Tuesday, August 12, 2014

GUEST REVIEW: Terror Everyday - Existential Dread in the Night of the Living Dead

I will never get tired of watching or talking about Night of the Living Dead, the groundbreaking picture from George Romero from 1968. Today we have a guest writer who feels the same way I do, and I'm glad to have him along for the ride to terror town. Meet Brandon Engel, a horror fan who has contributed to Talk Stephen King, Edtech Magazine and Bleeding Cool. Today he's going to share his feelings on Night of the Living Dead and other Romero zombie pictures. Much thanks to Brandon for putting this together. 

In George A. Romero’s landmark low-budget horror flick, the brains of the recently-dead become inexplicably poisoned and poised to kill. Spanning the void between the old black-and-white monster movies — The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the James Whale Frankenstein — and the slasher films of the seventies — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween — Romero’s film broke new ground when it was released in 1968. Shot on a budget of barely $100,000, it presents a chillingly stark and straightforward depiction of senseless bloody carnage that echoed amongst a generation haunted by their own ghosts of race riots and the Vietnam war.

Considered by many to be the first “modern horror” film, Dead’s characters reinvented the genre and removed the folkloric roots of prior zombie depictions. The film strays from the mystical aspect of zombification, showing the zombies instead as regular folks who have succumbed to an arbitrary infection - an infection that draws out a primal desire to rise and feed upon the living. Romero’s then-extreme use of graphic imagery, featuring zombies feasting on limbs and miscellaneous viscera, also raised audience’s levels of repulsion to new heights.

The film begins with a woman, Barbara, and her brother Johnny, visiting their parents’ grave. Suddenly, a terrifying, seemingly mindless man attacks and kills Johnny, giving Barbara only a brief opportunity to escape. She seeks refuge in a farmhouse, where she is soon joined by others who have been driven to escape the growing undead hordes. They board up the house in an attempt to protect themselves from the bloodthirsty corpses that have risen from the nearby graves. There is almost no apparent cause for the sudden appearance of these possessed, brain dead half-humans, and perhaps the arbitrary irrationality of the film is what made it such a landmark at the time. The desperate hopelessness of an impending zombie takeover, fueled by repeated acts of senseless violence veers the film into a modern existential nightmare. The monsters don’t meet their end, and lawless anarchy overcomes the besieged farmhouse defenders.

Articles on the subject have also commented on the “anti-intellectual” nature of the zombie trope - the undead devouring the brains of those who can still think for themselves - and what this says and what this says about the gradual dumbing-down of American society. Aren’t we all a bit like brain dead zombies? Wandering from home to work, and back again, day after day in a march of mindless conformity. In America today, we are presented with a sort of “wisdom vacuum.” Intelligent conversation is rare, and even discouraged, especially in regards to politics. Funding for the arts in schools and universities has been cut drastically, encouraging fewer children to think with passion, emotion, and alive-ness. Always seeking to spread their contagion of dangerous deadness, the zombies of the Living Dead seem to represent all that is destructive, stifling, and stupid in crowded and conformist modern life.

There were five total Night of the Living Dead sequels made by Romero, and while they didn’t do as well in theaters as their predecessors, they’ve been elevated to cult status as well. Gaining new visibility thanks to recently released Blu-Ray DVDs, TV exposure through showings on Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse/horror El Rey cable network (see here for carrier info) a new generation may relish in Romero’s unique genius. Dawn of the Dead, released in 1978, picks up where Night of the Living Dead leaves off, beginning the morning of the following day. The undead are everywhere - a secluded shopping mall provides a temporary refuge, but no one should expect the zombies to stay away for long. Day of the Dead came in 1985, and when we return to zombie, world it’s been months since the first invasion. Romero made one last return to the realm of the very-hungry half-living, with his rather belated additions to his series: Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). While his new work lacks most of what made the earlier films so memorable, rest assured that Romero will be forever remembered for his immensely important contributions to genre fiction.

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