At the recent DualCon in Charleston, through sheer serendipity, my table wound up being next to that of John Russo, co-writer (along with director George Romero) of Night of the Living Dead, the horror film from which essentially the entire modern zombie genre sprang. After hearing him talk about the movie on a panel we did it occurred to me that I’d never actually seen the flick. Naturally, the wife and I remedied that situation that very evening.
The story of Night of the Living Dead is even more amazing than the movie itself, although it holds up pretty well after all these years. Made for about $100,000 by first-time film makers (Romero, Russo and others had a production company that made commercials and other short pieces in and around Pittsburgh – Romero even directed some segments of Mr. Rogers!) it grossed about $30 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable movies ever made.
The movie itself takes a fairly common setup and ramps the dread up to 11. As Russo explained during our panel, he thought of Night of the Living Dead as the 1939 movie Stagecoach, “but with zombies instead of Indians” and that seems right. You take a group of disparate people with few prior ties to each other, put them in a stressful situation, and see whether they pull together and triumph or splinter and fail.
If the movie is not just that story, but a metaphor for society at large as it faces existential threats then we, in the words of Thinking Plague, “are so fucked.” Once the group is gathered in an isolated house while the zombie horde (sorry, “ghouls” – the movie never uses the Z word) approaches, the battle lines are draw over whether to remain on the main floor or barricade themselves in the basement. The arguments both ways are the kind that can never be right or wrong – the main level has multiple points of entry for the ghouls, but also multiple ways out; the basement is more secure, but if they break through that door you’re dead.
My first thought upon viewing was that Ben, the main character and the prime supporter of the main level argument, was proven wrong, because he winds up in the basement when the horde overwhelms the house, anyway. The more I think about it, though, I don’t think that’s the case. Less important than where they make their stand is that they make it together, is what I’m thinking now. That even he is killed, in the end, and not by the ghouls, makes for a very bleak viewing experience and comment on human nature.
Aside from the side effects of its low budget (beyond its role in launching the modern zombie genre, Night of the Living Dead is one of the foundational films of the modern independent film scene) it doesn’t feel “cheap” (this is not a Zappa-esque “Cheepnis” situation). The script uses radio and TV news reports, often playing in the background, to broaden the story without losing the focus on our characters and their locale. That also helps setup the very end, too. I also enjoyed the soundtrack, which is typical orchestral bombast, save for when the zombies are the focus, when is switches to a very cutting edge soundscape of synthesized throbs and scratches.
But my final takeaway from Night of the Living Dead is irony. My first novel, Moore Hollow, is a kind of zombie story. The backdrop is that a crooked West Virginia politician around the turn of the 20th century actually tried to raise the dead so they would vote for him. In the novel, a disgraced English journalist with family ties to the West Virginia coal fields comes to track down the mystery. The zombies aren’t monsters, but more a problem to be dealt with and, perhaps, damned souls who need protection. I gave him the last name “Potter” completely oblivious to the Harry Potter connection.
His first name? “Ben.” Just like the main character in pop culture’s foundational zombie text. Sometimes the creative mind really does some wild things.