One of the supplements in the Criterion release of Night of the Living Dead is called “Limitations into Virtues” and that’s really a good summation of this movie—it was made on a small budget with a mostly amateur cast, directed and written by two guys who had not made a feature film before, and yet it’s not only an all-time horror classic but also an incredibly influential film. Seriously, if you care at all about movies and don’t know this film (and I refer to the original film, made in 1968, not any of the sequels or the 1990 remake), you need to see it. And while you could watch it at home, on your computer or TV set, you would be even better served by watching it on the big screen. Lucky for you, it’s playing as part of the Webster film series this week.
Popular culture these days is saturated with zombies, but it was not always so. Early zombie films often set the action in the Caribbean, as in the not-very-good Bela-Lugosi-starring 1932 film White Zombie. Hey, it takes a lot of labor to run a sugar plantations, the work is beyond unpleasant, and slavery is now illegal, so why not staff up with an undead crew who are unable to protest their lot? The zombie-slavery connection is treated with much more insight and respect in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, a retelling of Jane Eyre on the fictional West Indian island of Saint Sebastian, but the story still takes place far away and across the water. In other words, zombies are a distant and exotic horror, not something you would ever need to worry about here in St. Louis.
By way of contrast, Romero’s zombies (which he called “ghouls”—the word “zombie” is never used in Night of the Living Dead) are mostly white and exist in an America contemporary with the film’s release. The film opens with a brother (Jonny) and sister (Barbra) (Judith O’Dea and Russell Streiner) visiting their father’s grave. Out of the blue, a strange man (Bill Hinzman) attacks Barbra, and kills Johnny when he tries to defend his sister. As Barbra flees toward a house she sees in the distance, she is stalked by more strange people who move slowly but are relentless in their pursuit.
Lucky for Barbra a young man named Ben (Duane Jones, who went on to have a real acting career) gets her inside the house. He’s clearly the smartest and most resourceful guy in the movie, but the other characters regularly manage to miss those qualities while they do see the color of his skin—and since he’s an African-American, to judge him according. Yes, there’s a strong element of social satire in this low-budget horror movie, and racism is not Romero’s only target (another is the news media, whose reporting on the zombie outbreak repeats, fetish-like, variations on the phrase “bodies appear to have been eaten”).
Most of the action in Night of the Living Dead takes place in a single night, as a small group of refugees barricade themselves in a house while the ghouls try to get in, with all the relentlessness of the avian creatures attacking Rod Taylor’s island home in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. There’s plenty of gore for those who like that sort of thing, but the real horror lies in not knowing why any of this is happening, or when it may end. | Sarah Boslaugh
Night of the Living Dead will be screened at Winifred Moore Auditorium on the Webster University Campus on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $7 for the general public, $6 for seniors, Webster alumni and students from other schools, $5 for Webster staff and faculty, and free for Webster students with proper ID.