Two Cents Bids Good Night to a Master with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

One of the most influential films of all time, George Romero’s groundbreaking genesis of the modern zombie lives on.

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

SPOILER WARNING: Please note that this week’s discussion is spoiler-packed, including revealing the film’s ending. If you haven’t seen this absolute horror classic, watch it first and then hurry back to read our thoughts!

The Pick

Plenty of filmmakers have made great horror films.

And more than a few filmmakers have made great horror films in their first at-bat as director.

But how many filmmakers can truly be said to have invented an entire subgenre of horror with their very first film, creating a classic that continues to hold massive sway over popular culture decades after its release?

Only the one. Only George A. Romero.

Romero passed away this week, leaving behind a legendary career that will continue to inspire generations of filmmakers for decades. Not only did his Living Dead films become an event horizon for modern horror, but Romero also set a major precedent with his zero-budget achievement and independent spirit, paving the way for artists of any medium or genre.

Romero at times seemed handcuffed by the genre he created, and he would retire his ghouls for decades at a time while he pursued other stories (many of which grew their own cult fandoms, like Martin, Creepshow, or Knightriders), but whenever he felt the need to hold up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of the world, the dead would walk once more.

And so we say goodbye by going back to the beginning. Night of the Living Dead stunned a nation and birthed a movement. Today, this cheap-o monster flick is regarded as an American classic unlike any other, and it could only have come from one director.

Only the one. Only George A. Romero.

Next Week’s Pick:

This week AGFA and Something Weird Video released the bizarre 1971 “tabloid horror” film The Zodiac Killer onto Blu-ray, accompanying a limited theatrical run. The film was the key component of an ambitious plan by its director to lure the actual serial killer to a movie theater where, if he were successfully outed by various schemes, hidden law enforcement officers could spring their trap.

A frenzy gripped San Francisco when the Zodiac Killer was active, and few films have examined this phenomenon with quite the same rigor as David Fincher’s Zodiac. It’s an exhaustive epic that details that frenzy, and the quieter madness that led men to devote decades to trying to bring a long-vanished killer to justice.

Zodiac is now available on Netflix Instant.

Submissions are welcome anytime before midnight on Thursday. They can be sent to [email protected]

Our Guests

Trey Lawson

This is it. The ur-text of modern American horror movies. With Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero redefined how horror films looked and felt. Its small scale, black and white cinematography, and cast of mostly local actors were decisions of necessity, but they give the film a visceral edge and sense of immediacy and authenticity that set it apart from other horror films. Night lacks the polish of Romero’s later Dead films, but in some ways this is a feature rather than a bug.

Unlike the other films of the series, which start in medias res, Night of the Living Dead shows us the beginning of the end. We bear witness with the characters as one zombie becomes two, building to the horde surrounding the house in the third act. The result is a creeping dread which gradually increases until the film finally ends. Night of the Living Dead, unlike its sequels and imitators, totally earns the cynicism and nihilism of its ending. Whether its implications were deliberate or not, the death of a black protagonist at the hands of a white, human posse is brutal both in its suddenness and its nonchalance. Ultimately we are left with the horror of human violence rather than the monstrous other.

Night of the Living Dead is not a movie I revisit often, but it is one of the great films of the horror genre. Its influence is such that it has been imitated, borrowed from, ripped off, and spoofed countless times, but there is no substitute for the original. George A. Romero practically invented the zombie apocalypse subgenre, and in the process he had an immeasurable influence on horror cinema. He will be missed. (@T_Lawson)

Trey wrote a terrific piece on Romero’s cult-ishly adored MARTIN which you can read HERE.

Brendan Agnew:

Imagine delivering a knockout like Night of the Living Dead on your first swing.

There are two things that make the late great George A. Romero’s first feature film such an effective piece of genre cinema, even to this day. The first is that it absolutely understands the nuts and bolts of delivering a characters driven horror movie on a budget (recognizable clashing personalities, confined familiar location, escalating siege structure), but the second is arguably the more impressive. Because it’s how Night plays against expectations…even now that we’re familiar enough with zombie fiction to be damn sick of it.

Set aside how impressive it is that Romero created the Rosetta Stone for the modern age’s most popular monster — at the time, discovering the different “rules” must have been a mind job town unsuspecting audience. But now, what really bakes the noodle is the ways Romero was ahead of even his own game: zombies moving quicker than expected in short bursts, or even using tools. Characters who are absolutely morally right but tragically logistically wrong. The dead returning even without being bitten. And yes, THAT ending which has always been haunting and now somehow manages to be even more disturbing because of how distant but also immediate it feels.

This one is a classic for a reason, folks. It’s so good that even the remake (also written by Romero) is great. So put it on and pour one out for one of the titans of cinema, a great man who’s life’s work has proven fittingly immortal. (@BLCAgnew)

Adrianna Gober:

There’s so much I love about Night of the Living Dead.

Firstly, and pivotally, the casting of Duane Jones as Ben. He commands the screen, exuding the confident grace of a natural leader, making him easy to rally behind. There’s no question we’d all want to be a Ben in the event of a zombie attack. Beyond this, his casting is a significant act of radicalism, intentional or not. While it’s true Ben was not originally written as black, centering a black man at the forefront of the action lends a powerful racial subtext to the film. Ben’s struggle against resistance from all directions, and his startling, unjust fate is emblematic of the consequences facing confident people of color who dare to threaten the status quo. The ending of Night of the Living Dead gave many young people their first glimpse of the reality of racial injustice, and it is still painfully relevant in 2017.

Another appealing aspect of Night is its spirited deconstruction of tropes common to 1950s sci-fi and horror, particularly survival against strange odds and the reinforcement of family and tradition, where order is naturally restored by the end of the film thanks to familial bonds. Romero gleefully upends these clichés: a zombified girl stabs her mother repeatedly, and the dying woman’s tape delay shrieking embeds itself into the psyche like a jagged shard of glass. Young people are burned alive in their truck and disemboweled — the vehicle, once a totem of youth and rebellion, instead becomes a vessel of death. It’s utter chaos, amplified through canted angles and harsh, high-contrast light.

The film also grapples with this upheaval in the audacity of its unflinching bleakness. When Night was in production, the United States had long descended into the abyss of the Vietnam War, and the film is a sobering distillation of the country’s spiritual collapse. In Romero’s America, families turn on each other and indiscriminate brutality becomes the rule. In this regard, Night of the Living Dead is a work of speculative fiction: what happens at the first sign of crisis? Do we rise, or do we crumble? The real horror isn’t the ghouls, but the bedlam they represent. In this crucial detail, Night of the Living Dead set the blueprint for decades to come. (@jeerthelights)

The Team

Justin Harlan

While I’m one of those few and proud who tout Land of the Dead as the best film in the Living Dead series, I understand the importance of the beautiful mistake that started it all. There are many little technical issues and plot problems with Romero’s groundbreaking 1968 low budget gem, but they pale in comparison to the film’s effectiveness and influence.

Before even getting into its influence, from its creative effects to its social message to its landmark casting decisions, it’s simply a good and effective horror film. The scenes of zombies eating flesh, the building dread, the jump scares, and the startling finish are all effective in ways that few films can achieve. Considering the film being released in 1968, it’s hard to fathom a film released earlier than this one that is nearly as effective.

Moving to the influence of this film… what can be said that hasn’t been covered so many times before, by writers far more learned and/or eloquent than I? Romero cast a black man as the hero in 1968. He drew upon political and social ills to create its building sense of dread. And, so much about how the film was filmed and put together influenced generations of filmmakers to come.

This film is a classic, no ifs ands or buts.(@ThePaintedMan)

Justin runs The Farsighted, a terrific film and culture blog where they have just run a team piece on the Romero/Argento collaboration Two Evil Eyes.

Brendan Foley:

There’s just nothing else quite like Night of the Living Dead. Imitated, copied, ripped off, remade, reworked, cloned over and over again, and yet the primal power of this film still has never quite been matched, not even by Romero ( his other Dead films achieved comparable creeps in other ways). Maybe it’s the raw, handheld B&W footage, so markedly different from the stagebound aesthetic of that era of horror. Maybe it’s the cast, particularly Duane Jones as Ben, who lean hard into the reality of what they’re playing and never blink, no matter how wild things become. Or maybe it’s Romero’s unsparing nihilism, a truly vicious worldview that so traumatized viewers expecting a fun bit of monster mash that Roger Ebert went so far as to advocate banning the film.

Upon this rewatch, I really do think it’s that last one that has allowed Night to remain so potent even all these years later. Romero’s sincere rage at the country and world he saw around him blasts across the years and emblazons his ghouls with a power that none of his contemporaries or imitators could ever match. I fully expect the film to haunt us for all the years to come. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw

George Romero and Night Of The Living Dead are rightly attributed with creating the modern zombie template, stripping away the traditional voodoo association in favor of flesh-eating ghouls of the apocalypse which are now as ubiquitous in pop culture as vampires. But their influence extend even further beyond that, particularly in terms of filmmaking. While neither the low-budget aesthetic, limited locations, realistic gore, or siege structure were new, their effective combination set the groundwork for scores of imitators. And while I like Romero’s later color films, the eerie cheerlessness of the black and white cinematography is undeniably critical to the pervasively bleak tone.

But what I remember most about Night Of The Living Dead isn’t the zombies. It’s the shocking ending. Romero’s Dead sequels would continue to develop his voice in addressing social criticism and injustice, offering more than just morsels of consumable entertainment; these are his biting reflections on the state of humanity.

In remembrance of Romero, I also revisited the underappreciated Land Of The Dead, my personal favorite and the most humorous and clever entry in the series. Something that really hit me was the Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg video journal on that disc, in which the director and star of Shaun Of The Dead are not so much filmmakers or actors playing cameo roles, but giddy fanboys meeting one of their heroes. Romero’s effusive manner is so gracious and noble and indicative of the kind of person he is, that you just have to love him. (@VforVashaw)

In Memory of George A. Romero

February 4, 1940 — July 16, 2017

Next Week’s Pick:

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