Camping Out at the Graveyard

More than just a cult favorite, George A. Romero’s debut, Night of the Living Dead, dovetails right with American film history. The film showed up just after the benchmark year, 1967, when the mainstream success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate urged Hollywood to revolt against its own established myths. Inspired by new reactionary movements overseas – mostly the France’s Nouvelle Vague – the films of the “New Hollywood” recalled their predecessors to subvert their influence.

The results were downbeat revisions on the traditional forms: Penn’s film retooled the American gangster (as did his inspiration, Godard, in Breathless), while Sam Peckinpah viscerally revised the most American of all genres, the western. Some genres even came into their own, like the road movie, which lived mainly in the cult literature of Kerouac before arriving on the screen via Easy Rider and Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop.

The American horror film felt the revolutionary tremors as early as 1960, when Hitchcock’s Psycho proved to be a devious take on genre conventions. Its exhilarating transgressions are now things of pop legend, with Norman Bates upturning the narrative after his murder of Marion Crane claims him the spotlight. (With leading lady Vivian Leigh dead at the end of Act II, viewers guessed they were the butts of the prankster Hitchcock, though it turns out he had bigger plans.) Now in the perspective of a killer, the narrative eventually heads toward a resolution Classic Hollywood-style, when the denouement leaves Norman Bates’ deconstructed but still a looming menace.

Hollywood upturned all its cargo by the decade’s end, when the horror film would see the same. Psycho had looked to pop-psychology for its inspiration, while Night of the Living Dead, the indie horror film par excellence appearing eight years later, employed a politicized narrative. Night of the Living Dead has its purist fans, those who refuse to look beneath the film’s helpings of terror and gore. But from its bleached-out American flag in the opening title sequence, to its final images of Ben (Duane Jones) hooked and dragged by the redneck posse that shot him (lynching imagery recreated with still photography), this film channels the overwrought times of civil unrest and a losing battle overseas. Night of the Living Dead‘s community of survivors occupy a house under siege by zombies, the temporary haven always on the brink of collapse. This extended metaphor – like those of the other great New Hollywood films – reflects a culture amidst a political avalanche.

Hardly new, this reading has been celebrated and debated for as long as Night of the Living Dead has acquired its status. The consistent suspense and mordant humor are key in pulling off the film’s tricky narrative, but its deeper significance is felt more than understood. It’s evident how the film works against genre conventions, most impressively by igniting prolonged suspense by the first scene, while classic horror films often take their sweet time. Yet the finest example of genre irony comes in the film’s first zombie attack. When Johnny intones the now iconic lines, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” to his sister, classic horror gets parodied, as the old school is employed for a jest. Yet the joke’s on us when this jester gets mauled, and the nightmare has begun. As shown here, Night of the Living Dead deploys convention only to abandon it.

But more lies beneath the genre-trickery. Much of the film’s charm results from its low-budget production, itself overcome by creative use of setting and materials. Viewers – especially those of us who frequently return – want to reveal the filmmakers’ permeated method, what makes Night of the Living Dead a consistently fresh genre entry. While contemporary filmmakers vowed to “make it new,” Camp style – also surfacing in the ’60s – surfaced in Night of the Living Dead‘s inventive approach.

Not that numerous horror films had been strangers to Camp beforehand. Camp styles are the stepchildren of the entire classic Hollywood tradition, stemming back to depictions of the early sound performers Mae West and Bette Davis. The latter’s high-energy style was encouraged by the melodramatic treatments of the Golden Age. Though her form soon eclipsed her milieu, most notably in All About Eve, in which her immortal lines “Faster your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” suggests a shrewish outrageousness as much as menace. It was here that the gays, seeking out any subversion to be found in the conventional mainstream, caught sight of her raging persona, an overacted femininity that sniggered at the real thing.

Soon the very same Davis took on Joan Crawford, another over-stylized classic performer, for the kitschy gothic romp, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (appearing in 1962, soon after Psycho). This trendsetting Baby Jane would be the first to consciously channel the kind of artificiality that came accidentally for years. The shrewish edge that Davis had come upon for years was now on full display, in her role of an aging child star that yearns to recapture her immature fame. In jealous mania, she makes her sister, Blanche (Crawford), who since childhood has become a successful actress, into a punching bag that she’s trapped in their home. Crawford plays things with more subtlety, until her character is pushed to a boiling point, when Joan, that self conscious glamour doll of old, shrieks out as if attempting to break through the barrier of silent film.

Baby Jane was the ticket that brought the ’60s into the land of camp. Not only was it followed by sequels, with and without Bette and Joan, but the “crazy mama” became a fixture in schlock crime stories and horror. Titles showed up like Hush. . . Hush Sweet Charlotte and Who Slew Auntie Roo?, the latter with Shelley Winters, another golden age performer who helped light the first sparks of camp. In 1970, she brought kitsch to the gangland milieu as Ma Barker in the Roger Corman picture from which the movement borrowed its title.

America really felt the pulse when a mainstream television series, Batman, went for an outright campy approach. The cape-crusader duo directly suggested a closeted homosexual pair, a subtextual hint in the earlier comics which now winked right at the urban gay camp-base. The show’s cast of villains seemed bent on out-acting each other, with Caesar Romero’s cackles as the Joker riffing against the pulsing nasal snorts of Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. With such able talent made up to outrageousness, it seemed as if the show deliberately employed Classic Hollywood to ironically mock it extravagances. The campiness saw new heights when the show created a character – the shamelessly outrageous Egghead, sayer of countless cornball egg-bound puns. It was made for Vincent Price, the aesthete who nonetheless helped epitomize the schlocky potential of the horror film (more on him later).

Like the rest of early Hollywood, the golden age studio horrors stumbled upon camp. Bela Lugosi’s count in Tod Browning’s Dracula made over-accentuation a norm in the genre, while the outsized role of the mad doctor was ripe for such a touch. James Whale was the bravest to realize campy touches to his dynamic Bride of Frankenstein, in the form of Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius (“I was booted out of the academy – booted out for knowing too much!” And we have a good idea of what barriers he’d crossed.) Closet queen Charles Laughton left similar touches as Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls, a film resolving in an attack by man-beasts that consumes their prissy creator. Meanwhile, another Hollywood import, Peter Lorre, took cues from Lugosi to make his Euro presence into a freakish, cackling Doctor Gogol in Mad Love.

Yet, it was another performer in classic horror films – that incomparable Vincent Price – who would steer the horror film right into the land of camp. After he vocalized the Invisible Man without credit in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – a revision of his title role in the second film of the series proper – Price’s refined presence helped ignite 1953’s House of Wax, which brought him to stardom in the horror genre. Price’s wronged and misunderstood curator hit notes similar to the mad doctors of earlier films. His reliability caught the eyes of two horror masters not too proud to make films on the low scale and the thrills just as cheap.

William Castle new he’d need an outrageous showman to bring to life 1959’s The Tingler, a film in which victims must scream off a wormlike, spine-crawling critter. The film, like Castle’s and others of the ’50s, showcased theater-bound gimmicks that celebrated the carnivalesque fun of horror shows – after viewers signed faux life insurance policies in the lobby, theaters were rigged with contraptions and planted screamers. As out of control as these elements were, nothing captured the schlocky glory better than when the film brings the storyline into a silent movie theater, into which the Tingler runs rampant.

Thus, viewers of Castle’s film would view the diegetic screen, when Price’s voice comes on the voiceover for a delivery equally maniacal and hammy: “The Tingler is loose in this theater – scream, scream for your lives!” at which point the Percepto vibrating gizmos fixed under the seats would go off. Aside from the gimmick, it was as if Baby Jane’s ghost took possession of the actor. We see much the same in another scene, when Price winces and screams while under mind-altering drugs, not sparing laughs for the movie’s tense young horror audience.

Roger Corman’s use of Price wasn’t for such outlandish ends, but the camp strains were certainly there. The post-Psycho 60’s horror film appeared to be owned by Corman’s budget Poe cycle, which acquired Price to garner credibility and account for much of the film’s resources. Yet Corman was a veteran at the game by then, have made plenty of drive-in successes in countless genres, and he knew how to recycle his materials and his genre star. The series began with the House of Usher, in which Price’s benighted Roderick suggests that other sinister (same-sex?) urges lurk beneath his obsession for sister Madeline. And his lip-licking wine connoisseur in Tales of Terror – that delightful Poe portmanteau film – brought moments in which the camp sensibility nearly halts the narrative.

Yet Price offered more for Corman than subversive winks: his theatrical line delivery triumphs in the chamber gothic Masque of the Red Death, with a finale in which Price’s Prospero deliciously overacts his descent to the forces of the plague. Price easily grasped the overreach needed for Corman’s stylized danse macabre.

New horror styles came from overseas, and American audiences of the ’60s received their demand for new visions. But Night of the Living Dead found inspiration in the American underground. With bloody exploitation screening at the urban grind houses, Night of the Living Dead‘s most prominent predecessor would be Hershell Gordon Lewis, father of 10,000 Maniacs, Color Me Blood Red, and Blood Feast. Much of the latter film’s cult status rests on its titular blood and guts, while fueled on its campy excesses. Blood Feast is epitomized by its furrow-browed madman, who’s incantation in close-up is the film’s sole iconic image. Surfacing in 1963, the film laid territory early for Romero’s experiment (underway by 1967).

Romero’s debut was the result of workshopping for economy. Hence, he and his crew came up with a zombie film that could be shot on the cheap on accessible locations. Much of their budget would go to makeup and gory effects, to make the fresh guts for zombie-munching. Once the zombies’ raid upon the house begins, Romero gets his camera closer and closer to them. Many made-up performers loom in the shadows, and are depicted in a form of documentary expressionism. Yet soon they are upfront with the audience, getting late-’60s viewers closer than they’d ever been to an onscreen zombie.

As atmospheric as were the approaching zombies, the dread spawns from the human captives, so panicked they grow maniacal. Many modern viewers thus see the film as a home invasion, in a documentary viewpoint from which we cannot escape. The human parts realized much of the dread, while the new grounds in filmmaking were happening outside. Romero knew he had to make the monsters real: the actions of his human characters proved it, while the ghoulish excesses were insurance.

Yet when the director gets up front with them, he depicts something like a Halloween show, a horror charade at which we shriek in fun during Halloween. His zombies are accentuated freaks, donned in makeup and lugubriously stomping to magnify their place as monsters. They are much like trained stars employed to overact, as stars of the Batman series to excess. The zombies even go right to the camp source, as they substitute for drag performers, donning ironic dress to upturn the norms. Whereas campy cross-dressing disrupts gender conventions, Romero’s ghoulish performers, and the human dread they inspire, upturn the conservative complacency of the previous Eisenhower America. The dread of the turbulent ’60s was real, and Romero conceived a means to prove it.

Yet we shouldn’t confuse the campiness outside with the stilted performances of the captives. From inside, we shouldn’t idolize the amateurish talent. Romero clearly wanted everyone freaked, and fueled this end by robbing a voice from his initial female captive, who had witnessed her brother mauled in the first attack. Her presence serves as the sole element of accidental camp within the house, as her quivering presence attempts to fuel paranoia. In an innovative film, this mildly misogynistic element may be the most dated bit, even if the other actors remind us that things are artificial.

We must credit Duane Jones for much of the verity, and Romero’s introduction to his character. When his Ben first appears at the door, after others have already taken refuge, he’s revealed in a wandering camera. It is a nearly vertiginous point of view that suggests his race is as menacing as is the possibility that he may be a ghoul. Hereon, after taking leadership among the captives – until mutiny disrupts it – Romero conflates his “exterior” camp style with a submerged tinge of racial hatred, a political counterpart to the zombie terror. Jones’ assertion resounds deep in contemporary viewers, while I’d bet his fight against a white man was downright shocking in the film’s initial release (just a year after Sydney Poitier’s groundbreaking slap to the face of Rod Steiger’s racist cop).

Ironically, one ghoul that arises in the house is the only one to prove non-camp. This zombie found its way onto many a piece of advertising for the film, as her very memory injects dread. The little girl zombie, with sheer conviction in her eyes, makes us temporarily forget that those outside have accidentally stumbled upon kitsch. She’s the film’s one true element of preternatural dread. Looking up to her mother as she reaches out for a slow attack invokes a sheer return to the repressed, a startling moment that makes us think such things may just pop out from the dark. In this later moment of the film, late night audiences quiet down, relieved that they are amidst a communal viewing experience. For those watching it alone at night, this is what the terror film is all about.

More broadly, thoroughly human terror occupies the inside, with a campy ghoulfest out beyond; hence, the darkest depths are matched with devious delights. Though many claim it to be a guilty pleasure, Night of the Living Dead is a dynamic viewing experience, which manipulates us into a deep unease. When we relax and revel in the campy ghouls, our nerves are left fresh for the film’s terrifying bite; the last and sharpest of which comes at the searing downbeat ending. We finish the film with nerves alive, remembering in catharsis why we crave horror. The campy delights flicker in memory over a smoldering bullet in the brain.

A regular contributor to the online magazine Film Threat, Matthew Sorrento edits the film section of Identity Theory and has written for Bright Lights Film Journal. In 2007, the LA Times (dis)honored him as one of the “crankiest movie critics” of the year. He teaches writing at Camden County College in Blackwood, NJ and lectures on film at Rutgers University in Camden.