Of all the different horror sub-genres, the zombie flick is perhaps the one with the most innate spectacle. With a few obvious exceptions — low-budget fare like Shaun of the Dead or The Dead Don’t Die’s Jarmusch treatment — zombie movies keep getting bigger, whether in pomp, scope, or visceral action thrills. Between globe-trotting action blockbusters like World War Z and high-stakes, post-apocalyptic treatments like The Girl With All The Gifts, zombies are more visible than ever. On the small screen, AMC’s The Walking Dead has been stretched beyond its initial premise (and promise) to a breaking point, marrying the horror-cinema staple with TV’s epic, long-form storytelling, but even when zombie films are limited to more confined, intimate settings, as is found in 2016’s phenomenal Train To Busan, there’s never a shortage of grotesque thrills and hordes of extras.
For modern audiences, George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead might at first glance appear to be something of a slog compared to its 21st-century descendants. It’s not immediately adrenaline-filled and despite only boasting half the runtime of most modern zombie films, its more languorous pacing is still likely to be felt by modern horror audiences. The film concerns the fates of seven people during a zombie outbreak, all of whom coincidentally converge upon the same house in a bid for safety: Barbara, distinguished primarily by her catatonia; Ben, a practical-minded man who quickly becomes the de facto leader of the group; Harry, Helen, and Karen Cooper, a family who hides in the basement after daughter Karen is injured; and a young couple, Tom and Judy. The group’s main focus is obviously survival, but it’s their interpersonal differences that soon become magnified under the threat of zombies (or “ghouls,” as Romero calls them) lurking just outside the front door. There’s little quippiness, no extravagant action setpieces, and the bulk of the narrative is confined to a few rooms and a basement. How, then, did Night of the Living Dead become so ubiquitous in the genre and in pop culture zeitgeist?
What’s immediately recognizable is Romero’s, at the time, unique conception of zombies as slow-moving, flesh-eating corpses (an obvious archetypal contrast to the ravenous speedsters of most modern iterations). It’s a vision that both borrows and differs from the traditional Haitian understanding of the zombie: the aesthetic is somewhat preserved in the creatures’ skulking form, but the original myth saw these entities more slave to their own flesh — accursed, soulless wanderers — than that of others. Another, more practical part of the film’s success is indebted to a famously unfortunate copyright blunder. Due to this error on the part of the movie studio, Night of the Living Dead has been in the public domain since its first release, endlessly reproducible and remixable, and a blessing to indie movies and small cinemas that have been showcasing it for free since 1968. Its pleasures of accessibility extended beyond the literal, however, as one of the film’s greatest strengths lies in just how authentically real it all feels. Romero plays his premise out on a small scale — as far as we know, the outbreak is limited to a single town, and the characters even talk about the situation in terms of limited imagination, leaning into the idea that this is an infection of sorts, an understanding more in the realm of natural disaster than supernatural. It reflects a necessary texture of intimacy, Romero committed to maintaining a groundedness, even amidst such a staggering conceit for the time. Even as the zombies surround the house, Romero insists on surveying the film’s humanity, inserting brief glimpses of who the characters were before the outbreak — Barbara’s bickering relationship with her brother, Johnny, and Tom and Judy’s sickeningly-sweet romance.
Perhaps where this understanding of the material is best exhibited is in a quiet moment between Barbara and Ben as they wearily tell their stories of how they ended up in the house. As Ben (masterfully portrayed by Duane Jones) dismantles a dining table to use as boarding for the windows, he begins to slowly unravel throughout the story’s telling, never quite reaching a breaking point but at least coming to the very edge of his disbelief. Just like every other time Ben drifts away from his single-minded survival mission, it becomes clear that this is not a man who ever conceived of his survival in these terms. When he butts heads with Harry later on, Romero evinces an even greater contrast between two men who perhaps never expected to fight for their lives like this — one out of a sense of entitlement, the other according to a certain rationalism. All the characters are flawed in ways that matter deeply to the plot, not as mere dramatic color. Despite what every doomsday-prepper might have you believe, the line between panic and practicality is not so easily navigated, and just like Barbara, sometimes we freeze when we ought to fight or flee. That’s not to say that the psychology being mined here is all that deep, and while a reaction like Barbara’s might read as anti-feminist to modern audiences, it all serves as a crucial reminder of what Night of the Living Dead’s legacy is built upon — it’s a zombie film that finds far more fascination and empathy and, yes, horror in its humans than it does its zombies.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.