Of Mice and Maggots (and Other Nasty Things)

by Kelly Roberts

26 October 2008

Before zombies craved for brains... there were just brains. Scene from Fiend Without a Face (1958). 

A nasty thing usually leads to another. Scene from The Thing From Another World (1951)

Night of the Living Dead vs. Other Things
Along with The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951), The Thing from Another World, produced and at least partially directed by Howard Hawks [His Girl Friday (1940), Red River (1948)], lent the fledgling genre some legitimacy and proved that it could be profitable. What followed was an explosion of features—many of them silly, most of them low-budget—that took advantage of that success. I want to talk about a few of these films and the different ways they have influenced or may have influenced Romero.

I Am Legend and The Last Man on Earth are the most important of these influences, as I’ve already mentioned. There are some key differences between the book and the film, but the general concept is the same: A deadly plague sweeps the Earth and any corpse that isn’t immediately tossed into the fire stands up again as a vampire. Only one man (Robert Morgan in the movie, played by Vincent Price) survives, and his days are spent staking the sleeping vamps and preparing for the night, when the undead besiege his barricaded house with bricks and taunts. Most of the story focuses on the character’s utter isolation, his groping for meaning, but eventually he discovers a group of survivors that has managed to keep the vampire infection in check with drugs. Unfortunately, he has been staking them unknowingly for years. This new society brutally hunts and butchers the “true” vampires, then comes for him. 

The vampires in the film move and act very much like Romero’s ghouls, and they’re powerful in the same way, as a horde. The big difference is the blurring between states of being: We have the “true” vamps (those who rose from the dead and are beyond hope), the living vamps (those who never died and are adapting to the virus), and Morgan (the last man). The true vamps, like the ghouls, are driven by instinct alone. The living vamps, the eventual dominant species, are as intelligent as Morgan but seem to abandon these higher faculties in favor of senseless brutality. They’re reminiscent of the sheriff’s patchwork posse in Night of the Living Dead, as it indiscriminately slays whatever moves in the line of fire. Both the true vampires and Romero’s ghouls start out as an overpowering evil and end up as an underclass on the run, and are disposed of with relish by the majority mob. 

Another entry in the post-apocalyptic genre, which lends itself necessarily to the “men behaving badly” syndrome, is Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended (1955).  Nuclear war obliterates everyone but a handful of survivors and a donkey. One of the men, Radek (Paul Dubov), has radiation sickness and is evolving into an unreasoning monster that craves raw meat (there goes the donkey). Tony (Mike Connors), who acts badly by choice, plots to kill everyone so he can have all the food, supplies and a young blonde (Louise, played by Lori Nelson) to himself. He grapples with injured good guy Jim (Paul Birch) for a gun, but hero Rick (Richard Denning) bursts in just in time and kills Tony. Clearly this is not the moral ambiguity or social satire we find in Romero, but already we have the idea of localized societal meltdown as a result of worldwide catastrophe. The disintegration of men into savagery after a nuclear attack would be put to use later on a larger scale in Panic in Year Zero! (Ray Milland, 1962). 

Early representations of what would become Romero’s non-Voodoo zombie can be found in Invisible Invaders (Edward L. Cahn, 1959) and The Earth Dies Screaming (Terence Fisher, 1965). In the former, aliens invisible to human eyes try to take over the world by inhabiting the bodies of corpses and blowing stuff up. In the latter, an army of evil robots gasses the world’s population and then reanimates corpses to take care of the survivors (to be fair, Ed Wood Jr.’s notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space [1959] also features aliens resurrecting the dead). The walking dead in Invisible Invaders—pale-faced, shambling and generally all messed up—fall to the ground in a heap when abandoned by the aliens, and a newscast describes their arrival like this: “Throughout the entire world the dead are leaving cemeteries to attack the living.” Both movies are typical entertainments of the time and fun for fans, and are notable historically as raw material for Romero and others.
Fiend Without a Face (Arthur Crabtree, 1958) is more interesting and has become a cult classic in its own right, mostly because of the stop-motion effects and what was thought to be excessive gore at the time. A professor’s thought materialization experiments produce “mental vampires” that channel atomic energy from the Air Force’s nearby atomic reactor, which is used to boost the radar power over Russia. The invisible vampires run amok and kill the small-town locals by biting them at the base of the skull and sucking their brains out through the puncture wounds. The last 15 minutes show our heroes barricaded in the professor’s house and the now-visible fiends (brains with attached spinal columns and, apparently, teeth) breaking through and hopping about until they’re shot (enter the gore). Monsters as the pernicious result of atomic energy were already a sci-fi staple, and the fiends are among the most unforgettable of the bunch. And somewhere in the outrageousness of the premise—thoughts manifesting as brain-shaped, atomic-powered vampires feeding on living brains—is a reference to the mindlessness of paranoid obsession, and it’s exactly this kind of subtext that we find in Night of the Living Dead 10 years later. 

B films like those mentioned so far were made on paltry budgets to appeal to a specific audience, adolescents, so they were allowed a greater freedom in the depiction of the darker, bloodier instincts found crass (if profitable) by mainstream Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest directors of his or any time, was not above exploring these instincts and spent much of his career doing just that. Psycho remains the preeminent cinematic tale of madness, and his follow-up, The Birds (1963), has proven to be nearly as influential. If for some reason you haven’t seen it, just add “attack” to the title and you get the idea. What’s immediately relevant is the realistic depiction of a hostile and brute force descending on a small town, the subsequent reactions to the threat (denial, self-sacrifice, paralysis, hysteria), and the familiar scenario of the hunted falling back into close quarters and nailing furniture to the doors and windows.

No reason is given for the behavior of the birds and their “war against humanity”—and that may be as far as Hitchcock wanted it to go—but another reading has them standing in for the Furies of classical mythology, called up in this case by a cruelly possessive widow to torment the headstrong young woman pursuing her only son. Immediately preceding the birds’ climactic attack on the town square, an old ornithologist says of the invading beasts: “Birds are not aggressive creatures… They bring beauty into the world. It is mankind rather who insists upon making it difficult for life to exist upon this planet.” In this interpretation human nature is once again the monster, and Mother Nature is its punisher.

Every film in the horror genre leading up to Night of the Living Dead offers some kind of release, a resolution to the terror, and this catharsis is what adds the element of delight to our experience of them. Romero had his influences, like every artist, but his great innovation was to rip away this delight, this false hope, and replace it with an even deeper terror. The radical politics that he says “crept in through the back door” of his debut heightens the discomfort and the realism, but for me what makes it so scary is fundamentally personal: It’s that the people you know, the people you love the most, might turn against you in the most inhuman manner imaginable—by becoming inhuman; and that you might suffer the same fate; and that, even if you somehow escape this living death, you might become a beast through fear of becoming a beast.

One of the few films since to capture this unsparingly cynical mood is John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing from Another World, called simply The Thing (1982). Carpenter is truer to the source novella in terms of the creature itself, which assimilates and in essence becomes its victims, but the descent into anarchy following its arrival—the bottomless paranoia, the betrayal, the sabotage, the murder—that was all Romero. What’s so brilliant and so disheartening about Night of the Living Dead is that it dared to show us at our worst, and that this portrait of our quickness to commit barbarisms unrivalled by any other species, real or imagined, is as true today as it has always been.

Kelly Roberts is a freelance writer. He lives in Los Angeles .

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