Movie Discussion: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)

  • Monthly Theme: Genre Classicsnight-of-the-living-dead-poster
  • The Film: Night of the Living Dead
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: October 1, 1968
  • Studio: Image Ten, et al.
  • Distributer: Continental Distributing & Walter Reade Organization
  • Domestic Gross: $42 million
  • Budget: $114,000 (estimated)
  • Directors: George A. Romero
  • Producers: Karl Hardman & Russell Streiner
  • Screenwriters: George A. Romero & John Russo
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematography: George A. Romero
  • Make-Up/FX: Tony Pantanella & Regis Survinski
  • Music: n/a
  • Part of a series? Yes, This is the first film in Romero’s original Living Dead trilogy, followed by 1978’s Dawn of the Dead and 1985’s Day of the Dead. In the mid-2000s, Romero launched a second trilogy in the series: Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) andSurvival of the Dead (2009).
  • Remakes? Yes, Tom Savini directed a remake in 1990, also titled Night of the Living Dead, starring Tony Todd and Tom Towles. Another remake was released in 2006 under the title Night of the Living Dead 3D.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1999.
  • Tagline: “They won’t stay dead.”
  • The Lowdown: How much context is really needed for the arguably most significant American horror movie of the modern era (rivaled only by John Carpenter’s Halloween, I’d say)? Night of the Living Dead was made on a shoestring budget and released in 1968. It was almost released under it’s original title, Night of the Flesh Eaters, but that title was too similar to 1964’s The Flesh Eaters so it was changed to Night of the Living Dead at the last moment (causing the distributor to make an error that led to the copyright lapsing; the movie is now in the public domain). It was one of the most profitable independent movies ever made, grossing about $30 million on a $114,000 budget. It also kicked off Romero’s “Living Dead” series, which now consists of six films, including this one. The movie concerns a group of survivors who gather in an abandoned farm house after the recently dead rise to eat the flesh of the living.

If you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Sean: Does this movie live up to its reputation?

Kristine: I don’t know much about it’s reputation, other than it was inducted into the National Film Registry’s collection of significant movies, but I still feel confident saying… yes, it does. Also, I wonder if it’s one of the Registry’s only horror movies. We should research that.

Sean: I just meant as a “classic” horror movie. Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre didn’t, for you.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: So I’m very curious what you’d like to talk about… But first, can I just say that I literally cannot imagine what it must have been like to see this for the first time. It is ingrained into my brain because I have seen it so much. To me, the story is as familiar as the story of Huck Finn or something like that: iconic, American, primordial.

Kristine: Well, that brings up one of the most striking things for me, which is how modern it seems. I am torn between thinking that it is really ahead of it’s time… or that contemporary culture is all a big rip-off. So many scenes could have been lifted right out of The Walking Dead, or 28 Days Later, or Zombieland. George Romero should be collecting royalties from those productions.

Sean: Oh I know.

Dear Walking Dead zombie, We now know that you are a facsimile of a facsimile of a facsimile, and we don’t like you much. Please reinvent yourself. Love, Girl Meets Freak.

Kristine: It was crazy to me. Because I saw those modern takes first. It’s always weird when you are exposed to things on an upset timeline…

Sean: The big “problem” of Night of the Living Dead is that it is so iconic that very few filmmakers are able to think outside the formula of the movie. It dominated the imaginations of a whole generation of filmmakers and, for better or for worse, is the origin text of modern cinema’s “zombie.”

Kristine: My boyfriend and I were talking about this with “modern” architecture – how we’re exposed to mid-century modern design first and then later realize all of it had been done before in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

Sean: Right. But no zombie movies before Night of the Living Dead came close to this. There are almost no real precursors. Like White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) feature Caribbean voodoo-type “brainwashed” zombies that are just automatons. They’re not anything like the Romero zombie. But Romero admits he ripped off Matheson’s I Am Legend, which had been filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964 with Vincent Price.

Kristine: I get that, and I get that that is how culture works – but the zombies are exactly the same in contemporary films. And the plot follows the same pattern – motley crew of human survivors stuck somewhere, class/racial/sexual tensions ensue. It’s like the script put forth with Night of the Living Dead has not been altered since, and I have a problem with that. It makes me like contemporary zombie stuff I have seen a bit less.

Sean: Yeah, it’s strange. Like with vampires, there have been a million different “takes” on them, but with zombies it’s really all descended from Romero with virtually no significant deviations.

Kristine: Can I give a quick example? One thing I found very effective and moving in both The Walking Dead and 28 Days (and Weeks) Later was when someone encountered and was menaced by a zombified or reanimated version of someone they knew (wife, mother, father). When I saw what a big plot point that was in Night of the Living Dead, I was like… all these comtemporary film/tv directors are sucker-MCs.

Sean: I’ll be very interested to see what you think of The Return of the Living Dead which, I would argue, is the most original zombie movie made post-Romero. It also (pre-Scream) featured characters that had seen Night of the Living Dead and talk about “the rules” of zombie movies. Also, The Return of the Living Dead introduced the “fast zombie.”

The Freak’s pick: Punk zombies run fast, create new branch of zombie cinema.

Kristine: Ah, cool, I like it when they are fast, not lumbering. Though I have to say that near the end when Ben is trapped in the basement? The slow lumbering of the zombies as they congregate around the basement door was very scary. Possibly the scariest moment for me.

Sean: Yeah, but back to your point about characters facing the “zombified” versions of their loved ones, Karen eating her mother is, like, one of the big climaxes of Night of the Living Dead.

Kristine: Also, I think Barbra’s death was caused when she saw her brother in the zombie mob and got distracted/sentimental/freaked out. What is the scariest moment for you? Babs’ death?

Sean: Yes, Barbra’s death is scariest for me. When I first saw the movie (I must have been 8 or 9) I was very, very troubled by her fate: getting eaten alive by a horde of zombies, led by her own brother. I couldn’t shake how upset that made me. And the second scariest moment I think is when Ben is trapped outside after Tom and Judy explode and he has to fight his way back to the house. All the zombies silently closing in on him freaks me out.

The worst possible fate imaginable: torn to pieces by a mob of cannibals, led by your saucy brother.

Kristine: Oh god, yeah, and Mr. Cracker won’t let him in.

Sean: Right.

Kristine: I hate Mr. Cracker.

Sean: But boy is he fun to hate. I think the actor who plays Harry gives a great performance.

Kristine: Can we discuss the ladies first and then the gents?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Okay, lady number 1: Babs.

Sean: What about her headband?

Kristine: Eh. I liked her trench coat. She was a weird character for me because she drives the story in many ways – but she is catatonic.

Sean: I actually think Barbra is a very rare instance where, even though she’s infuriating, her catatonia and panic are essential to the movie.

Kristine: I can’t dismiss her character as totally sexist or whatever, because she is so important to the movie.

Sean: Yep. I don’t think her character is sexist. In fact, I find something very compelling and universal in her.

Kristine: Her reactions actually make a lot of sense.

Sean: When they remade this movie in the ‘90s, they reinvented her as a kickass Sigourney-Weaver-type and it is not as good. That, to me, seemed a lot more cowardly. They were kowtowing to public sentiment and “taste,” where Romero’s movie is fairly uncompromising.

Kristine: I mean, Ben’s sense of purpose and resourcefulness are far less realistic then Barbra’s natural, losing-my-shit reaction.

Sean: Remember her monologue about what happened to her in the cemetery and it sounds like a woman recounting a rape narrative? “And he grabbed me! He grabbed me! And he ripped at me! He held me and he ripped at my clothes!” I found that, and the movie’s willingness to let Barbra speak and tell her story to be totally subversive. People don’t want to accept Barbra because she’s been victimized, and she’s shell-shocked. But horror (as a genre) is about showing us the truth, the ugly gross truth, which is that rape/violence damages and corrodes people. The movie is shockingly honest about Barbra’s inability to cope, and that makes people uncomfortable. Good. I always think it’s gross and revealing when people watch this movie and say they “hate” Barbra. When she provokes that reaction, I find that to be really disturbing and dehumanizing. To me, Barbra’s just extremely fucking human, and people hate her for that. It makes them uncomfortable.  Even Ben can’t take it. When she’s telling her story (one of the movie’s unrepentantly melodramatic set-pieces, and I adore it) Ben keeps telling her “I think you should just calm down!” Her hysteria, and her abject terror at her own assault and victimization, are hard to look at. Horror should make us look at such things.

Ben to women: “Calm down, it’s called being assaulted. So just calm down about it.”

Kristine: Yes, it was all very rape-y. And I found it effective and moving when she finally broke out of her catatonic state to help Mrs. Cracker fight off zombies… and that’s when she got killed.

Sean: Yes. I think her arc and her character are fantastic and basically make the movie and I like how she challenges the viewer to empathize and also rebuke her.

Kristine: Well, also she is important because how the other characters react to her tells us a lot about them. Like, Mr. Cracker tries to bully her. Ben is frustrated, but continually tries to engage her and sees her as valuable to “the tribe.”

Sean: Yes. If there’s a problematic woman in the movie it’s Judy, not Babs. Barbra’s primal hysteria is, to me, amazing.

Kristine: Judy = poor man’s Brigitte Bardot?

Sean: Yes, but not even that interesting.

Kristine: Yeah, she is a nothing.

Sean: My least favorite line in the movie: Tom says to Judy, “You always have a smile for me. How can you smile like that all the time?” I hate it.

Kristine: Yeah, but then there is an awesome line, when Judy runs out of the house to go with Tom and Ben? Because she can’t stand to be without her man? And kind of fucks the plan up in the process?

Sean: Which?

Kristine: And Ben says, “Well, if you’re gonna come, come on then!” all annoyed and it made me laugh.

Sean: Right. Judy just sucks. She’s the movie’s worst character.

Movie to Judy: “You’re useless, Smiley. Now go sit next to that dead zombie child and don’t you dare move from your spot.”

Kristine: Tom is hot though… He’s the second worst character, but his hotness is a point in his favor.

Sean: Tom is… sort of hot. FYI, that actor committed suicide in real life.

Kristine:  What? For real?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Tell me everything. Tell me scandalous details.

Sean: I don’t know everything. Just, he killed himself.

Kristine: Shortly after this movie? Or much later?

Sean: No, I think in the ‘90s or the late ‘80s. [Editor’s Note: Keith Wayne, the actor who played Tom, committed suicide in 1995, at the age of 50].

Kristine: Hmmm.

Sean: Also, the actor who played Ben died of cancer at a relatively young age, like in his 50s.

Kristine: That is sad. Okay, a character I found compelling and also confusing was Mrs. Cracker.

Sean: You mean, Helen. And Helen is my favorite character in the movie.

Kristine: Yeah, Helen Cracker.

Sean: If there’s any character I want to know more about, it’s Helen.

Kristine: I agree.

Sean: She’s the most complicated character and the most interesting by far (with Barbra and Ben tied for second).

Kristine: She is the only one with a backstory… like you know there is marital unrest.

Sean: Yeah, she gets to show a lot: anger, fear, empathy. She is active, especially compared to the other women.

Kristine: I loved how Mr. Cracker was trying to keep her and their daughter barricaded down in the basement and she wanted to come out into the world and have access to the radio and television and other people. It is such a successful metaphor for patriarchal fear and control. Like, he wants to hide his women-folk away from outside influences. And Helen is like, ‘No.’

Helen, when I Google-Image-searched for you, this was the only picture I could find where you weren’t screaming in terror or dead with a trowel in your boob. We love you, you’re fabulous.

Sean: Yes. Her plight is the most interesting one, again with a second place tie between Ben and Barbra.

Kristine: Fuck you, Cracker.

Sean: Helen sees him as a bad person.

Kristine: He is.

Sean: And she gets the movie’s best line: “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything!” I think the movie tries at moments to depict her as a hectoring wife, but her overall portrayal and the charisma of the actress undercut that. And plus her husband is so gross that we empathize with her and not him, which is unusual for a horror movie to ask us to side with the “nagging wife.”

Kristine: Well, all that, and her relative activity, made her passivity when the zombies were grabbing at her from the window more frustrating to me. Why did she suddenly become a limp dolly? Was it fear?

Sean: Terror. Yes. It is weird, it’s like she reverts to the stereotypical horror girlie-mannequin in that scene, when previously she’d been kind of a spitfire. It is always a problem when only women become “paralyzed with fright” and not men.

Kristine: She needs Barbra to save her (which was kind of cool – sisterhood!) But it just seemed so out of character.

Sean: In fact, Helen’s peril is what snaps Barbra out of her paralysis. I don’t wish that Helen didn’t freeze up there; I wish some of the men also froze with fear. I wish that experience wasn’t gendered in the movie.

Kristine: In contrast, when Helen escapes the zombies but then is menaced (and ultimately killed) by her own daughter in the basement, her inability to fight her daughter is totally understandable.

Sean: Right…

Kristine: The shock and horror.

Sean: Is Karen scary?

Kristine: Yes, she was. But it was awesome that when we first see zombie Karen, she is eating her dad, Mr. Cracker. It made me die and laugh at the same time.

You just know he’s gotta taste like shit. Like Van De Kamp’s fish sticks or canned peas or warm beer or something…

Sean: I love Karen cannibalizing her father.

Kristine: It was great.

Sean: If I had written the remake, I would have centered things more on Ben and Helen and made them the “heroes” and had Helen kill Karen when she finds her there…

Kristine: Karen didn’t eat Helen, she just stabbed her to death. What do you make of that? Anything? I don’t recall any other zombie-on-human murder that wasn’t a “feeding” thing.

Sean: Well, maybe she took a nibble before she want up to attack Ben. Just a… a lobe… or a pinkie toe…

Kristine: Dessert.

Sean: Right. But her killing Helen with the spade is very non-canonical for zombie movies.

Kristine: Well, maybe I am barking up the wrong tree, but I feel like there was a reason that murder was different. Less zombie attack, more straight up matricide. I don’t know what the reason is, but it is effective and scary.

Sean: I think Karen killing Helen with the garden trowel is about Romero’s political subtext, right? Because I think he definitely wanted this movie to be “an American nightmare” and part of that is upending the institution of the family. Remember Harry and Helen tell us they literally got upended in their car by the zombies. That’s when Karen got bitten. So, the family is in tatters. I love how dysfunctional and wretched the marriage is.

Kristine: Who could be happily married to Mr. Cracker? I love how his weak moral character is manifested in his dealings with everyone.

Sean: I love Romero taking potshots at institutions. Would you agree that this is the rare liberal horror movie?

Kristine: I definitely agree with that. 100% agree.

Sean: If Ben had been played by a white actor, would you still agree?

Kristine: Umm… Yes, but it much more obvious with Ben being a black man. Especially for the ending to be as effective as it was. But I want to save that discussion for last. I also think the power struggles between Harry and Ben would have been much weaker if Ben was white. In fact, Harry might have just rolled over, don’t you think?

Sean: Well, then it might have been more about class… Okay, so onto the fellas? Harry: Emasculated, simpering, neurotic, paranoid. The “white American patriarch.” A coward. A bigot. A bully.

Kristine: Yes. That’s where I think you are right about Helen – when she finds out Harry has kept from her the fact that there is a TV and a radio upstairs, she overrules him and comes out of the basement. He is powerless against her will, and against Ben – when Ben asserts that he is the boss upstairs.

Harry, if only you’d lived to enjoy the antics of Archie Bunker and “Pop” from Laverne & Shirley, you would have felt less alone in the world.

Sean: I think Harry is meant as a critique, more than any other character. But I also find him sympathetic. And I think the movie is stronger because the debate over “cellar” vs. “upstairs” is a valid debate because both sides are “right” and “wrong.” I mean, remember that Ben survives the night because of the basement, validating Harry’s plan…

Kristine: I agree. Ben doesn’t really give Harry a chance for a fair debate. Ben decides on a course of action, and because he is stronger and more dominant than Harry, he wins the popular vote. Which explains (though of course doesn’t justify) Harry’s later actions against Ben, locking him out of the house for zombie food.

Sean: Yeah, truthfully Ben is kind of a bully too…  But, unlike Harry, he shows kindness and compassion. But he is also vindictive and mean sometimes. He is not a “true hero” and I love that.

Kristine: How is Ben vindictive and mean?

Sean: He blows Harry away. After he’s safe.

Kristine: That was necessary. Harry was a liability.

Sean: Um… So tie him up. It’s murder!

Kristine: Eh, murder, schmurder. Who has time for the tying up? The ghouls are attacking.

Sean: Don’t get me wrong, I love that Ben isn’t heroic through and through, that he’s morally gray. Also, Ben smacks Barbra. I’m just saying, he’s no saint. Which I like.

Kristine: That was different – that was to break her hysteria. Sure, it also shows his frustration and that he is, indeed, not a saint. I like it, too, because if that wasn’t there then his character would be too Superman-like. I mean Ben is so composed and focused and competent. It would be unbelievable without those moments of frustration and rage.

Sean: Right. Well, do you find Harry sympathetic at all?

Kristine: Yes, Harry is sympathetic but I still hate him.

Sean: But I love to hate him. I can’t imagine the movie without him.

Kristine: I am realizing it is impossible to talk about Ben without discussing Harry and vice versa, which means they are both essential. And perfect foils.

Sean: FYI, the actor who plays Harry is listed in the opening credits as a producer. Both actors, I think are great. I really love Harry. How he channels all the bully husbands of entertainment-yore, like Ralph Kramden.

Kristine: Sure, I see that.

Sean: So I guess Ben was supposed to be a working class, uneducated guy, but the actor was very educated and refused to say the lines like a dummy. Can we discuss Ben?

Kristine: I was going to say that, yes, Ben is incredibly articulate and very of the “dignified black man tradition,” right? Sidney Poitier…

Obama, Zombie Hunter

Sean: Yes, totally Sidney Poitier. I mean, Romero cast Ben in the role because he liked the audition, but he was not written to be black.

Kristine: I was just going to ask that.

Sean: Yes, it was “race-blind” casting (copyright Grey’s Anatomy). But Romero must have realized the tremendous hook that it gave the movie. Ok. On to Tom. Tom is boring. I wish they had made Tom and Judy total JDs, so they added even more unpredictability to the movie.

Kristine: I have nothing further to say about Tom, except that he tried to act as peacemaker and go-between, so I guess he is a good stand-in for the sector of society that is like, “Go along, don’t make waves, blah blah.”

Sean: He’s just this corn-fed all-American boy. Actually, Tom and Judy are the new generation caught between their parents (Harry) and the Civil Rights movement (Ben).

Kristine: Yeah, but they defer to both instead of rebelling.

Sean: Yeah, they’re kind of spineless. But Tom does choose Ben’s side and brings Judy upstairs. Ugh. Judy “obeying” Tom makes me furious.

Kristine: But as we discussed, isn’t that cause Ben is the alpha male? Not necessarily because he is right?

Sean: No, I think it’s supposed to be that Tom sees real leadership in Ben and recognizes that Harry is a slimeball.

Kristine: That’s part of alpha maleness.

Sean: Ben is commanding and smart. Ben is thinking; Harry is reacting. Tom sees that.

Kristine: Right. Anyway, I am bored of Tom Thumb. Moving on….

Sean: But I want to say this: the drive-in/midnight-movie culture of the ‘50s and ‘60s was one that catered to teenagers, and Tom and Judy are the “audience surrogates” in a sense. I think it’s a hilarious joke on Romero’s part that he blows them up first and the “target audience” is watching themselves blown to bits and their remains fought over by the zombies.

Movie to teenyboppers: “Watch yourselves get eaten by ugly people. Are you upset yet?”

Kristine: Yeah, I was going to say, since they’re the “target audience” it’s weird that Tom and Judy are not more proactive. That’s an interesting point.

Sean: I think Romero might be registering some disgust? Or at least eye-rolling, at “America’s youth” there. But I guess also, what could be more cynical than to “kill the future” first?

Kristine: And the “attractive young couple being slaughtered first” trope continues to thrive in horror movies.

Sean: Well, but here’s where Night of the Living Dead is so unusual: the cast is so diverse. What other horror movie puts a teen couple and a middle-aged housewife on the same level? And then kills the teens first and spends more time with the housewife? Helen is more important to the movie than Tom, which is very interesting to me.

Kristine: I don’t have anything else to add about Helen that I haven’t already said.

Sean: Okay, so… Johnny?

Kristine: Ugh.

Sean: I have to admit, I was shocked at your reaction to Johnny.

Kristine: I hate him.

Sean: Because I get the impression that he is a universally beloved character.

Kristine: Why?

Sean: Everyone loves Johnny.

Kristine: Not this girl.

Sean: Because he’s wry, intelligent, sarcastic and witty? And he teases dummy Barbra?

I wuv you, Kwistine!

Kristine: Eh. I see him as a sour puss and a whiny jerk.

Sean: Also, of anyone in the cast, Johnny most looks like a Kristine-boyfriend.

Kristine: That is mean and not true.

Sean: Um… I love Johnny, so how can it be mean? And, is it really “not true”?

Kristine: You are just saying that to get me enraged cause you know I don’t care about His Ugliness.

Sean: No. I will say this, I think the opening conversation between Babs and Johnny is really well-written. Maybe the best-written scene. I love Johnny wondering what happens to the wreaths they leave each year. I love the lightening flashes. And I love Barbra praying, and Johnny scoffing at it and smoking in his driving gloves.

Kristine: To be honest, I don’t remember it that well. Maybe I should rewatch. It didn’t grab me. I do know it establishes Barbra as more sentimental than Johnny, and her sentimentality might contribute to her demise later in the film. And I liked how you knew it was Johnny-Zombie by those driving gloves.

Sean: Yes. I think he’s quite handsome as a zombie.

Nerds are cuter when they’re dead, apparently.

Kristine: Meh.

Sean: Why do you hate him? I need an explanation.

Kristine: I don’t have one, it’s just my natural reaction to the character.

Sean: Come on, gimme at least something…

Kristine: I told you I don’t have a reason and you won’t accept it. I don’t have to have a reason.

Sean: Ok. Well, like I said: I’ve seen this movie so many times that I’d say the biggest “What if….” I used to think about as a kid was, What if Johnny had survived and made it to the farmhouse with Babs?

Kristine: I was going to say, what would happen between Johnny and Ben? Who would be alpha? Ben.

Sean: I think he would have worked with Ben. I think Johnny would have been an asset.

Kristine: I will accept that. But also then Babs would have behaved totally differently. If Johnny hasn’t been killed in front of her. And she would have been able to contribute, also.

Sean: You need Johnny to die to get Babs into catatonia, and you need the catatonia to cast a pall over the movie.

Kristine: And also, I think being frustrated with Babs’ state puts the viewer in a high state of anxiety that helps the movie. You want her to wake up And it is stressful.

Sean: Yes. Ok, so… Ben. What should we talk about? His death?

Kristine: Oh god. His death. It was truly devastating, but what was weird was that I knew it was coming as soon as I saw the posse, but I was still shocked when it happened.

Sean: I was impressed by how you called it as soon as the posse appeared. I was totally blindsided when I watched it back in the day.

Kristine: What is it Hobbes says about life? “Brutal, nasty and short”? Well that was that death scene.

Sean: Oh Hobbes.

Kristine: As soon as I saw those rednecks I knew it was over.

A tender little visit from the Klan. Yay!

Sean: I mean, there is no way that Romero made that ending and didn’t intend it to comment on America’s race issues right?

Kristine: Right.

Sean: 1968? I just am staggered at how the movie seduces white audiences into Ben’s subject position. I mean, who wouldn’t root for Ben? He’s smart, calculating, tough, kind… The horror movie cliché where the audience yelling “Don’t do that!” at characters doesn’t hold true for Ben. He does everything we’d want him to do, right?

Kristine: The actual Hobbes quote is: “Life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” which is actually even more accurate for poor Ben’s death. And he went through all that. Spent the night alone in the cellar with the dead bodies (that he had re-killed) partially devoured with zombies clamoring at the door, only to be killed by humans. Totally devastating and made me want to die. He didn’t make any mistakes. It’s not fair. Which is what makes it so good.

Sean: Yes. Agreed.

Kristine: But what really shocked me was that the movie doesn’t stop with his… assassination – and don’t you think the manner of his death purposefully evokes MLK and Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy? All civil rights crusaders shot in the head?

Sean: Yes. The idea that the smartest, most passionate, best parts of our society are being killed off.

Kristine: Which says to me Romero had this all planned out when he put forth the methodology of zombie killing, that it could only be a shot to the head… which is really smart.

Sean: Right. Yeah, I never thought of it that way. But yes it echoes all that really well.

Kristine: So, I was on my couch, devastated after Ben is shot. And then it gets worse. And I had a horrible pit in my stomach when the rest of the movie plays out.

Sean: Yeah, the still photos of the posse dragging Ben out of the house with meat hooks and throwing him on a bonfire are, without a doubt, some of the most upsetting images in the movie. Do we need to address that the posse kills Ben “by accident”? It’s not like they see he’s black and then shoot him. He’s just a vague shape in the house.

Kristine: Well, I didn’t know if they would realize their mistake, but of course they didn’t. They didn’t bother to check if he was zombie or not… which is so lynch mob. Then all those photos of them burning Ben. It really was a very effective use of “news footage.”

Sean: Like we were talking about, that’s what gives the audience the feeling of being sucker-punched and they leave the movie deflated and unnerved.

Kristine: It made me feel… very, very low. Like, not exhilarated at all. Empty. It made me feel bad the way Wolf Creek made me feel bad.

Sean: That is amazing.

Kristine: Just…hopeless. Even though, ostensibly, “good” won at the end, right? Civilization “won.”

Sean: Well, society is reasserting itself but remember: This is the start of a trilogy and as we find out in the sequel, things don’t go so well…

Kristine: I feel like… “Good! Society should be punished for killing Ben!”

Sean: I know right? Are you interested or excited to watch the sequel?

Kristine: Yes, I want to see people pay.

Sean: Lots of horror fans consider the sequel to be superior to the first movie.

Kristine: Hey – can we discuss my death toll prediction?

Zombie or unemployed vaudevillian? A little from Column A, a little from Column B?

Sean: Yes. What was it again?

Kristine: At about 35 minutes into the movie, you asked me who I thought would die.

Sean: Right…

Kristine: I said Ben will die, but heroically.

Sean: Which he did, but not “heroically.”  So, no points.

Kristine: I said that Cracker and Mrs. Cracker will die.

Sean: Yes, they died.

Kristine: Judy and whathisname will die. And I guessed that Barbra will live and save Karen.

Sean: But you guessed that before Helen revealed that Karen had been bitten. And the minute Helen said that, you were like “Kill the kid!”

Kristine: What was funny was that you were all, ‘Damn, you are the grim reaper.’ Anyway, the actual movie was way more dark and dismal then I predicted. You tricked me about the Karen situation.

Sean: Yeah, you already knew the rule of “get bitten, you turn.” But remember 1968 audiences didn’t know that rule.

Kristine: Right, that’s another thing about watching these films out of context… I wonder if it enriches them or cheapens them or is just different?

Sean: I think it… sort of undercuts things. Right? Because the shock of Karen being a monster is taken away.

Kristine: True. Is it interesting hearing my thoughts on things or do you think I am missing out?

Sean: No. I love hearing thoughts. That’s like, the whole joy of this project for me. What do you think audiences were more upset by in 1968: Karen turning into a monster and killing Helen? Or Ben getting shot?

Kristine: I can’t rightly say… but I think Ben’s death, because the audience never met non-zombie Karen. Maybe if we did, her actions would be more shocking. Her killing of her mom is pretty brutal though.

Children are needy little monsters whose unceasing appetites will be impossible to satisfy until you are left dead and they are still trying to feed off of your remains. I mean, just in this movie, they’re like that.

Sean: I just think kids are supposed to be “protected” from horror, usually, and people get all riled up by kids being killed or turned into monsters. I sort of wish that when Helen found Karen eating Harry, she was like “Oh sweetie! Thank you!”

Kristine: This is a minor point, but you know another thing that struck me? How brutal the movie is, but some of the language they used seemed hokey and definitely dated… like “murder spree” and “ghouls.”

Sean: I love the ‘60s lingo. I love “murder spree.” I want to go on one.

Kristine: But I just don’t see how Ben’s death can’t be the most shocking and devastating part of the movie, because not only is he dead (and the viewer loves him) but his death also means the death of logical, rational thinking, right? In favor of mob rule and more brutality. And fighting indiscriminate zombie brutality with indiscriminate human brutality.

Sean:  Didn’t Ebert cite Ben’s death in his curmudgeonly rant? Like, kids shouldn’t see their heroes die? I just want to say I hate Ebert, and I think of him as an enemy of horror cinema.

Kristine: I love Ebert.

Sean: I hate him and he is a horror bigot.

Kristine: I love him. He loves genre films. He wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. And champions, like, Russ Meyer.

Sean: Your homework is: find three positive reviews of horror movies written by Ebert and send them to me and then I will reassess. And they have to be post-1960.

Kristine: Fine, Professor.

Sean: And the bloodier the better. And nothing by Hitchcock counts. In fact, no prestige directors.

Kristine: Stop with the parameters.

Sean: No Polanski. No Kubrick. I’m dead serious. He’s an auteur fanwanker.

Kristine: You’re a cancer-phobe. [Editor’s Note: Kristine later pointed me to this. And also she found out that Karen has a blog!]

Sean: I literally cannot wait to watch Dawn of the Dead with you now.

Kristine: I can’t end this discussion without reiterating how shocked I was by how there were so many scenes in this movie that looked like they were lifted right out and plunked into contemporary zombie shows. The hands reaching through windows, the zombies dishing out chunks of flesh amongst themselves, the surviving male humans chest bumping one another for alpha status… just all of it. So, Dawn of the Dead is the next in the trilogy?

Sean: Yes. Then Day of the Dead. That’s the original trilogy, before he pulled a George Lucas and made three more shitty ones.

Ratings Round-Up

The Girl’s rating: Masterpiece! AND I’m traumatized but it sort of feels good.

The Freak’s rating: Masterpiece!

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38 thoughts on “Movie Discussion: George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)

  1. Hmm, mentioning Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, are there any Hammer films in the future for Girl Meets Freak? The Brides of Dracula is probably the best, in my opinion. Even though The Curse of Frankenstein is also pretty amazing. Cushing and Lee just take horror to a whole new level.

    I think one of the things that I find impressive about Night of the Living Dead is how well the exposition is delivered. And there’s a lot of it. The only ‘where were you when the zombies came’ moment is filmed from Bab’s point of view, everyone else tells their story, but they tell it well. I think most low budget filmmakers today would try to get all that captured on film, but it’s really not necessary to the story and in a lot of ways adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house. Here we have a good example of why being trapped in a place raises the tension. And because of they way they deliver the whole story from the house, now the audience is also trapped. There’s no cutaways until after the night’s horror is done. There are a few shots from the TV, but you still don’t feel like you’ve left the house, you’re just watching the TV from inside the house. I’m not sure, but this might be the first instance of audience participation horror. I know it was popular in the 80s and 90s, especially with Sam Raimi and all his various POV shots, but I’m not sure how much had been done before NotLD.

    Additionally, I like how these zombies are afraid of fire. They have scarecrow syndrome because they obviously burn quite fast. In fact, most modern zombies don’t seem too terribly interested in their own survival, but they are in Night. They even start using tools at one point to get into the house and sweet little Karen goes chop-chop on mommy. I’m not sure if it’s total sentient awareness or just animal survival instincts, but I do feel it brings something to the monsters.

    1. I am excited to get to some Hammer movies, as well as some giallos and “classic” period stuff (’30s/’40s Universal monsters and Val Lewton and stuff like that). Never seen “Brides” but I fucking loved “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed,” “The Vampire Lovers,” and a bunch of others ones (like “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors” – oh wait I think that’s Amicus, not Hammer – they did all the anthologies right?) The make-up on Frankenstein in “The Curse of Frankenstein” is BAD ASS.
      I can’t believe we didn’t even talk about the “one location” thing, which I always love. The earliest best example I can think of is Hitchock’s “Lifeboat” which I was OBSESSED WITH as a kid (Tallulah Bankhead!). Then, of course, there’s “12 Angry Men.” And even Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” (that’s my favorite of his early stuff, well along with “Rebecca”) is claustrophobic and most of it is confined to the train (though there’s a long intro set at a chalet) and there’s also “Rope” of course. It’s weird I never think of Romero as Hitchcockian but I’m convincing myself that “Night of the Living Dead” has a lot of its roots in Hitch!

      1. Yeah, I think there’s something brilliant about the trapped character. I guess you could say it goes all the way back to the classical unities. Hitchcock was a master at it. It’s been so long since I’ve seen The Lodger, I can’t remember if it also followed the same principle of trapping the victims in a single location. The Birds ends that way though, and it’s very Night of the Living Deadish. I really need to go back and rewatch every Hitchcock film. I think I’ve seen about 75% of them, but missed a lot of his early and later year films. They just need more on Netflix!

        Some of those 70s anthologies get really weird and don’t really go anywhere. It’s as though four or five screenwriters tripped and mixed their screenplays up and the director just made the film regardless.

        Speaking of anthology movies, I’m not sure if you’ve seen Trick or Treat, but it’s a fun one. Very derivative, but still one of the few horror movies willing to kill off children.

  2. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is the most masterful zombie film ever made – at least in terms of entertainment value. I believe it was written by Dan O’Bannon of ALIEN fame…and the script is masterful. It’s interesting that you mention how all modern zombie films rehash the same narrative elements and images, especially when looked at within the context of ROTLD. If the title alone isn’t enough of a glaringly ironic rip-off, the original Romero classic is referenced by one of the main characters withing the first ten minutes of the film. From then on, the movie begins its decent into a brilliantly campy pastiche of not only zombie movies, but the teen screams/slasher movies of the 80s…complete with an awesome performance by scream queen Linea Quiglea (NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, anyone?). Anyway, we have cheeky talking zombies, full-frontal nudity (with the help of a cod piece) and dancing in graveyards, a Rick James look-alike and a mötly cru of pierced-up 80s power punks having their brains devoured by the undead. Fuck the Reagan 80s and their family values, this is where it’s at.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly about the brilliance of RotLD – and I’d only add that I think the movie does something that is EXTREMELY hard to do: be both hilarious/campy and also, at moments, genuinely scary.

  3. The first time I saw ROTLD i jerked off. It wasn’t cause I liked it so much (though I did really love it). It was because I was a pent up teen boy full of juice. That seen in the graveyard got me so hot that to this day when ever I watch zombie flicks I have to pause it at the first sign of trouble and go wack off. I feel really srtange inside that the sight of the undead eating brains and mutilating bodies gets me so hot. I guess im just a product of my enviroment,, you know? Is there anyone out there that knows of any doctors that I could speak with about curing myself of this terrible syndrome? Its really hurting my relationships. Girls keep running away from me. I mean, things are always going good, then I ask to bring alittle ground beef and some ketchup into the bed room.” Oh! your a freak!” they yell, just cause I want them to look like their brains are spilling out while i service them. Whatever!! I love this blog. The whole ying and yang of nubie and vetran is brillant! it really is the perfect format cause there is so much insight and freshness all rapped into one great place. Keep it rockin! Ut! the walking dead is on gotta go rip one off! Please help me!

  4. Watched this for the first time yesterday! Not sure why it’s taken so long, just one of those classics that I’ve missed – next up is ‘Don’t Look Now’.
    Would be fair to say I was blown away, in some ways it hasn’t aged a day. The use of the news footage and reports was brilliant, felt very authentic. How about when Ben tells Barbra his rather long story, then Barbra starts hers and Ben is all ‘calm down’ ‘keep yourself together’ and she’s only just started!
    Like Kristine, I was shocked how much has been lifted from this film, over the years. Do you think the zom-girl from the start of the Dawn remake is a shout out to Karen?

    1. Definite shout out to Karen! Have you seen the rest of the original trilogy? If not they’re worth it – especially Dawn though Day of the Dead is a totally awesome splatterfest and feels Italian/Fulci-inspired. I did not like Don’t Look Now the first time I saw it, but am anxious to revisit/reassess. And also if you haven’t seen it – my fave zombie flick of all time is The Return of the Living Dead – worth your time!

      1. Shout out – a nod to the original? Or maybe just a rip off?
        Have seen the others in the trilogy, but don’t remember them being as good as Night. Time to re-watch.
        Have you seen Fulci’s ‘Zombie/ Zombie 2/Zombie Flesh Eaters, his Dawn ‘rip off’? Love his style, and his zombies are awesome.

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