Wanted: Undead or Alive

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.

By the time Romero got around to making the sequel, however, he was willing to acknowledge that his zombies had a subtext. 1978 saw the much inferior Dawn of the Dead, in which the zombie plague rolls on, and a handful of survivors take refuge in the upper floors of Pittsburgh's Monroeville Mall. The lower floors are overrun with zombies, allowing Romero to indulge in some satirical commentary. Looking down at the ghouls milling about in the concourses below, the heroine asks, "Who are they?" "They're us," the hero replies.

About a decade ago, I phoned a close college friend to catch up on things back in Pennsylvania. It had been about five or six months since we had last talked.

This, essentially, is what she told me: Her younger brother was dead. Her whole family had planned to go to dinner together one Friday night. The brother begged off, saying he was tired.

A while after the family left, the brother called 911. If the fire department would send an ambulance to his address, it would find a dead man. Then he hung up, and shot himself in the heart with a shotgun. He was sitting in his father's recliner.

When my friend and her parents returned from dinner, the house was surrounded with emergency vehicles, flashing red and blue. They learned what had happened from the police, who took them upstairs to talk to them.

My friend's father became unhinged. He kept going downstairs, to meddle with and talk to his son's body. His daughter kept taking him back to his room, trying to get him to lie down. Finally, after the body had been removed, she found her father on his hands and knees on the carpet, next to the recliner. He had been picking up tiny pieces of her brother's heart from a pool of blood. And he was eating them.

His condition hadn't improved in the days that followed; he had been temporarily institutionalized.

What do you say to that? I told her that I didn't know what to say. I told her I was sorry, I told her I was horrified. I spoke platitudes, and she accepted them with a warm, peculiarly indulgent air. This had happened a month earlier. She'd heard it all before.

After that, I didn't see my friend for a few years. Then, one cold, misty night a few weeks before Halloween, I found myself stranded in the Pittsburgh airport--I was trying to get to Phoenix. I called her for a place to crash. She said she'd be right down. She arrived less than an hour later, loaded me into her car, and we happily drove into the Pennsylvania dark, off the highway and into the same sort of rural back roads on which I had grown up--roads lined with barns and cider stands, tractor dealerships and clapboard houses in front of wooded hills, impenetrably black in the night.

She told me about normal life: her lucrative job, which she loved, and about the house she had bought, and was fixing up, in the town of Butler. This was where I assumed we were heading, but abruptly she said, "Can I take you somewhere and show you something?"

"Of course," I said. We drove for a long time, mostly in silence, and at last she turned off onto a narrow road that rose up a very steep, tree-lined hill. When we reached the top, we were above the mist, on a flat, grassy summit, and I realized why we were there. It was a cemetery.

We drove to the center of the place, and she angled the car, with sad assurance, so that the headlights illuminated a particular patch of gravestones. She left the motor running so that we would have light, and we got out. We stood in silence over her brother's grave. I read his name and the dates to myself. I was glad the car was running--it reassured me our stay here was temporary, and without it the silence would have been overpowering.

After a minute or two, my friend stepped over and embraced me hard. She wasn't crying. I hugged her back, but I could see that she wasn't in need of comforting--this was a formality, a belated participation in the grief I hadn't shared with her at its height. It was more like she was comforting me.

Against my shoulder, my friend--who knew my movie obsessions well--asked, "Do you recognize where we are?" And, just then, I did. Many times, I had seen this place, not by night, but by a grainy monochromatic twilight. It was that cemetery, the very place where Barbara and Johnny had come to pay respects to their father.

Ever since that night, I've felt as if I should be a little ashamed of my more or less lifelong fascination with horror pictures, and by the terror that Night of the Living Dead, in particular, has instilled in me since I first saw it. The enormity of my friend's real-life ordeal--its horror compounded by real-life domestic cannibalism, its closure at the peaceful real-life spot where the movie had begun--felt a bit like a reproach to my irrational fear of a mere film.

My friend's experience should make the film trivial. When you've known someone whose father literally ate his son's heart, Night of the Living Dead isn't the same movie anymore. What's remarkable, though, is that it doesn't become a stupid or squalid movie--it becomes deeper. Whether Romero and Russo intended to or not, what they made was really a worst-case scenario on what being alive means.

Even if outer-space radiation could make dead bodies get up and walk around, why would they turn into cannibals? Though the film's style is bluntly realistic, its premise isn't logical, even in sci-fi-horror terms. But it makes perfect metaphorical sense, if you believe that to be human is to mindlessly consume--first food and other necessities, finally your neighbors, your family.

In the film, we overhear a scientist on Civil Defense TV being interviewed about the situation, and he advises immediate cremation of the dead, lest they, too, become zombies. "The loved ones will have to forgo the dubious comfort of a funeral service. . . . They're just dead flesh, and dangerous."

Romero's ghastly vision is of a ghoul world without spirit. That's what makes his zombies different from the demon in The Exorcist or even from the slashers of Halloween and Friday the 13th, with their masked killers who stick to their agenda of slaughtering the sexually active no matter how many times they themselves are killed. Night of the Living Dead is the opposite of a ghost story. Romero's ghouls aren't evil, or even tormented. They're just, in a very human sense, hungry.

The poignancy in Night of the Living Dead is in the desperation with which the victims fight for their lives, the preciousness with which authentic, individualistic life is seen. That's what raises this crudely wrought movie from the level of a mere mean-spirited horror show, what gives it a tinge of the genuinely tragic.

That's why even my friend's horrible misfortune couldn't reduce the film's power for me. Scaring me to death, it scares me to life.


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