Life Amongst the Undead

[30 October 2008]

By Barry Keith Grant

I think it was in the Fall of 1970, possibly on Halloween—although my memory, still under the influence of the ‘60s, may have added this embellishment—when I first saw Night of the Living Dead.  It was two years after the film’s initial release, and I was a graduate student at the State University of New York at Buffalo, working on a Ph.D. in American literature.  UB at that time was an intellectual hotbed, and thanks to visionaries such as Leslie Fiedler, Norman Holland, and Gerald O’Grady, the university was a pioneer in the nascent discipline of Film Studies, with screenings sponsored by one department or group virtually every day.

But while I was in the good company of a group of interdisciplinary scholars who had many new insights about cinema and popular culture to offer, I seemed to be alone in my interest in horror and exploitation films, those marginal movies Jeffrey Sconce has called paracinema.  George Romero, after all, was not John Ford, Howard Hawks, or even Raoul Walsh, and zombie movies were decidedly lowbrow.  Jean-Luc Godard would be brought to campus from France, but certainly not George Romero, who lived only a few hours away in Pittsburgh .

By the time I saw it on campus that night, Night of the Living Dead was preceded by considerable word-of-mouth.  I’d read about it, and heard about it, and was eager to see it.  Hollywood at the same time was rediscovering horror with Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, but Night of the Living Dead promised something more:  a rare instance of an independent film breaking through to wide commercial success, it was said to push the envelope in the representation of graphic violence, making it a horror movie that apparently was going to be truly horrifying. 

The screening took place in one of the large academic halls equipped for film projection on the university campus, and it was evident that many other students also wanted to see it, as the room was packed with a SRO crowd.  Anticipation was running high—you could feel it in the air, palpable, seething.  Eventually the lights dimmed, the projector fired, and the hubbub of the crowd faded down:  those grainy black and white images, beginning immediately with the damp and dour shots of Johnny and Barbra’s car driving in the cemetery, clearly gripped everyone in thrall. 

In the film’s first scene, just as Johnny (Russell Streiner) utters that now famous line to his sister (Judith O’Dea) in pseudo-Boris Karloff accent, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra” (since immortalized in Shaun of the Dead), someone lurched through the hall’s front exit door located behind the drop-down screen above the blackboards with an effective zombie shamble and a flashlight held under his face for a ghastly lighting effect.  The moment was reminiscent of schlockmeister William Castle’s Emergo gimmick with House on Haunted Hill (1959), only much more effective: there were screams everywhere in the audience, and I would swear some people even swooned.

You had to be there. Today, there are horror movies that are much more graphic, and digital technology allows for skin flaying and other neat ways of violating the human body that were hardly imaginable at the time.  But those steaming entrails, and the film’s numerous violations of genre convention, were like a punch in the stomach.  Night of the Living Dead was not just a movie, it was an experience, and in the most profound sense. 

Just as the film signals, in that opening sequence, an America that is dying or already dead in its image of an American flag flapping over a landscape of tombstones, so viewers flocked to Night of the Living Dead at a time when the country was being torn asunder by protests, often violent, against the escalating war in Vietnam, and by widespread racial violence, perhaps hoping to be startled into wakefulness by its intensity. 

With his well-timed entrance, that anonymous student’s prank also constituted a significant cultural commentary, for it announced emphatically that Night of the Living Dead, with its rewriting of zombie mythology to address contemporary politics, had arrived.  George Romero’s film was a horror movie that was already in the process of leaping off the screen to become a cultural monument.  Its relevance, and its power, seemed immediately and abundantly clear to me, as that first screening demonstrated.

The audience at that memorable screening was roughly half white and half Black, the latter less horror fans than disenfranchised citizens eager to see a black hero in a movie before the cycle of blaxploitation films appeared to provide the pleasures of cultural empowerment, however false they might have been.  For many of these viewers, the most powerful moment in the film came when the black protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), slaps the blonde Barbra (Judith O’Dea) in the face to snap her out of her shock-induced lethargy. 

This moment was electric, more potent even than when detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) slaps redneck sheriff Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night, made the year before Romero’s film—itself a milestone in the history Hollywood ’s representation of race relations.  Because Romero’s scene involves a white woman and a black man rather than two men, it inevitably evokes the fears of sexual miscegenation that inform race relations in America, and which consequently have informed American movies since the virginal white heroine jumped off a cliff to avoid the proverbial “fate worse than death” at the hands of the lustful black ex-slave in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915.

When Ben stood over and slapped Barbra, many of the African-Americans in the audience jumped up, cheering loudly about putting that white bitch in her place.  It was clear what the zombies—all white, in Romero’s first film of the series—represented for them.  A tension filled the room that mirrored the racial dynamic between Ben and Harry Cooper (the appositely named Karl Hardman) on the screen, not to mention the city of Buffalo itself, with its Main Street separating the black East Side from the white West Side, an intangible barrier as substantial as any that the living erect to keep out the zombies in Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead or Land of the Dead.

Even before that first screening was over and the lights in the auditorium had come back on, I knew that Night of the Living Dead was a film that I would live with.  And time has shown this to be true.  My first public lecture as an academic, at a small liberal arts college, was about it.  And as I write this, a blogger on horror has asked to interview me about the film and a publisher in Colorado is including an essay I wrote about years ago in a new collectors’ volume devoted to it. 

Not only does it haunt me during wakefulness, but also when I sleep, generating countless apocalyptic zombie dreams over the years.  Late one night, while in a motel somewhere in the Midwest , I couldn’t sleep and turned on the TV, to see Night of the Living Dead intercut with the climax of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life:  instead of the townspeople coming to the rescue of Uncle Billy with money, it was zombies piling into Jimmy Stewart’s house.  The juxtaposition was inspired, but I fell asleep before the end and will never know whether I dreamed this or not. 

At my back I tend to hear not time’s winged chariot but a zombie shuffling near. 

Of course, I’m not the only soul haunted by Romero’s film. Night of the Living Dead has been an inspiration for many others as well.  Aspiring film makers too numerous to mention have tried to follow Romero’s path by breaking into the industry with low-budget, independent horror.  As well, movies such as Flight of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and Night of the Living Dead signal their debt to Romero’s seminal film in their titles.  The two hapless protagonists of Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, when confronted with the undead, assume they can kill them by destroying the brain because that’s how it’s done in Night, and they are less shocked when confronted by zombies than to discover that Romero’s film “lied” when the method fails. 

In short, there’s no disagreeing with Robin Wood’s assessment of the staggering achievement of Romero’s zombie films, beginning with Night of the Living Dead and continuing through the recent Diary of the Dead.  His zombie series is an achievement equal to few others in the cinema—I can think only of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy or Ingmar Bergman’s trilogy about the absence of God to rival it.  While few people imagine themselves as John Wayne these days, organized zombie walks for charity are held annually in a number of municipalities. Ironically, Night of the Living Dead, with its legions of undead onscreen and undead fans off-, remains vitally alive within the cultural landscape.

Barry Keith Grant is Professor of Film and Popular Culture at Brock University in Ontario, Canada.  He is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (U Texas Press) and Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (Scarecrow Press), the first scholarly anthology on horror.  His most recent books are Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology (Wallflower Press) and Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader (Blackwell).  He also consults with computer game developer Silicon Knights, and has worked on the games Eternal Darkness and the recently released Too Human.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/life-amongst-the-undead/