Monday, January 7, 2019

Notes on, Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Recently I watched a color version of Night of the Living Dead (1968). Interesting. But I think I like the b/w version better.

It's funny, I'm watching this now as I write this and thinking tactically. And for the first time from a screenwriter and filmmaker's POV. When I saw this originally, at the drive-in, with my family as a kid, I was 13. The year the film came out in 1969.

It scared the hell out of me. And my family. We kids loved the scares though. But it REALLY scared the hell out of my old school, old country style Slovak Catholic mother. Another film didn't scare me that much until some years later. It was called, The Exorcist. I saw that at the Cinerama Theatre in Seattle. Amazing event night I believe I've detailed elsewhere.

Later in the 1970s, I mentioned it to her once in the living room and she froze and said (as we'd all always known) "You do not say the name of that film in my house!" We had to laugh and I said, "Mom, it was just a movie." "I know, I just don't ever want to think of that movie again."

Pretty effective movie.

I think it was the outer space connection as we were in the middle of NASA stuff daily back then and I was loving it. I was really into NASA. I had a scrapbook I collected of articles about NASA efforts I have to this day.

The thought that a virus that could come down, from outer space, from the unknown, was a palpable consideration/fear. Also if you listen to the intense parts, the sounds, music if you like, perfectly backs up the fears. Something John Carpenter picks up on years later in his films.

Here are some points I noticed while I rewatched this film:
  • After the monster of previous decades in film, we see a new kind of fear. Out of the mundane comes fear. 
  • These were not your parent's zombies. No voodoo, no curses, no surreality. Science. Reality. Pure and utter fear is involved. With no solutions. 
  • The music perfectly underscores the action as I have said.
  • At first, no one would pick up the film for destruction. The filmmakers had to go to theaters to hawk their product and it ended up in the lowest of theatres. Those associatied with exploitation films if not porn, and children's showings. So some children were dropped off by parents, thinking they had an afternoon free on Saturday, and the children were exposed to something they had no idea how to deal with or handle. As critic Roger Ebert said at the time, he saw children leaving after the film crying, having no idea what they had just seen or how to handle it. 
  • There was a reflection in the government characters in being unable to explain and offer solutions to the situation that aided in the overall terror of the situation. Especially in 1969 when we were still so ignorant and yet were aware of how we know so little but are trying to stumble our way through a new and ever fear invoking reality. Along with the nuclear threats.
  • There is simplicity in its terror.
  • The low key realism of the TV newscasts aided the realism. Many of the low budget-ness of the film supports this.
  • It's interesting to note, no one reacts to classically trained actor/protagonist Dwayne Jones (who himself didn't like challenging racial norms and being violent), in his being a black man. His being accepted as an equal and excelling over others, then the ending he receives once the audience accepts him is Brilliant. Progressive. He actually talks back to a white man, slaps a very white blond woman, and then SHOOTS a white man! And the audience cheers him for this! This procedes Shaft and all the black exploitation films about to hit the scene. 
  • This was only a year past Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, about interracial marriage. A film I loved at the time because it questioned the establishment. 
  • It is a year after Capt. Kirk kisses his black Coms officer Uhuru. Which disturbed many and helped break the racial barrier a little bit more. Kudos to Gene Roddenberry on that one as well as so much more. The black/white, white/black characters in another episode of Star Trek being another example. 
  • By never addressing the black issues, it gave the film a lasting, before its time, endurance. 
  • That all supported the realism in whatever your cultural or social differences were in a Zombie Apocalypse, in that nothing matters but survival. The ZA is a meritocracy. If it's not as we saw, you die.
  • The character of Dwayne Jones' part was originally a white character and Romero wanted Dwayne to play it as originally portrayed, which in the 60s was a questionable thing to do. Dwayne was fine with that until he began to wonder if he was being exploited. He eventually came to realize, no one was thinking that way at all. 
  • Blacks at the time were allowed to be smart but not aggressive. Sidney Poitier in 1967 as a cop, slapping a rich white southern man, who had just slapped him, was stunning to audiences. Then a year or so later, here comes Dwayne Jones... smart, AND aggressive. 
  • The film punched many societal buttons at that time. 
  • The daughter killing the mother was a big one. 
  • The outer space connection at that time in 1969 was a big issue that sold this and enhanced the fears.
  • The sound effects/music during some of the serious death scenes was highly effective. the music was from public domain films they found so, free. 
  • Having a woman appear as an entirely nude zombie (from behind) was genius. As was a bug eating zombie who was the film's hair stylist. 
  • In 1969 having a black man as a lead, and an apparently educated one, was disturbing and somewhat unique. Certainly in the horror genre. His slapping a white woman was more intense than normal. His handling a distraught white man (see this as bigoted only by proxy, very clever), was more intense than otherwise. His being the hero was unusual and in the end, therefore, once you accept him as hero, his death became devastating. The hero died. The hero was a black man. The audience felt bad for a black hero dying. It didn't just push buttons, even for nonracists because of the culture at the time, it slammed the button home. 
  • Not only that, but the business, as was usual, the near mechanization, the business as usual attitude in the film, the blend of still shots, voiceovers and film footage, of dispatching and burning of people, and of the black protagonist\hero is then especially disturbing. If you did have racist elements in your personality at that point, then it's really very disturbing. In part because you don't realize it's happening because of all the rest that was going on under the surface that you didn't recognize until it was over, if even then. 
  • Did you know there is a connection between Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" fame, and Night of the Living Dead? There most certainly is. George Romero and friends made some films first for Fred Rogers and then decided (some being out of work at that time) that they could make a film. Something that just wasn't done at that time. 
  • The term "zombie" doesn't occur in the film. Gouls, was the term bandied about a lot. 
  • These gouls used tools readily. You could see them thinking, but on a very baseline. 
  • The gouls were afraid of light and fire.
  • They ate bugs. Harkening the world of Dracula and his guy...Renfield.
  • The Romero crew rented an abandoned farmhouse about to be torn down and pretty much lived in it during the shooting with no running utilities. 
  • According to Romero, they had to go to the nearby stream to wash off and drag water back in buckets for the toilet to work. 
  • The reason I think that color doesn't help the film, is that the production values and acting were all rough and it worked for the overall attitude and motif. 
  • Many of the famous lines from the interviews in the film were all ad-libbed. Bill Cardille was a local Pittsburg, PA Horror show host who did the interviews in the film. On his weekly show, he would promote what he was doing on the film set and that there was a horror film being filmed locally. "Pittsburghers Make Chiller for Drive-Ins". Many people showed up with chairs to watch the onset antics, especially the burning of the truck scene.
  • They got a real TV helicopter and pilot and real police and ambulance to help out in scenes. They couldn't believe how helpful people and local government were to aide their efforts. To locals, it was a big movie production. Even though it was a below low budget production. Romero said the ambulance was the biggest production prop he had ever been near on a set.
  • Gouls were played by friends, family, local townsfolk and clients of Romero's new production company the Latent Image.
  • The film ends in a neutral fashion, with titles rolling and the protagonist, the good, black man's corpse being drug to be burned. Which is appropriate in this case to burn the dead, but he should never have been killed. Especially after all he'd been through. Not to mention the burning of a black man is historically a horrifying consideration, especially to the black community. 
Overall, this is a film that at first was panned and derided by critics. Then went to Europe and worldwide, in part because of a screw up in the titles and copyright so that it was worldwide free to show. Critics loved it in Europe. So when it returned to America, critics changed their minds. It was deemed a genre, industry-altering film then.

I got Tom to sign one of these
I think of it with fond memories. In part because of succeeding films in the franchise I loved and the addition in the next film of Tom Savini and his work in bringing even more reality to the franchise in using Gray's Anatomy book and making F/X accurate.
Tom Savini Zombcon II 2011 SeaTac Hilton
I got to meet my f/x hero Savini some years ago after following his career since Dawn of the Dead when he joined the franchise and a documentary (Scream Greats Vol. 1 - Tom Savini) I saw years ago about him. He also directed the remake of Night of the Living Dead, in 1990.

Russell Streiner in his civvies off camera behind Romero
George Romero died in 2017. I got to be in the room with him at the first Seattle Zombcon in 2011. Nice guy, he was looking old even then. He had a great sense of humor and was a very creative and nice guy. At 27, he helped start the indie film industry in this country. He gave a genre once steeped in silliness and magic and brought it into reality by way of using science fiction.

George Romero
We will miss him.
George Romero at Seattle's 2010 Zombcon 1 with Cal Miller from my first publisher at Zilyon
But he left us a catalog of some fun films that led to many others and offered the world a twist on a genre that we will never forget.

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