Of Mice and Maggots (and Other Nasty Things)

[26 October 2008]

By Kelly Roberts

Night of the Living Dead vs. The Thing From Another World
Early in 1969, Roger Ebert’s review of Night of the Living Dead was picked up by Reader’s Digest. He was 26 when he wrote it and, as he makes clear in a note added in 2004, it wasn’t so much a review of the film as a review of the audience reaction (he rates the film today at 3½ stars). The MPAA ratings system hadn’t taken effect yet, so of course the theater was buzzing with pre-teens expecting a few cheap thrills, a few laughs at the obligatory men in rubber monster suits.

By the end of the film they were speechless; a little girl across the aisle from Ebert was weeping. “This was ghouls eating people up—and you could actually see what they were eating,” he wrote. “This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire.” A few sentences earlier, despite (or because of) his emotional involvement with the audience, he hits on how George Romero had changed the genre forever: “The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying.”

The movie was certainly shocking at the time for all the reasons Ebert described, and not only to the kiddies. A daughter eating her father and stabbing her mother repeatedly with a garden hoe was just not something you put on display for public consumption (so to speak). But graphic violence in film was already a controversial issue—Hitchcock’s Psycho, the original shocker, came out in 1960 and, for better or worse, the ‘splatter’ genre followed quickly on its heels.

So what made a movie with a title reminiscent of Ed Wood Jr. so unexpectedly terrifying? Some critics and cogent moviegoers seemed to think that something deeper was going on behind all that black-and-white evisceration, even though most of the themes developed in Night of the Living dead—invasion, forced assimilation, cannibalism, social upheaval, isolation—already had a long history within the genre. To better understand what made these ideas so disturbing in this new context, I want to go back to the beginning and talk about where they came from.

Romero often cites Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend and its first film incarnation, The Last Man on Earth (Ubaldo Ragona, 1964), as his inspiration for Night of the Living Dead, but we have to go back a little further to get to the original source, the movie that Romero has said inspired him to make movies in the first place, the Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks classic The Thing from Another World (1951). Based on the novella Who Goes There? (1938) by John W. Campbell Jr., The Thing from Another World was the chiller of its time and the first major alien invasion film. It would go on to define at least a decade of Cold War sci-fi/horror, and its “barricade the doors” formula is to this day copiously “borrowed” by television and film.

The plot is simple enough. An Air Force crew is dispatched to an Arctic research outpost to investigate a nearby plane crash of “unusual type.” Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and others suspect the Russians, but what they find is a flying saucer and a large humanoid creature buried in the ice. They bring the creature (played by James Arness) back to the research station, where it promptly thaws and escapes. It breaks in later and kills some dogs, draining their blood, and two members of the research team suffer the same fate. The head scientist wants to reason with it, study it. He feeds plasma to its seed pods and baby Things start to grow from the soil. Meanwhile, daddy Thing destroys the outside generator and the heat goes out. Everybody smokes cigarettes and waits. The creature is eventually lured inside and the Captain and his boys zap it to ashes with electricity. 

In both Night of the Living Dead and The Thing from Another World the protagonists are stranded in a remote location, barricaded inside against a hostile alien force, and cut off from the outside world. To make the situation a tad more desperate, the invader(s) want to eat them alive. The Thing feeds on blood and needs blood to reproduce; one of the crew thinks it has come to Earth to spread its seed and graze upon the human race. Romero’s ghouls (they’re not called zombies in the first installment) eat flesh and reproduce, in effect, by infecting the blood of the living. And, as Ebert noted in his review, they do indeed make spectacular feasts of men. So the basic frame is the same, but the guts have been rearranged, almost perfectly inverted, as if one of the films were a photograph and the other its negative image. Let’s take a closer look at the key players. 

The Thing is wholly Other. It fell from the skies and is in many ways a substitute for the ubiquitous enemy of the time, communism. It is described by Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), the Nobel Prize winning director of the research station, as “our superior in every way”: it is vegetable in matter, bloodless but intelligent; it feels neither pain nor pleasure, has no heart, and is not frustrated by sexual desire; it is single but self-replicating. The audience, like everyone in the research station except the “genius” Carrington, wants to see it terminated with extreme prejudice.

Romero’s ghouls, on the other hand, crawl out of the ground of Middle America and are described as looking like both “ordinary looking people” and “misshapen monsters”. There are no rubber suits or giant brains on strings here; the only monsters walking the Earth are men, and the germ is in everyone. The dead look strangely pathetic, dressed as they are in pajamas, formal wear, or nothing at all. They’re unsteady on their feet; they shrink away from bright light like grave-dwellers would, groaning helplessly against their hunger, and are in fact blameless for the butchery they commit, just as the big cats on the African plains are blameless. They have no individuality, no capacity for reason, but this and their singleness of purpose is exactly what makes them so relentlessly powerful. What makes the horde so scary is not that it moves quickly or smartly (take note, Zack Snyder, et al), but that it never stops until it gets what it wants.
The heroes of The Thing from Another World are military but informal, more like buddies who happen to be working the same job. The crew calls the Captain by his first name and constantly teases him about his would-be girlfriend at the station, Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), but they respect him and everyone tows the line and chips in when the time comes. They know the threat is real and potentially apocalyptic, but the jokes keep coming and no one loses his head. The attitude is can-do cooperation; the objective is not only to survive the Thing, but to pull the world out of its jaws. In the end they’re all alive and all smiles.

In Night of the Living Dead‘s unrelieved bleakness there are no heroes, unless they’re the flesh-eaters, and the civilian protagonists are defined by petty self-interest, cock-swinging machismo, psychosis, familial dysfunction and paralysis. No one seems to care about the bigger picture: That the world as they know it may be coming to an end. At the climactic moment, as the ghouls are breaking into the farmhouse, suburban blowhard Harry (Karl Hardman) takes anti-hero Ben’s (Duane Jones) gun and turns it against him. Ben takes it back and shoots Harry. The ghouls kill everyone but Ben, who takes a bullet in the head minutes later from the local sheriff’s (George Kosana) posse, a human horde that seems more interested in getting in some easy target practice than anything else. In the Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1960), a different group of invading aliens says of their conquered humans: “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch.” If Romero’s ghouls had a voice, I’m sure they would agree.

That the disparity between the films is a reflection of their respective eras is obvious and I won’t go into it here (the turmoil of the late ‘60s and how it informed Night of the Living Dead is discussed in Dread Reckoning: A Terrifying Ruby Jubilee), except to say that The Thing from Another World, a product of the Korean War and McCarthyism, shows us a triumphant defense of mainstream American values against a bloodless alien enemy; and Night of the Living Dead, representing the America of the Vietnam War and the counterculture, shows us acute social fragmentation and the collapse and overthrow of those mainstream values from the inside. Both films are now preserved in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

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 .

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/of-mice-and-maggots-and-other-nasty-things-1/