[30 October 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Forty years later, it’s all fragments. Distorted memories and incomplete images. I remember struggling down in my seat, trying to get as low as possible. I recall wincing when I heard the speakers blasting those blood curdling screams. There’s a faint memory of trying to get up and leave, only to realize that I was stuck in the middle of a row of like minded and equally horrified tweens. And then there was the fear – intense, uncompromising, unreal. On a cool October night in 1970, I was witness to something so shocking, so outside my sphere of fear influence that my nine-year-old brain just couldn’t process it. My friend had promised it would be nothing more than a silly spook show and a movie. It ended up being a never-ending journey into total terror.
Growing up, I was a true horror nerd. I hated the macabre. Even the schlocky Saturday matinee kind of b-movie frights bothered me. My uncle Gary (who, it turned out, was only two years older than me) was the exact opposite. Whenever we would visit, I was always stuck staying in his room. It was a den of dread - full sized Frankenstein poster on the wall, various morbid model kits in the making strewn across his desk. He’d have the latest issues of Eerie and Creepy, and if you looked hard enough, you could usually find a Famous Monsters of Filmland lying around somewhere. Spending the night in his room was like entering a gallery of ghouls, goblins, and gore, gore, gore. Needless to say, I spent many a sleepless hour on those frequent family visits.
As I got older, I became even more wary of the scary. Sleepovers usually ended up tuned into the local late night horror movie (Shock Theater, more than likely), and some of my friends enjoyed mocking my ghost gullibility. I was usually the one being tricked when all the lights were off, my supposed pals pretending to be asleep, only to slowly skulk up to my spot and scare the living Bejesus out of me. Then it was laughs all around, and a guaranteed day or two of ridicule at school the following week. While many were just as jumpy as I, perhaps even more so, it seemed like every prank was pulled on my behalf. So when it was announced that our local high school was having a spook show/screening, I was not interested. After all, I was someone who saw Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster when I was six and hid under the covers, shivering, afterwards. Still, my buddies all wanted to go, and I felt a kind of sick sense of obligation to agree—damn peer pressure!
For those who’ve never had the peculiar privilege, a spook show is a live action atrocity-fest fashioned after the old Grand Guignol theatrical presentations. A magician type would put together a half hour spectacle of tricks and travesty, lopping off heads and disemboweling bodies with wanton glee. All the while, he would admonish the audience to behave, threatening that they would be next if they didn’t show respect. Naturally, some older boys would be caught jeering, and before you knew it, some hideous creature would come crashing out of a cage, mouth caked with blood and body parts, and bring the rebellious individuals onstage. There, amongst a mad scientist set percolating with dry ice fog and test tube bubbles, more preplanned slaughter was delivered in realistic red stuff.
On this night, the showcase was particularly nasty. The mock villain held a freshly guillotined head for the shrieking crowd to consider, and those of us unprepared for such a shock would later swear we saw the mouth and eyes move. Later, a series of grue covered organs were removed from one unlucky adolescent, his voice horse from yelling as the psycho surgery continued. For someone not used to anything remotely horrific, I was floored. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Part of me found it impossible to comprehend. I had seen my fair share of gut gouging grotesqueries courtesy of some old EC Comics, but this was beyond disturbing. There, a few scant rows from where I was sitting, death was being delivered in heart pounding, head slicing vileness.
Then things got worse…a lot worse. With the obligatory reveal that some of what he was doing had been faked, our carnival barker killer left the stage. Slowly, the curtains opened and a massive movie screen was revealed. It seemed to stretch forever, covering one end of the auditorium all the way to the other. Without announcement, the credits began to roll, and something called Night of the Living Dead began. At first, it seemed rather dull and disorienting. A brother and sister were arguing, discussing something that made little sense to a shell-shocked grade schooler. Soon, names were attached to the individuals - Barbra and Johnny. To the untrained eye, one not used to genre specifics, their bickering appeared pointless. After all, they were in a cemetery, and couldn’t stop sniping long enough to show some respect for the dearly departed.
Even as some strange man lumbered up to them, Barbra and Johnny kept at it. Things swung wildly into what seemed to be a standard fight. Our hero swung, then tripped, then hit his head on a gravestone. Suddenly, his sister was alone, and running. She sought refuge in a car, yet couldn’t get it started. Her pursuer continued, breaking the windows and forcing her to smash the vehicle against a nearby tree. Again, none of this registered as anything more than your typical onscreen assault. In fact, for the first few minutes, this Night seemed rather nominal. We watched as Barbra ran, discovered a nearby farmhouse, and sought shelter inside. So far, so good. Even as she realized the place was abandoned, we all relaxed, safe in the knowledge that nothing as nauseating as the previous live splatter spectacle was on the horizon.
As she wandered up the stairs, continuing to explore her possible sanctuary, I began wondering just what the big deal was. After all, people often look around empty buildings before settling in. Nothing unusual there…that is, until the extreme close-up of the rotting head appeared. Eye exposed from desiccated flesh, lips peeled back to reveal a sickening skeletal smile, the jolt was visceral and immediate. Barbra balked, the audience joining her in an involuntary shout. Almost immediately, another character came barging in the door. He was tall and black, his face frozen in the kind of naked fright that Barbra just experienced. Outside were a group of slow moving people. He started shouting. She babbled incoherently. The individuals kept coming. Their pursuit was relentless. And…
For the next 90 minutes I was a nattering, nervous wreck. I shook and stammered. I looked at my friends, tracing the lines of terror on their equally freaked out faces. I remember snippets of speeches - reporters claiming that corpses had risen from the grave and were…eating people—adults arguing over who was going to do what, unearthly moans and ungodly munching. And then there was the little girl, so ill before, now wielding a garden tool and tearing her mother apart. I was numb, stricken with a kind of paralysis I didn’t know how to handle. I averted my eyes, but somehow, I still saw the screen. I tried to avoid the moments of horrific imagery, and yet inside my mind they were playing out, in a manner more reprehensible than in cinematic reality. When it was all over and the lights went up, there were a few nervous twitters. But mostly, simple stunned silence. Even the magician, who returned to send us off with a wish of “pleasant screams” seemed halfhearted in his salute.
Night of the Living Dead had that kind of impact then, and it still resonates with me today. Granted, I am much more of a horror aficionado now, relishing that which made me wince four decades before. Still, George Romero’s genius continues to haunt my infrequent dreams of blood. Part of the reason I remember that Night so well is that the movie felt more like a documentary, like a portrait of reality captured in dramatic black and white. It seemed shot by someone inside the house with the survivors, intense and unyielding. The use of news footage and man on the street interviews gave it an authenticity that your typical scary movies of the time failed to possess. In essence, Night seemed real, especially to someone as naïve and susceptible as I. True, the random vivisection beforehand had prepared me for something truly sinister. I just could never have imagined it would be so frightening.
A few days later, my friends and I were walking through the neighborhood, trees blocking out the last few rays of a fading Fall twilight. As the shadows grew long and the unlit houses became imposing in their dark lifelessness, someone whispered “They’re coming to get you Bill”. For a moment, my own blood ran ice cold, and I could see that iconic rotting head floating directly in front of me. Johnny was waiting around the corner, head wound congealing and eyes spying my plump school boy flesh. The look on my face must have been priceless, as a goofy group laugh rose from the others. I relaxed, if only a little, and quickened my pace toward home. I had experienced one night of Night of the Living Dead. It would be a few more years before I was ready to try another.