I recently revisited George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a movie I first saw in 1971 when I was nine years old. Was I too young for such a movie? Maybe. After reading this reminiscence, you might be able to tell me what you think about how it shaped me as a movie-goer. (It’s difficult for me to evaluate that with any objectivity.) In later years I saw bits and pieces (no pun intended) of the movie on cable TV, but didn’t really give it much thought until I bought the Criterion Blu-ray on a whim. So 50 years after the release of the film – and 47 since I saw it – here are my thoughts, starting with three observations:
The opening musical score of Night of the Living Dead features a small ensemble of woodwinds, dominated by an oboe, an instrument whose existence I wasn’t even aware of when I first saw the film. (Strange that I went on earn three degrees in music and spent 15 years as a band director…)
I also wouldn’t have been aware of the similarity of one of the film’s musical motifs to Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” featured in the 1935 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Top Hat, which, oddly enough, I had just watched a few hours before revisiting Night of the Living Dead. The most memorable line from that song begins with the words “I’m in heaven,” which strikes me as absolutely hilarious and probably unintended.
And I wouldn’t have thought twice about the mud-stained, bullet-ridden CEMETERY ENTRANCE sign we see on a sloping dirt road just before the mayhem begins. Rural Mississippi is also full of such places (cemeteries, dirt roads, and damaged signs, that is. And sometimes mayhem, too…).
My nine-year-old self would’ve missed all of this, since I was probably whooping it up with my friends at the Town Theater in Forest, Mississippi on a Friday night moments before the movie started. When there’s no football game or other sporting event in small towns (especially small Southern towns), you go to the movies. It’s a social event and when there’s a horror movie showing, that event far exceeds the typical shared experience of simply going to the movies in a small town. Rich, poor, black, white, male, female… we’re all about to have the crap scared out of us.
I didn’t know much about this movie going in, but several teenagers told us that people ate other people in it. Being nine years old was old enough for me and my friends to sense that what these older kids were telling us was probably BS. People didn’t eat people in movies and even if they did, they’d never show it.
I can’t remember when (or if) we finally calmed down, but I’m pretty sure the older kids were freaking out more than we third-graders were. I do remember several imitators (the sincerest form of flattery, after all) during the “They’re going to get you, Barbara” scene early in the film, trying to scare their dates. I seriously doubt that anyone screamed during this scene or the appearance of the first “zombie” (At this point, we didn’t know the guy was one of the undead.), but once Barbara (Judith O’Dea) approached the farmhouse, you heard plenty of shouts such as “Don’t go in the house!” and “Stay out of there!” Romero’s camera angles and tight, tilted shots of O’Dea, contrasted with the shots of the undead walking freely through a field, created such a feeling of unease that worked on all of us that night (and me in my basement just yesterday).
I know I freaked at the sight of the mangled head at the top of the stairs and probably had nightmares about it. Most of my freaking out came from the screams of the people around me and how loud they were. Was the whole night going to be like this? It was just one frightful scene, though, and it was over pretty quickly. What followed were minutes filled with tension and suspense, not really horror. I think even as a nine-year-old I realized this. But something was different, something I couldn’t put my finger on…
At this point I should mention that you must consider the era and what my friends and I were used to seeing when it came to horror movies. We were normally treated to lots of horror double features, films from Hammer Studios starring Christopher Lee and/or Peter Cushing, Vincent Price movies, Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, stuff that might scare an eight or nine-year-old the first couple of times, but once you know what you were in for, it was pretty predictable. That’s not to say those films weren’t enjoyable; they were and still are. Some of them were in black-and-white, but most were in color. And they all featured recognizable actors such as the ones I just mentioned. Even if you saw other movies with actors you couldn’t name, you knew you’d seen them in other films.
But we’d never seen any of the actors in Night of the Living Dead before, not a one of ‘em. To us, these people could’ve been anybody and the movie could’ve been filmed anywhere. As I mentioned earlier, cemeteries and dirt roads in rural Pennsylvania don’t look an awful lot different from cemeteries and dirt roads in rural Mississippi. You could say the same with abandoned houses.
Before I go on, let’s get this out there: people have various opinions about the South and how race was – and is – handled there. I can honestly say that I can’t remember anyone before, during, or after Night of the Living Dead commenting on the fact that a black guy (Duane Jones) was taking charge in a house with six white people. Nobody mentioned it. We all knew was this was a survival story and we were rooting for these people to kill all the undead (or at least escape). Only now seeing the film 47 years later did I realize how bold this casting decision really was for 1968.
But there was something else different about this movie. Not only was it in black-and-white, but it looked strange. I didn’t know the term “low budget” back then; I just thought it looked like real people in a real place, which gave the film an added element of horror.
But not typical horror. We don’t learn until about 40 minutes into the movie – through a radio report – that the older kids were right: the undead were eating the flesh of people.
Okay, someone talked about it onscreen, but we didn’t actually see it. Not yet. (By the way, the television/radio reports also added a story about radiation and outer space, which introduced a science fiction element, which really blew our minds.)
It’s not until after the group’s failed escape attempt and the burning of the truck and its two passengers that we actually see body parts being eaten.
The theater absolutely erupted into a madhouse. People screamed, covered their faces, spilled drinks and popcorn, yanked on the sleeves of the people sitting next to them, and who knows what else. It was the first time I’d heard the sound of absolute mayhem in a movie theater. Now I’d been to Halloween carnivals, I’d gone into those rooms where you close your eyes and put your hand in a bowl filled with grapes and the people in the room tell you it’s eyeballs; you put your fingers in a bowl of spaghetti and they tell you it’s someone’s guts. My friends and I had experienced those things and we knew what we saw onscreen was just as fake, but we totally lost our sh*t over these people getting eaten. Some people in the audience were crying, some were laughing, but nobody, absolutely nobody got up and left.
At the end, we were shocked and horrified when Ben got shot. Screams of “No!” erupted, people sighed, and others sank in their seats. But then it was over. It was just a movie. We had survived. We were safe. Yet watching it yesterday saddens me to think that we’re not safe. Something far deadlier than the undead attacking a Pennsylvania farmhouse is going on and is far more terrifying. I like to keep my writing as free as possible from politics, but the things that scare us should be confined to the movies, not children in schools, not people in public places, not in real life. I’ll just leave it at that.
Night of the Living Dead set the bar for us. It topped the list of movies you’d recite when the inevitable question “What’s the scariest movie you ever saw?” came up (at least until The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years later). I’d venture to say that no one who saw it ever forgot it. I’m sure big brothers and big sisters got in trouble for taking little brothers and little sisters to see it. I’m sure nightmares resulted. Mostly I’m glad I saw it then and now.
Stuart Klawans, in his essay on the film on the Criterion website, states, “In 1968–70, though, audiences had no category for Night of the Living Dead and felt helpless before it.” I’m not really interested in the legacy of Night of the Living Dead and how it inspired other filmmakers. What interests me is how the movie affected me as a nine-year-old and how it still affects me as a 50+ year-old. It does the same thing to me in 2018 as it did in 1971: it scared the crap out of me.
Photos: Movie Poster Shop, Blu-ray.com