilism, the end of the world. It’s all here, fully formed, waiting to be aped. The only thing that never really caught on was flaming chairs kicked out of front doors as a tactic against besieging zombies.

But the beauty of Night of the Living Dead is that it’s not setting out for anything quite so grandiose as the foundation of a mythology. Instead, it’s mostly a parlor room drama, about the interaction of a handful of characters under duress. It could easily be a stage play.

After the jump, in the beginning, there was Night

Chris: That’s a great point. It absolutely could be worked up as a play. What I love here is how Romero isn’t content to film it that way, though. One of the problems I think that’s inherent to those Hammer movies we’ve watched prior to this is how boring and predictably they’re shot. All the compositions are the same, the camera usually still and at eye-level. By contrast, Romero swoops around and grabs amazing angles here and although the film’s in black and white, it still just crackles with life.

In fact, I don’t think George Romero gets enough credit for how strong the direction is in this film. When Barbara first arrives at the house and it’s all shadows and weird angles and quiet, that’s just outstanding work. Another thing that really undercut the effectiveness of some of the films we’ve seen until now is how badly they do the technique of day for night. Here, Romero boldly and obviously shoots at night and the inky blackness of the evening is incredibly effective at ratcheting up the dramatic tension. It’s crazy to me that this dude who’d been making local commercials in Pittsburgh had a better feel for how to shoot light and dark and shadow than anyone working at a professional movie studio like Hammer.

Tom: I love the way the protagonist shifts early on, a bit like Psycho. That’s lost to many of us re-watching the movie — I’ve probably seen Night of the Living Dead twenty times, so I know not to get too attached to Barbara, much less Johnny — but what a great narrative shift. You go from “oh, he’s the hero” to “oh, she’s the heroine” to “oh, she’s gone completely catatonic”. Also lost on us is the subversiveness of having a black man as the hero. In the Heat of the Night, in which Sidney Poitier had to be counterbalanced by Rod Steiger, had only just come out. They Call Me Mr. Tibbs wouldn’t be out for another two years. Richard Roundtree won’t play Shaft for another three years. Night of the Living Dead came out on the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement. It existed in a time entirely before blaxsploitation.

Chris: The inspired casting of Duane Jones as Ben was–if George Romero is to be believed–a happy accident. He didn’t get the lead role for his skin color, but rather (as the director has claimed in numerous interviews) because he was clearly the best actor any of the folks involved in the film knew.

Tom: That’s so obvious during the movie, too. I love the scene when he’s giving Barbara shoes. He tries to cheer her up by responding to the radio broadcast. “Hey, that’s us,” he says when the newscaster advises people to stay inside and lock the doors. “We’re doing all right!” Check out this production still, which you’d never guess was from Night of the Living Dead if you didn’t recognize the actors. It looks like a shoe salesman at work in a women’s shoe store.

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With the sole exception of Duane Jones, the actors are pretty terrible. It’s a testament to Romero’s direction and his script with John Russo that Night of the Living Dead still works as well as it does.

Chris: Romero’s told the story a couple of times that the day they finished with the final edits for this movie they put it into film cans, threw it in the trunk of his car, and headed to New York to try to sell it. On the way that night, they heard on the radio the news of Martin Luther King, Jr being assassinated. It’s hard to not think of that historical event at the climax of this film.

Tom: So why do we get a twofer with this? Why are we watching both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead? Not that I’m complaining!

Chris: Mainly because putting two movies together is a great excuse to watch extra films during the month! Also, the films are linked and they both fall into the proper time period for our survey, but so does 1985’s Day Of The Dead. I’ve seen that latter picture, and it simply fails to make the impact these first two films do. The social commentary aspect of the third movie is overdone, and it just feels like everyone in it has lost the magic that makes the first two movies percolate with life.

Tom: It gets so much worse. I enjoyed the scale of Land of the Dead, but Romero has done a couple of movies since then that are absolutely godawful and completely out of touch with the points they’re trying to make. It’s the worst kind of social commentary: social commentary that’s out of touch with the society it’s commenting on and out of touch with the mythology it’s using. So let’s pretend Romero’s latest movies never happened and get back to Dawn of the Dead.

Just as Night of the Living Dead established zombie mythology, Dawn of the Dead established splatter gore. A fellow named Hershell Gordon Lewis had been doing gory movies, but they were fetishistic trifles (Lewis’ background was in softcore porn). Dawn of the Dead presented the gore as an integral part of the storytelling. A central tenet of zombie mythology is that we’re all just meat, and that zombies are all just meat, and that zombies are us, and that we are them, but minus any feel-good circle-of-life redemption. I doubt that sort of philosophizing was going on as they set up some of Dawn’s iconic kills. Gore guru Tom Savini always seemed to be having too much fun to think too deeply about what he was doing. But the overbright and oddly cheerful gore in Dawn of the Dead, which would became a hallmark of zombie films, was a part of the story as important as the characters.

Chris: I’m so glad you want to talk about gore and furtherance of zombie mythology here for Dawn Of The Dead, and not riff on social commentary and consumerism. I get that those deeper themes are part of the movie here, but it just seems sometimes as if discussion of those elements overwhelm everything else going on here. What’s easy to lose track of with all that commentary is that Dawn Of The Dead is a spectacularly entertaining movie. It’s by turns funny, incredibly tense, and even a bit sad at times. Again, all credit to George Romero for making a movie that invites deep, wonky analysis, but can also be enjoyed as a wonderfully gory zombie movie romp.

Tom: What strikes me as the main difference from Night of the Living Dead, apart from the obvious technical leaps and the larger budget, is the sense of glee in Dawn of the Dead. This is where we first start to see the zombie apocalypse as the playground we know from so many videogames. As I watch Peter and Roger clearing the shopping mall, I see humanity taking the first step in its thirty year journey to Dead Rising.

Chris: Yes, exactly! Any good horror film invites viewers to empathize with its characters and attempt to think along with them. Zombie fiction goes a step further. We actually strategize along with the survivors, almost in a videogaming sense. Dawn Of The Dead makes us think about how we would manage the limited resources and control access to the shopping mall.

Tom: Absolutely. The movie that gave us Dead Rising also eventually gave us Rebuild.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)

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