7/2/07

R000.2 Night of the Living Dead

(1968, Horror, b&w or colorized)

Riffers:

Mike Nelson

The zombie diet's pretty close to the Atkins diet.

Rating: *1/2

In a nutshell:

Survivors of the zombie apocalypse hide out in an old farmhouse.

Summary:

They're all out to get George Romero for failing to file his copyright correctly.Barbra and her brother John visit a cemetery to deliver a wreath to a deceased relative’s grave. Barbra becomes nervous as the sun sets, leading John to tease her that the strange, slow man nearby is actually a ghoul come to take her away. She makes him stop and goes to apologize to the man, who seizes and tries to bite her.

John leaps to her defense, and in the brief scuffle that follows the man throws him to the ground. He strikes his head against a gravestone and dies. Barbra flees to their car, but John has the keys. She puts it in neutral and lets it roll down the hill. It crashes into a tree partway down, but the car’s momentum has given her a head start on her hollow-eyed pursuer. She flees across a field to an old farmhouse. Its only apparent occupant is the partially eaten corpse upstairs; this serves to further Barbra’s emotional collapse.

A pickup truck roars up outside, pursued by three more shambling creatures. A young black man named Ben gets out and runs to the house. He puts Barbra in a safe corner while he uses a tire iron to bash in the heads of all three creatures. He piles them outside the door, sets them on fire, and begins to board up the house. He and Barbra compare stories of their how they came to arrive, and reliving her recent escape sends Barbra into a nervous breakdown. Ben stops her from going back outside to look for John. She passes out on the couch.

Ben goes back to work while he listens to an expository radio broadcast. An announcer reports that unknown assailants have been killing people all over the nation, but no one knows why. The sound of the broadcast draws out Mr. Cooper and Tom, who’ve been hiding in the cellar all along. They have a protracted argument with Ben over whether the house or the cellar is more defensible, and it comes out the Cooper’s wife Helen, their sick daughter Karen, and Tom’s girlfriend Judy are down in the cellar as well. The radio mentions something about a television broadcast, so they find a TV and turn it on for further news.

This man was born to play a zombie.On TV, various news announcers, scientists, and experts confirm that the assailants are the animated corpses of the recently deceased, risen with a hunger for living flesh. This may or may not have been caused by the recent explosion of an exploration satellite, which returned from Venus covered in strange radioactive material. People are urged to try and get to the nearest designated shelter. The viewers wait through a list of such shelters, identifying the one nearest to them.

The plan they eventually come up with is as follows: Cooper will throw Molotov cocktails from the upstairs window, immolating the nearest corpses while Tom and Ben head outside to gas up Ben’s truck at the nearby pump. Upon filling the truck, they will go back for everyone else and zoom off to a shelter about seventeen miles away.

In practice, Judy can’t bear to let Tom go without her and rushes after him. The three of them fend off the attackers and make it to the gas pump, which turns out to be locked. Ben shoots off the lock with the rifle he found, but to do so he has to set his torch on the ground. The nervous Tom sprays gasoline all over the ground, the truck, and Ben’s torch. Ignoring Ben’s commands to stay and help him put out the fire, Tom and Judy drive off in the flaming truck, which explodes a few seconds later. The dead wait for the truck’s flames to die down before they feast upon Tom and Judy’s newly roasted flesh.

Ben uses his torch to fight his way back to the house. He kicks down the door, nails it back in place, and then beats up Cooper for trying to lock him out. There’s some more agonizing about what to do. It comes out that Karen is sick because one of the corpses bit her. They watch TV again, to see that a local sheriff has organized a posse. They’ve figured out that the living dead still need their brains to operate, and are sweeping through the area, shooting every corpse they meet in the head.

The power goes out, and the dead attack again. Cooper steals the rifle while Ben tries to hold them back. Ben leaves the door to take the gun back. He shoots Cooper, who stumbles into the cellar and dies. Meanwhile, the dead have seized Helen through the boards in a nearby window. Barbra rouses from her vegetative state to rescue her. Helen rushes downstairs to find her recently deceased daughter feasting on the flesh of her recently deceased husband. She screams while the little girl stabs her repeatedly with a garden trowel.

Upstairs, Ben and Barbra work to hold the rapidly disintegrating door against the hordes of flesh-eating monsters. Barbra sees John’s risen corpse with the others and lets the door collapse completely. The dead pull her outside while Karen surprises Ben from behind. He pushes her away before she can stab and/or bite him. He rushes down to lock himself in the cellar, where he puts down the corpses of Cooper and Helen when they try to rise.

Next morning, the sheriff and his posse reach the farmhouse, gunning down the crowds of walking dead still surrounding it. Ben hears the shots and emerges from the cellar to investigate. The sheriff mistakes him for a corpse, shoots him in the head, and burns his corpse with the others.

Thoughts:

My dad's tastier than your dad.You may have just read about a film in which radiation from Venus makes corpses hunger for human flesh, but don’t let that silly statement fool you. Night of the Living Dead is a coherent and genuinely frightening film. This is because it focuses, not on the concept of walking dead or on the radiation that supposedly caused it, but on the disparate group of people who have to deal with the situation. Cooper’s selfishness, Barbra’s emotional breakdown, and Ben’s machismo all ring true as ways that real people might deal with such a thing in real life. The deliberate pacing helps too; rather than coming off as slow, it builds a stifling claustrophobic mood that carries us right into the final showdown near the end. Not bad for a low-budget B-picture from the sixties.

That said, horror is not a genre I typically enjoy. (At least, not competent horror. I much prefer something bad enough to laugh at.) Also, Mike’s commentary track started life as an actual DVD commentary track, and thus divides its time fairly equally between the humorous and the informative. According to Mike, the jarring shots of the hunting trophy room “play on our well-known fear of taxidermists.” When night suddenly falls, he says, “The sun didn’t set; it crashed.” Later he notes “it really is a lot more pleasant being beaten to death with a tire iron when you’re already dead.” The sparse humor, combined with the fact that it’s not a bad movie to begin with, meant that it wasn’t much fun for me to watch. If you like horror more than I do, you might like it. But then, this is the great-granddaddy of all zombie apocalypse movies, so if that’s the case, you’ve probably seen it already.