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January 23, 2008 |

By Agent Bedhead | Film | January 23, 2008 |

Like many theatergoers, I have an unnatural fascination with films involving the undead. In particular, zombies and vampires sink their relative hooks into me for very different reasons. In the cinematic realm, both of these forms of humanoid monsters possess the ability to “turn” other humans by biting them, but (with exceptions duly noted) that’s the end of the mutual road for vampires and zombies. On an obvious note, vampires are often portrayed as alluring and seductive, while zombies are generally regarded as rather disgusting and not at all attractive … sort of like that freak staring at you right now … sucker. Vampires are shapeshifters and possess supernatural characteristics, while zombies appear as distinctly unreal but still disconcertingly human creatures. Vampires must feed and require the nourishment of human blood but are often intelligent, calculating, and able to choose whether to turn a victim or mercilessly kill them. By contrast, zombies lack thought process, act indiscriminately, and seem to kill for no apparent reason since they don’t need human flesh to survive. Vampires are often portrayed as coexisting within cities with humans, but people could not coexist near a zombie, who would most certainly attack and “turn” any nearby human in due time. Of course, the prospect of becoming a zombie — neither alive nor dead and eternally doomed walk the earth without rest — sounds far worse than whatever fate vampires have to offer us. Perhaps the most terrifying aspects of a zombie attack include their ability to quickly multiply and our inability to cope with an enemy so vast and unrelenting. No wonder the word “zombie” has become frequently mentioned alongside “apocalypse” and other such doomsday notions.

In 1968, director George A. Romero co-wrote a little horror flick with John A. Russo. To save money, he used the film’s investors to fill most of the roles. A local butcher supplied the requisite guts as well as a small cash investment in the film itself, and chocolate syrup was substituted for blood. Shot on a $114,000 budget, the film is minimalistic in its approach, but this only adds to the disturbing “home movie” effect upon viewers. Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first zombie flick, but it stands as the most influential zombie film ever created. Notwithstanding Romero’s own sequels, his version of zombies have spawned countless video games, comic books, novels, and films. In recent years, the zombie template has morphed somewhat into a disease of biological infestation with 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, and the Resident Evil series. Various degrees of homage to the Romero zombie occur within Planet Terror and Shaun of the Dead. Yet the prevailing modern view of zombies view is, of course, the Romero version of the zombie — a flesh-hungry creature that rises from the dead to gluttonize upon humanity.

Ironically, Night of the Living Dead never uses the word “zombie,” but as Romero played upon the fear of the unknown, his characters categorize the zombies as “ghouls” or “those things.” In the film, an unknown phenomenon results in recently dead persons to inexplicably rise and walk again. These creatures no longer have human minds, and the actual cause of this “disease” remains mysterious. This omission fuels the fear of the unknown, as does the fact that the ghouls appear decidedly and frighteningly human. In addition, Romero’s handheld camera, bad lighting, banal language, and horrifying(-ly awful) score, contribute to the real-time unfolding of the terror. These elements have, in recent times, crawled out of the zombie sub-genre into many other types of horror films, but no film has ever managed to capture this vibe quite so well.

In Night of the Living Dead, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) visits her father’s grave with her brother, Johnny (Russell Streiner), who expresses his disrespect for the dead by grumbling about the inconvenience of this trip. As a large man lumbers towards them, Johnny cracks a joke at the expense of his sister’s childhood fear of cemeteries: “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” Moments later, Johnny is dead, and Barbra, without her supposed hero, manages to escape to an abandoned farmhouse. Although the phone doesn’t work, the home does contain other refugees, including the sane, practical Ben (Duane Jones), who quickly commences to reinforce the house as much as possible. In addition, a couple named Tom and Judy, as well as the Cooper family (including a child bitten by a zombie), are hiding out in the cellar. None of the acting performances are exactly stellar, but this apparent flaw only reinforces the realness of the people involved in the crisis. In fact, we can identify all too well with these characters, and their confusion and fear about what the hell is happening transfers to the audience’s fear of the unknown. Intermittent radio reports are the closest we ever get to a semi-reliable narrator who can explain the unknown terror facing this group of people:

It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder.

Further media reports attribute the outbreak to “mysterious radiation” from one of the Earth’s space probes. Of course, none of this information does any immediate good for these survivors, for they soon realize that no help is on the way. Fortunately, Ben figures out that zombies can be repelled by fire or stopped by destroying the brain with an axe. In their slow-moving, individual capacity, these zombies prove to be manageable, but these presence of the ghouls quickly transforms into an unrelenting mob. As the group remains barricaded inside the house, the more volatile suspense results from the interaction of the human characters. In time, their fear, ignorance, and paranoia pulls them apart and functions as the true danger to the humans’ lives. As night descends, the silence within the house torments these characters, and the suspense is almost unbearable. Sure, there are authentically shocking moments when hands bust through walls, and the Cooper daughter turns into a zombie with truly horrifying results upon the lives of her parents. Yet the external threat of the zombies pales in comparison to the internal conflicts within the group of survivors. The story’s ending is clinical, brutal, and fittingly nihilistic, and Romero worked a damn fine paradigm shift in this cheap little horror flick.

Over the decades since Night of the Living Dead hit theaters, many critics have spent countless words of interpretation upon this film. While Romero has denied any conscious application of political, racial, or other allegory at work within this particular flick, this claustrophobic story holds clear warnings that humanity has yet to heed. Current and future generations will likely attribute many faces to the terrifying and inexplicable “other” represented within this movie, but the greatest enemy within a so-called zombie apocalypse are the humans within.

Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and, quite like a zombie, shows up often and without reason at

Give Me Back My Broken Night,
My Mirrored Room, My Secret Life

Night of the Living Dead / Agent Bedhead

Film | January 23, 2008 |

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