Wanted: Undead or Alive

For one terrified fan, 1968's Night of the Living Dead still really strikes home

A young couple arrives at a rural cemetery to decorate their father's grave. Both thin and blond, they look like siblings.

But they're not--just amateur actors in a low-budget movie. Minutes into the visit, the brother, Johnny, begins to carp about having to visit the grave--he no longer even recalls what dad looked like. Lapsing into boredom, he begins to tease his sister, chanting, "They're coming to get you, Barbara!"

A gaunt, blank-faced old man shambles up to them among the headstones, and Johnny gleefully includes him in the teasing: "They're coming to get you, Barbara. Look! Here comes one of them now!" Inexplicably, the old guy attacks Barbara. Johnny rushes to her aid, getting his head dashed against a gravestone in the process.

It's the opening scene of Night of the Living Dead, Pittsburgh filmmaker George A. Romero's influential classic about an uprising of the recently deceased who are turned into plodding mindless zombies with a baffling compulsion to devour the flesh of the living.

Barbara flees to a seemingly deserted farmhouse where she finds refuge among a small group of other fugitives of the zombie invasion. A take-charge fellow, Ben, boards up the windows and doors against the ghouls massing outside the house. A young couple hides in the basement with a contrarian man and his wife whose daughter seems to be dying from a zombie wound. When Ben figures out the zombies can be exterminated only by destroying their brains, the father squabbles with him and meets a violent end. Eventually, the little girl becomes a zombie and memorably violates her parents' bodies. The ghouls, emboldened by an electrical blackout--they are repelled by light--begin to tear through the boarded-up windows. When the door at last bursts open, who should step through but Johnny, now a zombie, menacing his sister.

Night of the Living Dead, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, has all the makings of a camp horror movie: amateurish acting, a tinny catalogue musical score and glitches in continuity. Yet the film's success--its ability to scare you--rests on its overwhelming sense of normal reality.

The way Romero presents horror denies us the comfortable distance of the weird foreign imagery that most horror movies offer. Marauding ghouls are treated like any other disaster, as an interruption of the world's routine, requiring survival measures and the enforced pragmatism of martial law and the drone of round-the-clock TV bulletins. On this everyday surface, the most horrific depictions become disturbingly believable.

Night of the Living Dead still gets my vote for the scariest movie ever made. And now, years later, thanks to a secondhand personal brush with true horror, I can see an even stronger connection between the film and the horror potential of real life.

My fascination with Night of the Living Dead began years before I actually saw it. I was hooked by a grade-school friend's account, which I assumed at the time was embellished, as is demanded in the oral tradition of recess. With much relish, my Pennsylvania school pal Georgie Sidun told me about going to the drive-in with his family and seeing a movie in which "people break into a house and start eating everybody, and guts and arms and legs go flying."

When I finally saw the film in the '70s, I found that Georgie hadn't exaggerated--the brief scenes in which the actors playing ghouls pretend to eat human limbs like chicken drumsticks and fight over entrails were still shockingly graphic. In the years since its initial release, horror movies have gone through a "slasher" genre and into a "splatter" genre which, in terms of gore, have made Night of the Living Dead seem tame indeed. Yet I maintain that Night is far creepier than any of these subsequent films.

The gore was never what scared me. What terrifies me is the overcast Pennsylvanian dreariness of the atmosphere, the inescapable mundanity of the horror. I grew up about a two hours' drive from where Romero shot the film in western Pennsylvania's Allegheny Valley, and nothing could be less exotic to me than the rolling hills of that region. But familiar as it is, Romero and company saw to it that it would never be completely comfortable for me, either.

It doesn't take any special acuity to spot the subtext of Night of the Living Dead. Brother eats sister. Child eats parents. Ingenues in love die together because they refuse to be separated. Ben, the survivor, is killed by other survivors. It's a movie about being consumed, in both the broad and specific senses, by your own family.

Not that it makes any claims to such heady metaphorical significance. Night of the Living Dead was made on a shoestring by a bunch of wiseacres from a Pittsburgh advertising firm. Romero, the director and co-writer, and his collaborator John Russo have insisted, to the point of coyness, that they had nothing artistic in mind when they made the film, that they just wanted a movie that would turn a buck. Night of the Living Dead, which played all over the world, certainly was lucrative, and though Romero and his partners saw little of the profits, it made their reputations.

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