Tuesday, October 1, 2013

30 Days Until Halloween - Night of the Living Dead

"They're coming to get you, Barbara."

On October 1, 1968, George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead premiered in his hometown of Pittsburgh.  He and his band of merry filmmakers had shot the film in and around the area for a reported $114,000 budget.

The film has made millions, but sadly, Romero has seen very little of it, due to a copyright issue.  The original title of the film was Night of the Flesh-Eaters, but shortly before its release, they discovered that there was already a film called The Flesh-Eaters.  So they quickly changed the title, and spliced it onto the prints.

Unfortunately, the crucial oversight of not including a copyright logo next to the title meant that the film  was essentially in the public domain.  This is why there are innumerable versions of the film on home video.  Anyone that wanted to release it, basically could do as they pleased.

In 1990, Romero produced a remake of the film, primarily to establish rights to the original (for a much more detailed, informative, and entertaining overview, I highly recommend the BFI Film Classic book that covers it all.  That book is amazing!).

But back in 1968...

Romero had essentially made what is considered THE post-modern horror film.  Romero took all the essential genre conventions, and turned them around.  Previously, if something strange is happening?  No worries, a handy scientist will explain all.  Need to blow it to smithereens?  Relax, because here comes the army to save the day.

Night of the Living Dead had none of that.  Yes, there is a scene with a news crew following scientists and military types out to their cars in Washington and peppering them with questions -- but the consensus among the group is that they really don't know if the radioactive satellite mentioned on the television and radio broadcasts is causing dead folks to get up and dance.  So basically, they are of no help whatsoever.

NOTLD is B-Movie through and through.  Shot in black and white.  The soundtrack is an odd but eerie discordance of random public domain tracks.  Exterior shots are all continuity-schmontinuity -- one second it's day, the next is night.  Half of the cast are survivors in the house one second, and then are seen in heavy makeup as an extra undead ghoul the next.

But it's fucking brilliant.

Oddly, the cheap look gives it a charm that more polished films are sorely lacking; and mainly because the overall idea, the concept of it all -- an unlikely group of survivors holed up in a house, waging war against the army of ghouls outside and with one another is great storytelling.

Basically, the whole second season of The Walking Dead is just a really long version of NOTLD -- with Hershel's farmhouse being, well, the farmhouse.  But lock people in tight and, crisis or not, watch shit start to unravel.  You don't have to read Lord of the Flies to know that it's going to end very fucking badly.

Plus, the film changed the zombie sub-genre forever.  Before NOTLD, movie zombies were basically just puppets, stalking around at the behest of whatever Voodoo priest or priestess woke them up.

Romero retained the "undead" part, but came up with the notion of, "Yeah, it's cool that they're dead and everything...but you know what would really cook?  If they fucking ATE people!"

And a brand new movie monster was born.  A shambling, slack-jawed, blank-eyed specter -- one that would continue to wreak havoc in Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead...and every other Romero crafted sequel, to the point where they had started to become as lifeless as the ghouls that populated the screen.

Then, in 2004, Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake was the shot of adrenaline that the sub-genre so desperately needed (some would argue that it was 2002's 28 Days Later that did it, but since it technically is NOT a zombie movie, I decline to give it credit here).  The film's most obvious revision was the fast, sprinting zombie.  It made them WAY fucking scary again.


...to give credit where credit is due -- Dan O'Bannon's 1985 classic cult favorite Return of the Living Dead had fast zombies way before Snyder ever thought of them, and as much as I love the 2004 remake, it certainly didn't have lines like this:

Come on!  How great is that?!  If you haven't seen the movie, you're missing out.

A Word About The Remake

In 1990, 80's FX Wizard Tom Savini made his feature directorial debut with the remake of Night of the Living Dead, and Savini, who had scarred young, impressionable minds with his gory effects for films like Friday the 13th, The Burning, and Maniac, crafted a damn good film.

I mention it here because, even though I would gladly dedicate a whole blog piece about it this season, I think all would be better served for me to try and showcase something entirely different each day (don't hold me to that too strongly -- I may slip in a remake or two here or there.  Sometimes they are too damn good to be ignored).

The film is updated quite well.  The characters are pretty much still the same, with the exception of Barbara who, in the 1968 version, rapidly turns into nothing more than a hysterical piece of furniture.

1990's Barbara in a full on post-Alien's Ripley descendent.  She's bad ass.

And the ending is pretty fucking great.  The fate of the different characters are different enough to keep it fresh and unique.

And shot in the Pittsburg area, just like it's predecessor, the film has that genuine Autumn feel that makes it perfect for Halloween.

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