The Rear-View Mirror: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

So you’ve got zombie fatigue, too? I don’t blame you. Even my teenage daughter has given up quite a while ago on Rick Grimes and his merry gang (and resorted to vampires, but that’s a story for another night). Even the most ardent zombie fan has to admit that the survivors of a zombie apocalypse are much more dangerous than those slouching, moaning, shuffling undead. In a way, George A. Romero had it easy: when he made his Night of the Living Dead in 1968, zombies were not yet a (excuse the pun) recurring staple of horror movies. And indeed, Romero’s debut doesn’t even use the term.

So his zombies were sort of new and still very scary because nobody knew what they were or what they were capable of. Their mere existence was shocking, frightening. The first zombie we see, ambling through the abandoned graveyard towards an unsuspecting couple, based his stiff gait on Boris Karloff, and it’s highly likely that the original audience would have picked up on that. So the audience knows that that undead guy spells trouble, but Johnny and Barbra do not. In fact, no-one in the movie knows just what to do, faced with those, erm, creeps, and so the horror unfolds: while the undead gnaw on the living and recently deceased (or the odd bug), the people trapped in the house try shooting, stabbing, burning them, not always successfully so. Oh well, whatever works.

But if you look beyond the movie’s horror aspects, other things emerge. Duane Jones, a former theater actor and later professor of literature, got to be the lead. At a time when racial tensions were far from over, it was rare, if not unheard of, to give an African-American actor the main role. And his Ben is the smartest and most resourceful character in the film. There is also a moment when he slaps Barbra, something that Romero found risky, but left in the movie anyway. Sometimes, such things are lost on a modern audience.

Romero forgot to insert the copyright logo into the finished print, which means that, since its release, Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain. I had the good fortune to catch the movie at my favorite movie theatre, but if you can’t wait for it to come to the big screen again, you will easily find it on the net in surprisingly good quality. Have fun, and stay away from that grey-faced, smelly man over there by the tombstones.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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