Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead ★★★★★

Hooptober 3.0 (2016) #32

Spanish hunters are exceedingly cruel. Once they have decided that a hunting dog is no longer fit for active duty they string him up by the neck from a tree branch and watch him slowly strangulate to death. While they watch his paws kick at the air in a death dance of sheer panic they laugh in bemusement. The hunters call this "playing the piano" as though the dogs are tapping out their own funeral dirge in the empty void beneath them.

In Night of the Living Dead it would seem that Romero suggests that perhaps humanity has also outlived its usefulness. Furthermore, our leaders and our social institutions are powerless to intervene as an indifferent universe leaves it's characters "playing the piano" in a farm house surrounded by zombies, each character perishing at the inevitable conclusion their own futile attempts to survive.

When I was a teenager this was the first movie where someone explicitly brought it to my attention that a movie could be an allegory for a critique of our contemporary lives. That my society, the ideologies we all subscribe to and our shared anxieties could be explored in the guise of a zombie movie absolutley blew my mind.

Having said that, I wonder what was on Romero's mind when he formulated Night of the Living Dead in the late 60s? Perhaps, some of the crucial events of 1968, the year the movie was released might prove indicative of some of his concerns and what also may have been lurking about in the mind's of the audience at the time.

North Korea caught the US military off guard when it captured an American naval vessel the USS Pueblo. Likewise, the military was completely blindsided when the Vietcong launched it's massive Tet Offensive. People must have been wondering if the military had a clue what was going on and whether or not they were capable of protecting the American people from external threats.

Closer to home Martin Luther King Jr. Was assassinated, a victim of a senseless hate crime. At the same time two African-American athletes at the Mexico City Summer Olympics staged a silent demonstration when they raised a black power salute from the podium during the American National Anthem. Racism was alive and well but the demand for equality was not about to relent.

Speaking of assassinations, Robert F. Kennedy was also shot dead right after having won the Californian primary for the Democratic presidential nomination. JFK's own assassination must have still been an open wound at the time. How can the leaders of the free world protect the people when they cannot even protect themselves?

What might seem like joyous news, the first manned orbit of the moon by the crew of Apollo 8 may also have been a source of anxiety. This would have been emblamatic of an unparalleled and persistent surge into the unknown. Leaping into the Anthropocene age without careful considerations of the risk must have left many feeling a little uneasy.

And I havent even mentioned that there was an evil monster on the loose. The Zodiac killer struck for the first time, an opening salvo of what proved to be a chilling campaign of fear. What was the world coming to when a man threatens to blow up a bus load of school children and nobone can do a damn thing about it.

And so then there is this little movie released called Night of the Living Dead. Granted there are no Vietcong, assassins or serial killers in this film. But there are zombies and lots of them. They stand for everything that threatens humanity's very existence. Regardless of who you are there is no stopping them. You are going to die.

The noble individual heroics of the African-American man. The circling of the forts mentality of the patriarch of the nuclear family. The power of love and vitality of youth shared by a young couple. None of it matters. They are all going to die. The government can't help them. The military can't help them. The science boffins can't help them. Everyone is just playing the piano. And then they too join the zombie horde.

Proving that constraint can foster innovation, Romero's limited resources were an asset rather than a curse. Eschewing the lurid technicolour spectacle of the Hammer horror films of the preceding decade, the black and white grittiness of Night of the Living Dead lends it a sense of authenticity and immediacy that makes for a raw and direct experience.

Indeed, this film might have only a minute fraction of the effects budget that a single episode of The Walking Dead has but nevertheless it manages to create some truly disgusting gore. One memorable scene involves a bunch of zombies engorgong themselves during a BBQ feeding feenzy. I wanted to vomit.

There is so much more to say about the formalistic qualities of this film but I have run out of steam. Heading back into social context territory, I have one further concluding statement. this film is just as relevant today as it ever has ever been before. The hydra-headed threats of terrorism. The urgent necessity of #blacklivesmatter. The scourge of Ebola, Zika and encroaching anti-biotic resistance. Donald Trump. The world is a scary place and who is going to be there to save us?

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