REVIEW: Hell Is Other People...

Night of the Living Dead, 50 Years On:

A woman walks across a graveyard. Suddenly an older man, swaying and out of it, grabs her. Her brother intervenes and the woman runs to her car. The man follows and puts a brick through the side window. The woman drives but hits a tree. She gets out and runs, screaming, but the man pursues at a drowsy, persistent pace. She sees a house and finds an unlocked door, but the man, slurring, slouching, prowling — well, he’s right there outside and he wants to get in.

The woman, shifting from PTSD shock to hysteria, vents to the man who saves her: “He was grabbing me! He was tearing my clothes!”

How many times has this scene played out? How many women walking alone have just about escaped the clutches of the living dead? How many haven’t?

Lean in story, mythology and production budget, George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the film that brought the undead to life for Western cinema, is a Rorschach horror in muddy monochrome. Stare long enough at the black and white and you’ll see what you’re looking for.

The simplicity gives the film power. A group of strangers hunker down in a lonely farmhouse, boarding up windows and listening to radio and television broadcasts about the threat outside: the recently deceased are being re-animated, turned into “ghouls” with a hunger for human flesh. The cause? Space radiation. They don’t like fire and only a headshot puts them down.

A newsman in thick glasses sits in front of clocks and tells citizens to stay inside and await further instructions. Are the living dead the phone-glued slow walkers of your Monday morning trek to work? Are they mindless consumers, the Black Friday TV snatchers? Are they political drones? Are they racists?

The film is basically about a black man in rural America defending himself against white hordes. The freeze frames of the credits, in which a black body is manhandled by a white militia, look like postcards from one of the negro-butchering amusements related in this year’s BlacKKKlansman.

Night of the Living Dead and the zombie lineage invites all sorts of readings, but at its core it’s about what happens when a large part of society suddenly, and for no logical reason, turns on its neighbours. The imagery of the brainless, grabbing, swallowing mob is a potent one for any period of social unease. The citizenry is literally consuming itself.

Inside the house, the survivors have their own little disorder. Ben (Duane Jones), the black man who is the de facto leader, wants everyone to stay on the first floor, where there is communication and more means of escape. Harry (the perfectly surnamed Karl Hardman) wants to stay in the basement with his wife and sick daughter (watch out!). A young couple aren’t sure. The woman from the start, Barbra (Judith O’Dea), is barely functioning.

In the tense macho squabbling it’s not to read a subtextual tussle about race, status and authority. Enough white people in one place, you’ve got yourself a lynch mob.

Or maybe they’re city centre lads on a Friday night. Maybe they’re gurning frat boys holding a woman down. Maybe they’re a stadium of red hats booing journalists. The Red Scare is over but Americans, ever resourceful, have learned new things to be afraid of.

Even without the evergreen thematics, Night of the Living Dead remains a tight, exciting survival drama, Cold War paranoia laced with high-contrast European glamour. We hit ‘peak zombie’ a while ago, but half a century later, their arrival still feels fresh. It hums with body heat.

Conor Smyth

This review appeared in The Big List 300.

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