"They're coming to get you Barbra...."
They're coming to get us all. Like the tagline from George Romero's 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth." And once Romero (in his first film on a budget that was smaller than it took to colorize it years later) opened those gates, they've never been closed. (For the purposes of this writeup, I'm assuming the reader has a familiarity with the plot.)
In 1968, Romero unleashed a low budget black and white "drive-in" movie on the world that is arguably one of the more influential films in the last decades of the twentieth century.1 That it holds up over thirty years latermost genre films that old tend to be appreciated for their nostalgic quaintness or Mystery Science Theater 3000 quotientis testament to all involved (especially Romero and cowriter John Russo). (While at it, let's forgot the terrible 1990 "remake")
Its stark black and white cinematography (by Romero), editing (again, Romero), and use of odd camera angles during some scenes help create for the viewer a sense of the confusion, panic, and surreality that faces the characters. It also reflects the bleakness of the situation. Unlike some of his later work, which often combined moments of humor with the horror, NotLD is unrelentingly grim and downbeat. There is no escape. The world is turned upside down, safety is a delusion, and rationality collapses, like the zombies, shot in the head with a bullet.
"It was dead but opened its eyes and tried to move."
There isn't much to say about his cast as actors (Romero, uncredited, plays a Washington reporter). They did no significant work following the film (though they seemed damned to make mainly horror films). In fact, there's only a handful of roles between them (even less when you leave out 1999's Night of the living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition and credited and uncredited appearances of the original film other movies and compilation videos).
On the other hand, their work is admirable. Particularly Duane Jones as Ben, the protagonist. Unfortunately he only went on to a few roles in other genre movies, never reaching the potential shown in 1968. Also of note is (was? he died in 1988) that he is black. At a time when strong roles for a black actor were few and far between, this little low budget horror flick made him the, frankly, only likable character in the film. And it's not a "black role." His race never seems to enter into anyone's mind. Perhaps, like death itself, the threat of the zombies is the great equalizer. He is also the one rational person in the group, the one we not only identify with, but want to be in the context of the filmhe is intelligent, resourceful, and has an instinct for survival: just how we would hope to act in the situation. Ben is the "leader," but for a leader to lead, the rest of the group must allow him to and acquiesce to orders. This does not happen and conflict ensues. The idea of group cohesion, even for the sake of survival, has died as well. As he says to Harry Cooper (Jack Hardman), "now get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there, I'm boss up here."
Judith O'Dea, who plays Barbra is enigmatic. It's never clear whether she's a bad actress or actually talented (it is her only acting credit, not counting what was mentioned above). Whichever way, she succeeds as the shell-shocked victim. She hardly speaks and is given no personality to speak of. She's quiet and nervous and childlike, like some blowup pool toy batted around by capricious childrenhelpless and impotent. She is frozen and numb, her only coping mechanism is to withdraw in order to insulate herself from the horror around her. Barbra is hiding in madness, perhaps a saving grace. She finally acts toward the end, trying help Ben board the openings in the house during the zombies final assault. Then she sees her brother, Johnny, who had scared her in grave yard at the beginning (the first zombie death in the movie), throwing her back into inaction as she's dragged through the door, disappearing beneath a mob of the living dead.
There is the young couple, Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley). The weakest performances in the film (and the first two of the "group" to die). They are naive and if Tom wasn't necessary to help Ben get to the truck for the attempted escape, rather superfluous. Of course, it rounds out the demographic, representing the youth of America (or anywhere). And the destruction of its innocence (they were in the area planning to go swimming when they heard the announcements on the radio).
The most interesting "cell" within the group is the Cooper family. Harry Cooper is the most maddening character. He is bossy, arrogant, and willing to do anything to protect himself and his family. That means betraying the group if need be. He doesn't help Ben in after the failed attempt to get the truck filled with gas and gets beaten for it (quite a gratifying scene). Rather than work together (yet another casualty to the situation and further breakdown of ethics, morality, and humanity), he wants to bar himself in the basement where his family and the young couple were hiding when Ben and Barbra showed up. Seeing that Ben wishes to act and fight, if need be, Harry steals the rifle (itself a symbol of their "control" and illusory safety). Ben gets it back and shoots him. He crawls into the basement to die with his family. His wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) is ineffectual and follows orders. There is a daughter (Kyra Schon) who doesn't figure into the plot until later.
But the family is no more sacred than respect for the dead. She finds her daughter (who was bitten by a zombie and does nothing until the end) eating her father's corpse. Stunned and in fear, she backpedals, falling only to have her own daughter attack and murder her with a large trowel. The final taboo has been broken. Not only has the family disintegrated, bonds within it have gone beyond being violated to utter nonexistence. All that is left is the individual and the only factor of separation is between the living and the dead.
"The unburied dead are coming back to life and seeking human victims."
The word zombie2 never appears in the film. But we know what they are. This isn't a vampire, nosferatu, this is a whole other kind of living dead (actually quite different from the zombies of folklore and previous films). No longer is the threat from a single force or foe, it is "legion." Every dead person is returning and will kill and continue to do so unless put down. The cycle repeats as every victim in turn becomes a zombie. As the saying goes, "we have met the enemy and they are us." And it is an enemy that not only embodies the fear of death, but the fears accompanying itnonexistence. The enemy has no personality, no individuality, no philosophy, only the most rudimentary thought processesnothing but a mindless killing automaton. Everything making us human ceases to exist. Except for the hunger.
Earlier, they hear on the radio:
There is an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins. The murders are taking place in villages, cities, rural homes, and suburbs with no apparent pattern or reason for the slayings. It seems to be an explosion of mass homicide.
No only is there no escape (as Jim Morrison put it: "no one here gets out alive"), there is no way to find a meaning or reason behind it. Again, this speaks to those fears. A great evil is always easier to comprehend when there is a motive, some origin, or a purpose, but when it is arbitrary and "with no apparent pattern" there is no way to wrap one's brain around it. Anyone and everyone is a potential (inevitable) victim and nothing really can be done. Like Vladimir and Estragon, there is nothing but to wait. Unlike them, there is no promise (however vague and empty) that Godot will arrive and no amusing games to pass the time.
Romero does give a possible explanation for what happens. The news relates a story of a satellite that had orbited Venus (20 Million Miles to Earth?3) but was destroyed by NASA because it carried "mysterious high level radiation." Later it is mentioned that radiation is being monitored and seems to be rising. While it is never confirmed (the idea is abandoned in Romero's sequels), at one point the news gives something of a statement suggesting that it is the case (at least they believe it to be). Since the brain "has been reactivated by radiation" the way to dispose of the problem is "kill the brain and you kill the ghoul."4
Johnny: Prayin's for church.
Barbra: You're ignorant!
Every societal and cultural institution has been blown apart by what happened. Religion and the government are helpless. Group cohesion and cooperation are gone. The family and its bonds have been destroyed. The dead are not revered but must be destroyed. No longer loved ones, they are "marauding ghouls" that need to be exterminatedin the words of one of the "experts" on television, they are "just dead flesh and dangerous."
Burning is best for the bodies but it must be done within "a matter of minutes." As the interviewee on the news broadcast states:
...bodies must be carried to the street and...and...and burned. They must be burned immediately. Soak them in gasoline and burn them. The bereaved will have to forego the dubious comforts that a funeral service will give.
All things once held sacred are stripped away. The promise of peace that is supposed to come from death (a dubious comfort, in itself) is gone. Not just for the "spirit"/personality, but for the remains, as well (which further punishes the living since their ties were to the body that must now be unceremoniously shot in the head and/or torched.
"Everything appears under control here."
Despite his confidence and resourcefulness, any control over the situation by Ben is totally illusory. He can no more persevere than he can stop the dead from returning to "life" (not even the cessation of biological processes can "control" what happens). In fact, along with safety, all control is gone. Any action is merely Sisyphian, pushing the rock up the hill over and over until (in this case) it rolls back over youa finger in the dike way to confront inevitability.
During the final assault on the house, Ben gets pushed back into the basement and is forced to barricade himself in. He finds what remains of the Cooper family, now each a zombie. One by one he must shoot them in the head (the daughter exited the basement during the assault; that he threw her on a couch rather than reacting more violently seems notable). Once again the "family" is attacked, parents being killed a second time. Unlike the chief and his men outside, for whom this is practically a game, Ben feels remorse for what he has to do. He still retains a part of his humanity.
The long night of terror ended, Ben hears the sounds of the "search and destroy" teams outside. He goes upstairs to find the living dead gone. While looking out the window (still wary and holding the rifle), he is shot.5 The death of an innocent; the living killing the living. Rationality and reality has completely collapsed. With that break, Romero switches to a series of grainy stills showing the men as they take meat hooks and remove Ben's body to put in the fire to be burned with the other "creatures." The final shot returns to "film" as we are left with the images of the bonfire in the field. There is much more than a break with reality, it has been discarded and a "new" reality put in its place. No control. No safety. No escape.
"The End" seems unnecessary. We know it is.
1It's interesting how the genre films tend to be the ones most influential and imitatedon the other hand, that's how exploitation cinema works. I offer the other films I think qualify. Star Wars (1977), though not as much as people tend to think. Dawn of the Dead, which was highly influential, particularly on European gore cinema, spawning dozens of "zombie" movies in its wake as well as setting the standard and raising the bar on makeup and "splatter" effects. Probably liked so much by the critics because they can justify enjoying it due to its satirical shots as the emptiness and hollowness at the bottom of mass consumerism. Halloween (1978), which may still hold the record as the highest grossing independent film in American cinema. The slasher film would never be the same. Alien (1979), highly influential as a crossover, covering both horror and science fiction. Another one that spawned some truly horrible imitations.
2What cemented the relationship between Romero and the word zombie was that Dawn of the Dead's release title in Italy was Zombi. Italy, particularly known for its gore films (especially after the release of that movie), responded a year later with Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 (trying to cash in on the success and suggest it was an actual sequel, though no attempt is made to make it appear that way): a film best known in the United States as Zombie (1980). "Oh what a tangled web we weave...."
3A 1957 movie about the first rocket to reach Venus (this occurs before the opening). Upon return, it crashes into the sea. The only surviving "member" of the expedition is a small "creature" (called "Ymir"). It begins to grow, finally reaching enormous size and threatening the city of Rome before being dispatched by the military. Not a bad little film. Entertaining, though most notable for the Ray Harryhausen special effects.
4This "plan" leads to the only humorous moments in the film. The scenes with the redneck police chief, potbellied and sporting a bandolier of rifle bullets (too big for his rifle), and his army of locals make for some interesting relief from the darkness. They walk around, casually shooting the zombies as if it's no big deal (they're easy targets). When asked what to do if surrounded by them ("would I have a chance?"), he nonchalantly replies "well, if you had a gun, shoot 'em in the head. If you didn't, get a torch and burn 'em, they go up pretty easy. Beat 'em or burn 'em." When they pass the burnt-out remains of the truck, he says "somebody had a cookout here, Vince." Of course, the best line in the movie comes when he is asked by the reporter if they are slow. "Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up."
5There is no suggestion that they know he is armed. He is just another wandering ghoul to the men. And taken out accordingly.
(Sources: my copy of the digitally remastered collector's video and numerous viewings, names and dates were checked using the Internet Movie Database at www.imdb.com)
(And yes, it is "Barbra" not "Barbara.")