28 October 2011

Guest Review - Ryan: Night of the Living Dead

Being given the honour of a guest spot at the Edinburgh Horror Club several weeks ago was an exciting and daunting prospect – one that I enjoyed immensely. Horror is a bit of a weak spot in my movie armoury – it’s only recently I’ve been turned on to its importance as a breeding ground for up and coming directors, as well as a genre that is loved by many enthusiastic fans.

So when I was asked to take on a guest curator role and bring a film of my choice to the table, I knew how high the stakes were – whilst there have been guests before, no one has been given this responsibility outside our three intrepid horror experts. I had to make a solid debut; otherwise an opportunity like this may never appear again.

So I went for the jugular and a bonafide horror classic that Clarky and I had discussed on our Those Movie Guys podcast - the original Night of the Living Dead by the zombie godfather himself, George A Romero. It was a bit of a gamble as I’d never seen it before – I chose it on its amazing reputation and my genuine interest in watching a piece of cinema history. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely.

It’s a common occurrence for a film to be labelled a classic, only to disappoint when you finally get round to seeing it. In some cases, the passing of time can be a film’s worst enemy, as concepts and effects that seemed forward-thinking at the time fail to age well.

Well, I’m absolutely delighted to say that this is not the case for Night of the Living Dead. The film absolutely lives up to its reputation and is just as effective now as I can imagine it was when it was first released 43 years ago. There’s a reason it’s been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in America – it really IS that good.

It’s regarded as the movie that spawned the zombie sub-culture we know and love today and from watching it, you can see why. Until this film came out, zombies were often people who had an infection or were possessed. NOTLD grasps one of the creepiest concepts in horror and does it in an iconic way – the walking dead. The way Romero presents the creatures has been aped thousands of times over – the slow-moving lurch, the eating of human flesh, the unkempt appearances – all elements of the zombie film that viewers now take for granted.

Much has been said about the themes in this film. Some have cited it as an allegory for the carnage and loss of life in the Vietnam War. Others have said the struggle of the black main character, Ben, is a metaphor for the black rights movement at that time. These are all important points that show just how well the film was received and how seriously it was taken – you don’t make assertions like that on a throwaway movie.

The crucial point – in my eyes - is that this is a phenomenal piece of horror film-making that still delivers on the raison d’etre of a horror film – the creep factor. The zombies are some of the most unsettling creatures I’ve ever seen on screen. I think the black and white filming only adds to the atmosphere. At one point I nearly jumped out my seat when the first zombie arm broke through the boarded up window of the house our characters are holed up in. When they make the run from the house to try and reach a nearby truck, I was genuinely on edge as they burst into the open among the army of undead outside. These are all situations that we’ve seen before in horror films, but very rarely have they been done so well. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like watching this in the late sixties when nothing like this had been done before. Initially, they even let kids in to see it. There’s a fantastic quote from reviewer Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times that brilliantly sums up how ridiculous that move was:

“The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.”

The cast do a great job, despite their relative inexperience. Whilst some of the acting is hammy or a touch OTT (Keith Wayne as Tom and Judith O’Dea as Barbra, I’m looking at both of you), there is never any doubt over their fear and confusion. Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben is excellent. Many social commentators called the casting of a black man in a lead role with an all-white cast a really significant moment. Romero said it was simply down to the fact Jones gave the best audition. Either way, Jones stands out as a calm, resourceful character amongst all the madness. He went on to star in a number of horror films, but was supposedly worried about being typecast as Ben. Given how highly regarded NOTLD is after all these years, I reckon he’d be more than delighted to be associated with role, were he still alive today.

It is – however - Romero’s vision and direction that really make the film work. Filmed on a budget $114,000, he squeezes the full worth from every penny. He turns a simple farm building into a house of horrors through clever angles and shots. He wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of taste – the flesh-eating scenes and the transformation of a young girl into a zombie who attacks her parents were both seen as shocking at the time. The props and effects were fairly limited, but you wouldn’t know it – apparently the dripping blood was actually chocolate sauce and chunks of ham were used for severed limbs and flesh! I also really enjoyed how he used the radio and TV stations to give the feeling of the zombie invasion being much wider than just a small part of rural Pennsylvania – a simple but effective trick, even though some of the newscasters’ scripts are bordering on the cringe worthy!

What I loved most about the film was the fact Romero has the courage of his convictions to see the shocking story line right through to the finish, where he eschews the happy Hollywood ending from something far more sobering. I will not give it away, but the film is all the better for it.

This is not just a zombie classic. This is not just a horror classic. This is a classic. It’s a film that spawned many imitators but very few of them can stand up to the original. I don’t gush about horror films very often but more than four decades on, this one is still worthy of all the praise. I can’t recommend this film highly enough. If you want zombie scares, don’t go for the cheap imitations. Get it from the source.

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