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Friday, October 16, 2009

The legendary "Night of the Living Dead"


When I was a kid, my mother took my sisters and me to the drive-in theatre on a regular basis. Dad was often out of town on business and it was cheap entertainment. Besides, a triple horror feature was playing and I loved loved loved going to the drive-in!

I don't remember all of the films that played that night; I think one of them was The Green Slime. It doesn't matter. Almost anything would have faded into insignificance once they began to unspool the main feature: Night of the Living Dead.

To my nine-year-old eyes, this felt like the real deal. Filmed in stark black and white with some amateurish performances, it seemed like it was really happening. And when the cast sits down to watch news reports on the developing zombie crisis, it only enhanced the reality. Best of all, the zombies are truly threatening. In varying states of decay, wailing and yammering, they are more than happy to chow down on any unlucky human that gets within reach.

And Romero really delivered the gore! Partially-eaten bodies, murder by trowel, living dead folks fighting over entrails...I couldn't believe it. In earlier movies, zombies killed with more conventional means—bludgeoning and strangling. Or they didn't kill at all, merely working as dim-witted slaves. As author Jamie Russell put it in his wonderful Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema:

Refusing to skirt the issue of the zombie's physicality—both in its monstrous form as a reanimated corpse and in its newly threatening form as a flesh eating creature—Romero brought an uncompromising realism to the genre and added a previously unheard of dimension to the zombie myth: cannibalism.

It also opened the floodgates for a host of imitators, mostly European. Spanish director Jorge Grau's The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974) is one of the notable early efforts. And, of course, Romero's own sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978) sparked the Italian zombie craze that lasted for nearly a decade and produced Fulci's masterpiece, Zombie, which has been discussed here previously.

But Night was a real shocker in the '60s. Its subtexts included a protest of the Vietnam war as well as a commentary on integration. The "summer of love" was giving way to disillusionment, and Romero paints a bleak portrait of a society both rotting from the inside and feeding on itself. The hero, Ben (Duane Jones), happens to be black, but his race is never made an issue in the story. Critics hated the film, though. Variety questioned the mental health of audiences who would "cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism." I was too young to understand all that's going on, but I certainly was one of the "cheerful opters." Critic Roger Ebert wrote a warning in Reader's Digest after attending a matinee with young children who'd been dropped off by their parents, thinking it was another silly horror film, and finding himself surrounded by trembling, crying kids. Wimps.


When I was 18, the local film distributor, Niles Film Products, announced that it would be releasing Night full-length in super 8mm. Excitedly I raced down to Mishawaka Avenue to put down my deposit, anxiously counting the days when it would finally be released. I never saw it on television in those days; it was too gory for broadcast and too black and white for cable.

The people at Niles had trouble with the negative, resulting in some delays, driving my anticipation to an almost unbearable level. Finally, my beloved print was ready, and I gave many movie parties for friends who'd never had the opportunity to see it. I'll never forget showing it to my friend Mark. After the screening, I gave him a ride home. Barely waiting for the car to come to a halt, he jumped out without so much as a goodbye and raced to the safety of his house! Although it's pretty contrasty and the soundtrack is fuzzy, I still treasure it and watch it every couple of years.

After Dawn and its sequel, Day of the Dead, Romero put the zombies away for a while, but recently returned to the genre with the iffy Land of the Dead and the superior Document of the Dead, made Blair Witch-style with the characters using home video cameras to capture the mayhem. Romero also scripted a remake of Night in 1990. Helmed by special effects legend Tom Savini, revisions to the story include making Barbara, who spent most of the first movie in a catatonic state, more like Ripley in Alien. Savini was unhappy with the result, due to some interference by the film's backers, but I like it.

Due to a clerical error, the film quickly fell into public domain and the same faded, choppy print could be picked up on VHS in bargain bins everywhere. Then, in 1997, Elite Entertainment released it on laserdisc and DVD newly remastered from the original negative, and what a revelation! For the first time, you could see that it was actually professionally shot, with deep blacks, nice contrast and razor-sharp photography. In 1999, some opportunistic no-talents vaguely associated with the original film (including the graveyard zombie, Bill Hinzman) released a "30th anniversary" edition which replaces the music with an awful "original score" and includes new scenes—not outtakes from the original—but new footage with no-talent actors that alters the plot and basically ruins it. To make matters worse, in order to make room for these lousy new scenes, they cut out portions of the original! It made me so mad I threw away my DVD.


Still, nothing can take the place of the original in my heart. Even with some amateurish acting and use of library music (also heard in Teenagers from Outer Space!), it's an epoch-maker that simply can't be bettered.

Hey! It's almost Halloween! I think it's time to bring out the projector and run that ol' super 8 print! Since you can't watch it with me, I invite you to enjoy this pretty cool trailer:

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