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George Romero Made A Perfect Movie

George Romero passed away the day before yesterday. He was 77. He will be remembered primarily for popularizing zombies, the undead monsters now found shambling everywhere throughout our society’s cultural output. His three classics – Night Of The Living DeadDawn Of The Dead, and Day Of The Dead – are all-time classics within horror itself, and those first two are arguably much, much more than that.

Still, they are older movies, the kind of things that younger generations rightly turn away from. They have their own versions of these monsters – all of them newer, stronger, faster, louder than the ones that Romero used – and they are available in brutal weekly doses on shows like The Walking Dead. Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead are quaint by today’s standards. Sadly, Romero’s attempts to blend his own storytelling with modern expectations repeatedly fell flat with audiences who came to expect more. Romero liked his movies to say something about the broader culture, but newer audiences wanted more and, in the huge horror marketplace, could easily get it. Romero slowly faded into relative artistic obscurity.

So it might be that Romero’s passing will allow us simply to remember the man that created the genre (if not the monster itself). He was grandfatherly within horror and his influence, like his monsters, goes forever on, even if the movies themselves whither with time.

But Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead deserves a bit more discussion, for two very separate reasons: its storytelling and its main character, Ben.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) – Official Trailer | Director George A. Romero Horror Movie

Storytelling

Night Of The Living Dead‘s greatest contribution to horror might have been an accident. Romero was working with $114,000, and because that money had to be stretched to its absolute breaking point, his story was told in the most economical way. The movie takes place in two locations: a graveyard and then a farmhouse. A brother and sister visiting the graveyard are attacked by a zombie. The brother is killed in the attack and the sister, Barbara, flees to the farmhouse, where she encounters Ben. It is then revealed that there are more five more people in the farmhouse. From there, the seven of them – Ben, Barbara, a couple, and a family (including an injured child) – attempt to survive the night. Things do not go well.

This is the Overcoming The Monster story. But Romero took this already simple formula and boiled it down further. Yes, there was an immediate threat, but Romero refused to spend anytime explaining where exactly the threat came from.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) [Horror] [Mystery]

In the above, the newscaster hypes the horror itself, “The wave of murder that is sweeping the eastern third of the nation is being committed by creatures who feast upon the flesh of their victims…reports persisted and medical examinations of some of the victims bore out the fact that they had been partially devoured…it has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and have been committing acts of murder…it’s hard for us here to believe what we’re reporting to you, but it does seem to be a fact.”

All of this serves only to heighten the tension within the house. As viewers, we know that the described creatures – the ones just beyond the house’s boarded up windows and doors – are the things being described in the newscast itself. We know what happens should they break through, but none of this serves to explain the how or the why of the ghouls. The only effort to do anything along those lines comes later in the broadcast:

Night of the Living Dead (1968) [Horror] [Mystery]

The newscaster floats a theory about a space probe doused in high levels of radiation, followed by an interview sequence in which three experts – a scientist, a general, and a government official – bicker about a possible explanation without offering anything concrete, mostly because they plainly don’t know. And, more importantly, the people in the house do not care about a possible explanation anyway. Knowing would not fix their dire predicament. The situation is of paramount importance, not the mythology.

Modern culture so often inundates viewers with exposition that it almost serves to overwhelm the telling of the story itself. It is as if audiences are not trusted to accept what they are seeing. But curiously, information overload can achieve the opposite outcome, as every new fact introduces one more way for the story itself to fall apart under the weight of it all. Romero’s dodged the problem by simply not dealing with it in any meaningful way.

Ben

Ben (as portrayed by Duane Jones) is not only the movie’s ostensible hero – is level-headed and reasonable as the world literally rots around him, and he stays that way despite being routinely undermined by the characters he is surrounded by – but also an African-American. Night Of The Living Dead is often described as one of the first times that a movie’s main character was black without a script calling for such a casting.1 Romero said that Jones was cast because his audition was the best of the bunch. Whether or not Romero recognized what he was doing, Jones’s casting broke significant artistic ground at a time in which America was being consumed by rampant cultural strife.

That alone would have been sufficient, but because the character was written to be the leader, Duane Jones is the leader. That means telling everybody around him where to go and what to do. It means intervening when his leadership is questioned. It also means hitting Barbara, the sister from the beginning of the movie, as she hatches a bad plan to go and find her brother:

Night of the Living Dead (4/10) Movie CLIP – Your Brother Is Dead (1968) HD

There is no sense ignoring the brutality of this scene. The sound effect implies Ben hit a white character with a closed fist, but even then, in the immediate aftermath of having done it, he catches a fainting Barbara and puts her gently on the couch. If Romero didn’t realize what he was doing, it is impossible to ignore it in retrospect. Less than two decades earlier, America was a place where even looking at a white woman could be a death sentence; Romero’s scene presents a black man hitting a white woman, asks the viewer to sympathize with Ben, and then gives us reason for doing so.2 Is it any great surprise that the movie generated immediate controversy, at least part of it resulting from Ben? That article goes further into the thinking behind this scene, in which everybody involved seemed to recognize the inherently controversial nature what was being filmed.

And then, of course, there is the film’s ending: Ben, having survived the night, is then gunned down by a white militia who confuse him for one of the zombies. There is no explicit racial animus in this; the militamen have no apparent understanding that anybody might have survived and thus assume that anybody left is a ghoul. But seeing a black character shot by rural whites, whether intentionally or otherwise, harkened back to that year’s earlier assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

Romero

It is very tempting to believe two very different narratives: that Romero knew exactly what he was doing or that Romero had no idea what he was doing. Both make for very compelling, albeit very different, versions of the man. But the answer does not really matter. What does matter is that Romero created a substantive piece of cinema history, one that continues to reverberate, even after his death, and even if we imagine what the rest of his career might have been, we know what was: that in a world where very few directors can claim to have made a lasting impact on the form, Romero could.Notes:

  1. In other words, other movies had been made with African-American lead characters, but because scripts necessitated it. Romero worked from a script that had a character named Ben, and Duane Jones happened to be the best Ben that was available. []
  2. There is also no sense in ignoring what is being done with a female character here: she is panicked, unreasonable, violent, and saved from herself by a man. Nobody is saying that Romero shattered every stereotype. []

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22 thoughts on “George Romero Made A Perfect Movie

  1. Casting and effective use of a tiny amount of money aside, I wonder if Night‘s biggest idea was not explaining the zombies. As the OP indicates, it’s ambiguous whether this was something stumbled into or deliberate, but it sure is effective. It makes the zombies scarier when the origin story is left entirely to the viewer’s imagination. Was it eldritch magic that made the dead rise from their graves? The military or some mad scientist Experimenting With Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know? Space aliens and/or communists and their radiation weapons? The protagonists don’t know and neither do we the viewers. Which makes it scarier.

    Replicating this, IMO, requires something of a light touch. It’s one thing to say “Well, the weird creatures just EXIST and the characters have to learn to deal with it,” and there is a siren’s call to explain things that the author really needs to understand before she even decides whether or not she wants to try to get away from it. Which is why I lean to the “Romero just didn’t have the budget to shoot the exposition scene at all, so he cut it out of necessity” school of thought, and thus inadvertently demonstrated how a hole in the backstory can contribute to the emotional impact of the story.

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    • You might enjoy this EXCELLENT article from the New York Times about the influence of Japanese horror movies in the mid-2000s. It gets at the same thing that Romero had decades earlier: too much explanation can be a very real problem. The more that the world is understood, the more it can be broken down, the more that characters can be second guessed, the more that audiences can say, “I’m watching a movie.”

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        • Done well, sure. Done without considerable thought – which is how most media is created – it undermines the point. (It is worth noting that Romero did make one substantive mistake with NOTLD, which was having his characters decide between the first floor and the basement, even though there was a second floor. That second floor was going to end up being much, much safer. This though is a problem that is replicated throughout zombie storytelling.)

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          • Sam,
            Have you watched Stranger Things?
            (oh, that is a tale with some lives in it.)

            The key to the very, very best horror is the understanding that whatever someone creates in their own mind, transplanting into the yawning, great unknown — is going to be MUCH scarier than any special effect.

            It is possible to build a house that seems haunted. It isn’t even all that hard.

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              • Moffat signs his name to a lot of things, doesn’t he?
                Davies did too.
                They’re not always written by them personally.

                You should see the backstory for the lonely assassins — an entire world and ecosystem filled with quantum effect creatures.

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                  • K,
                    If you sign onto a project, you take responsibility for what you’ve said you’ll do, regardless of whose name gets signed to the end product.

                    I mean, we seriously have a television show that was written by the thrice-damned security consultant. And it was deliberately written to be awful, because that was the goddamned job.

                    (And then, god rest his benighted soul, SOMEONE unearthed the damned scripts, and actually thought it was good enough to go on air — and it got more episodes than Downward Dog, which was Actually Trying)

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          • Yup. The Angels scared the crap out of me the first time I saw it, and then the return was pretty good but eventually stopped being scary because they’d become too familiar.

            The Silence, they were pretty scary too. Don’t recall so much of them.

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            • Burt,
              I think it’s not their familiarity, it’s the corruption of the original vision.*
              *yup, I’m biased. Disclaiming that now.

              The original vision didn’t have the Lonely Assassins as things that could travel through videotape, and it definitely didn’t have the statue of liberty walking around.

              Having the Lonely Assassins show up en-masse and nearly drained? That’s hella creepy. (Lovecraftian, almost). And entirely in keeping with the original authorial vision and intent.

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  2. I think that the genius of Romero here is the knowledge of what to cut out and what to put in. is right that leaving out the exposition of where the zombies come from is right, but I would add to that. Ben being black would in many ways be more disturbing than zombies for many at that time in our history. And Ben hitting a white woman, even more so.

    Romero was making a horror movie and the greatest way to shock and horrify the audience is to strike at the preconceptions that people hold. Zombies are just window dressing. Looking at it with 2017 morals is not conductive to understanding the fears that would motivate the viewers of the time. The fears that would get their hearts pumping faster. Romero plays with the fears and hopes of that generation quite well in this regard. (Plays with it so well that these specific fears from that specific movie show up and are a central part in the Stoker award winner from 1988, Night the Missed the Horror Show) Whether this was intentionally political or not is, in my view, irrelevant to the genius of the film. Romero instinctively new what would scare people.

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    • I’ve seen retrospective statements from Romero implying that there was some intentional political/social commentary in production but I’ve always found them kind of dubious, at least to the extent of there being a specific agenda. Like you (or as I read your comment) I think its more likely him and his team had a good sense of what would be generally subversive and used that to heighten the disturbing atmosphere of the film. Its a fine line that the best genre filmmakers (think Cronenberg and Clive Barker) figure out- working on social fears and tabboos without appearing to be advocates for a particular political cause.

      I suspect something similar happened with casting Sigourney Weaver in Alien, again despite later comments from Ridley Scott suggesting that they knew what they were doing.

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      • Exactly. And that is the genius. I think it is more subconscious than the directors and writers let on, mostly as they try to explain it to themselves and posterity.

        Jack moves. Context, with Donny, seemed to indicate that these were either deliberate but extremely lateral, thus taking the competition by surprise, or, more likely in Donny’s case, simply crazy, same result. He’d never said what jack move, exactly, in a given situation, he was contemplating, and maybe that was because he didn’t know. Maybe it had to be improvisational and completely of the moment.”

        -PATTERN RECOGNITION, WILLIAM GIBSON

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  3. Watched the final clip posted in the OP again. One other thing stands out as super-creepy especially for audiences at the time. After Ben hits Barbara (regressively saving her from her own … “hysterics” is the word that comes to mind but that word is regressive now too), he then almost tenderly picks her slumping body up and rests her comfortably on the couch. Then, he reaches over her and… unbuttons her coat.

    It looks almost sexual. Add race and violence to that and bam, you’ve got yourself one uncomfortable 1968 audience.

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  4. Night of the Living Dead is a great film that I’ve seen dozens of times. It seems to play every Halloween on some channel. I actually prefer Dawn of the Dead, which has some really sharp social satire at its heart and a few surprisingly haunting scenes. Perhaps his most underrated film is Season of the Witch. I love the film, but I seem to be alone in that.

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    • I have sort of a different take on it myself.
      FWIW, I like Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, as far a zombie movies go.

      Storytelling: It is sequencing of clips, and not scripting, that is the filmmaker’s art.
      Scripting is an import from theater, and it isn’t required at any rate.
      You can’t get past sequencing of clips.
      Manipulation of time, and exposition of space (i.e., making the scene look larger, more parts to it, or smaller, only a few parts to it).

      I’m more inclined to believe leaving off an explanation for the appearance of the zombies had to do more with technical matters that a deliberate decision; either being time-wise, more compelling footage elsewhere, other parts of the storyline he preferred to emphasize, or something weird about the reel with the exposition footage with not enough time or money to re-shoot it.

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  5. Cracked often pushes a theory that we see an uptick in zombie films during conservative rule because the zeitgeist fears the mindless id and groupthink that is associated with conservatives and zombies.

    And during liberal rule, we see an uptick in vampire movies because the fears shift towards these often androgynous elite isolated bloodsuckers.

    Not sure if it’s true… the trend itself or the rationale… but it’s interesting.

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  6. “Explaining the monster” is the reason why most of Dean Koontz’s books go from being “scary” to being “not scary” in the last third of the book.

    The poster child for this is Phantoms. The first half is legitimately scary, and then as the monster is explained it goes from being “I’m dealing with something beyond the ability of humans to comprehend” to something else entirely.

    The flip side to this is explaining the monster in a way that makes it more inexplicable without creating the house of cards Sam talks about, above, where the explanation itself can’t hang together.

    The best example of this, I think, is H.P. Lovecraft. He had a whole mythos of explanation that worked without creating the house of cards, because the inexplicable horror was never reduced to something that explicated away the horror of it.

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