Night of the Living Dead (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD)
Fifty years ago, commercial filmmaker George Romero marshalled the resources of his production company Latent Image and the talents of friends and colleagues to produce a low budget feature film in Pittsburg, PA. The rest is, as they say, history. Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the Gothic horrors that defined the sixties, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture.
The plot is ingeniously simple: dead rise from their graves and feast on the living. There’s no exposition to frame it and the unstoppable army of flesh eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation; they literally come from nowhere. Barbra (Judith O’Shea) flees a stumbling ghoul in a panic to an abandoned farmhouse and becomes nearly catatonic as another survivor, Ben (Duane Jones), takes refuge and then takes action, boarding up the place as more of those shambling creatures gather outside.
The casting of Duane Jones as Ben is one of the great moments of color-blind casting in American cinema.
Three years after the success of Dawn of the Dead, George Romero stepped out of his defining genre to direct something more unexpected. Based solely on the film’s original poster, painted by famed fantasy illustrator Boris Vallejo and featuring Ed Harris striding a motorcycle in medieval armor, handlebars in one hand and a spiked flail in the other, you might expect Knightridersto fall in line with the Roger Corman drive-in genre of futuristic barbarian movies, an upscale Deathsport with a middle-ages theme.
Romero’s film couldn’t be farther from it. Knightridersdoes indeed offer riders in suits of armor over tunics and tights, jousting on motorcycles and battling with swords, maces, ornate axes and other ancient weapons, but it’s part of the spectacle they provide for local audiences with their traveling Renaissance Fair. To the crowds it’s just a show but for this community of cycle-riding gypsies and old-school artisans and craftsmen, it’s a good-natured competition undertaken in the spirit of their Arthurian inspiration.
The screenplay echoes the King Arthur legend but stops short of attempting to recreate it in literal form. Ed Harris took his first leading role as Billy, the benevolent king of the troupe and an idealist who aspires to the chivalric code in the modern world. He created this scruffy nomadic community and struggles to hold on to his singular vision as the troupe grows. The supportive Merlin (Brother Blue) is the troupe’s medical doctor, a man who dropped out of the traditional medical culture to be a healer, shaman, storyteller, and Billy’s most trusted advisor. You can pick out a Guinevere in his Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll) and a Lancelot in the loyal Alan (Gary Lahti), the heroic and handsome right-hand to Billy, but there is no betrayal of vows between them. There’s a Percival in the silent Native American local (Albert Amerson) who challenges Billy during an exhibition and then becomes his devoted shadow and protector. There is even a fall of their Camelot in the form of the temptation of money and fame, which draws out a faction of riders led by Morgan (Tom Savini), the resident black knight who undertakes every competition with a little more competitive aggression and physical gusto than most.
Romero’s zombie apocalypse rewrote the rules of horror
By today’s standards, director George Romero’s disturbed 1968 debut, Night of the Living Dead, looks downright antediluvian, a rough, raw, black-and-white horror hewn from primitive equipment, unremarkable locations, a game but amateurish cast and gore effects that are, measured by the grotesqueries paraded across movie screens in the decades since, quaint.
Yet there is subversive genius amid the sometimes sketchy performances and long-winded newsbreaks. You can argue that Dawn of the Dead is sharper, slyer, more nuanced. Sure. You can point out the ferocious sociopolitical satire of Land of the Dead. Absolutely.
But none of those films cut to the gristle and bone that Romero and his crew of hungry young Pittsburgh filmmakers accomplished with their original, budget-starved masterpiece. This little seat-of-the-pants regional production chewed up and spit out taboos like raw meat in a feral feeding frenzy.
Like the shambling, dull-eyed predators that instinctively swarm about their warm-blooded prey, the original Night of the Living Dead is a slow starter (at least after the shock of the graveyard scene, where our “zombie patient zero” stumbles through the background until it turns out he really is coming to get you, Barbra). The next hour is all about the desperation of survival and the terror of a world suddenly gone hostile and predatory. The unstoppable army of flesh-eating ghouls is made more terrifying by the complete absence of motivation or explanation: They literally come from nowhere.
The strains of panic and helplessness twist the tensions of human survivors to the breaking point. It’s like low-rent Samuel Beckett snuck into an exploitation thriller. There are echoes of Vietnam in the imagery and reflections of America’s volatile race relations in the increasingly savage state of conflict within the house, where the survivors turn on themselves as they fend for their lives.
But it’s still the primal kick of the flesh feast that gives this grisly spectacle, of society feeding on itself and the nuclear family devouring its own, a place in our collective nightmares.
It’s the first genuinely modern horror movie, shot more like a documentary of the apocalypse than the gothic horrors that defined the ’60s, and it bled right into the fabric of the culture. Night of the Living Dead changed the face of American horror movies: for better (it blazed the trail for the transgressive horror renaissance of the ’70s, seeded Romero’s own sequels and inspired Shaun of the Dead), for worse (all those crappy copycat zombie knockoffs) and forever.
Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.
George Romero’s Diary of the Dead is sure to be compared to “Cloverfield,” thanks to a vague similarity in the first-person video diary style that became an instant cliche minutes after “The Blair Witch Project” made it into a high-concept horror success. They couldn’t be more different, and it’s more than simply budgets and gloss.
Where “Cloverfield” begs your indulgence while a clueless schlub refuses to put down the camera in a situation where it could impede his survival, “Diary” makes the cameraman’s refusal to drop the camera the defining characteristic of the character, an aspiring filmmaker who is more concerned with making history than surviving it, and the often heated arguments.
It also shares something in common with “Redacted” – the mix of first-person video footage, news footage and streaming video uploaded to the Internet, not to mention rather awkward performances that substitute volume for commitment. Performance has never been Romero’s strong suit and he’s not one to coax convincing characters from limited actors, but at least they are more interesting than the bland nothings on display in “Cloverfield.” More importantly, however, Romero has something more on his mind. Not always subtle, but interesting and insistent and less verbal than visual and visceral. Romero follows a familiar horror narrative structure and knows how to deliver the zombie conventions – the stumbling chases, the gore, the scrambling survivors who inevitably trip in the panic of their escape – but between the conventions is a root suspicion of the veracity of the media in the way if reports on our world.
It also questions the engagement of the cameraman in such a situation. Is his duty to document, or to put down the camera and help?