With the release of Diary of the Dead, what better time to post this examination of George Romero’s famous four zombie movies, from the old print days of Lucid Frenzy. (Part two to follow)
PLOT SPOILERS? – Plot spoilers are here and start even within this plot spoiler warning! Read no further to avoid! Otherwise you will… the dead return to life and attack the living! Oh bugger, just slipped out!
THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1969)
Someone makes a good point in the American Nightmare documentary which accompanied the UK re-showing of this cult classic. Watching a Hitchcock horror was like putting yourself in the hands of a master craftsman, whose special skill was tingling your spine but only just enough, who you trusted to push you up to the edge but never take you over. Watching this film, or one of the others from the late Sixties crop, was like falling into the grip of the psychos and monsters who filled them – who seemed to have no sense of where to stop or what the rules or limits were. Suddenly, anything could happen.
For example, this film’s heavily indebted to Hitchcock’s The Birds. But while The Birds slowly built up character and situation before the first feathered assault, here the first zombie lurches itself at us after about five minutes (in broad daylight yet!), in the middle of what seems like the first character introductions. One is killed straight out, the other turned near-catatonic and stays like that for the duration.
Most ink has been spilt about Ben, the tough black survivor, and his similarities to Malcolm X et al. He’s certainly the central character. But the film’s core is Barbara, this traumatised victim. For the first quarter of the film we follow her as she stumbles, stupefied and uncomprehending. Even when we stop seeing events literally through her eyes, we still see them metaphorically. Talk of a meteor causing the dead to walk is included, but only to taunt us. This isn’t a world where a mystery is poised only to be neatly solved and dissolved by some “rational explanation”. This is a visceral and arbitrary world we’re thrust into, which defies sense and responds only to force. We’re in… quite literally… a nightmare.
At times it’s hard to tell this wilful defiance of explanation from the zombie mythos not being formed. Perhaps tellingly, they’re not even called zombies but “ghouls” or “things”. The zombies are stumbling, stupefied ids, primordially afraid of fire. The clothes or, in one case, shower-cap of their former lives hang off them, an insult to our humanity.
The film is given a low-key, docu-drama feel. It’s like the news reports of riots and assassinations that filled the telly at the (late Sixties) time, given only the slightest twist to be re-labelled drama. There’s a key moment when the surviving humans find a working TV, and hopefully switch it on for info. But they find only a jumbled and chaotic scene, a meteorite which may or may not be causing the outbreak, which gives them no help whatsoever. The media, the voice you turn to for guidance and reassurance, is just giving you more of what’s happening outside the window.
The film is itself built like a zombie, eschewing surprises and fairground-ride shocks. Watching it is like being slowly pounded by a blunt instrument. It’s as if we could turn the cameras round we’d find the director and crew were all undead. The plot lumbers forward rather than advances, towards an inevitable resolution with few twists or turns. Events along the way are jumbled and left deliberately incoherent, characters only briefly sketched in.
But for all the faux-docu feel, this film has a sense of style that was less followed by its sequels. It often feels like a latter-day expressionist film, composed of strong light-and-dark contracts and deep-field photography with objects shoved into the foreground. It could be argued the awareness of construction that comes with expressionism holds the film back from where its sequels go. But actually it’s appropriate. Expressionism was from the beginning about portraying inner, psychological states, eschewing the notion of an objective reality. As Bergman put it, “no form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions.” The menacing shadows and angles of expressionism have become Barbara’s fear-filled world.
There’s immense similarities to Peter Watkin’s faux-documentary agit-prop piece Punishment Park (1970), not just in the use of docu styles and ticks to unnerve and unsettle, but in the near-pathological need to mercilessly trample over any remaining shreds of Sixties optimism. (Watkins spoke of Punishment Park as a “fusion of two seemingly contrasting elements: realism and expressionism.”)
More to the point, it’s this mixture which ultimately makes the film. You, the film connoisseur, becomes confused watching it. Is it an art movie, avant garde in its refusal of conventional story structures? Or is it a crude exploitation flick, shedding unnecessary baggage because it can’t wait to serve up the meat? The usual handles to tell that sort of thing are taken away, our smarts are assaulted and rendered useless. The style of the film ultimately becomes as unsettling as the content.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979)
Dawn rests upon a kind of temporal sleight of hand, where the events seem to immediately succeed what’s happened in Night. (We even fly over the zombie-hunting rednecks, while the TV studio scenes echo the TV-watching scenes of Night.) But everything that happens is contemporary-set for ten years later, most especially the shopping mall. (Dawn’s almost official subtitle is “the one in the shopping mall.”)
It’s a more conventional film than Night, with story development, cross-cutting devices, and if not a happy ending a less absolutely downbeat one. It’s given a classic tryptich structure. The downbeat opener establishing the zombie threat, this time in the big city, is most similar to Night. Human society seems to be hopelessly hurtling towards hell in a handbasket. Then we get an almost idyllic middle section where our heroes believe themselves to be locked safely inside the shopping mall, surrounded by every consumer durable they could ever desire and looking down on the locked-out zombies. The final section you can probably guess…
If Night is Romero’s version of Sartre’s No Way Out (where the humans fail because they can’t get along), Dawn is Brecht’s Mother Courage. The humans fail individually through personal weaknesses, either greed (Flyboy) or conceit (the trooper). Despite the nihilistic surface, Dawn is actually a morality play – while the characters who exemplify these follies die for them, the others live.
By this point, we’re all used to the Mall setting. But at the time, taking zombies out of the standard shadows and into the garish neon lights must have seemed audacious. Gone are the menacing expressionist angles of its predecessor. (Or more accurately confined to one scene, where Flyboy’s followed down the Mall’s back corridors by the shadow of a single zombie, which may be the most expressionist moment in Romero’s career.)
Night has the celebrated climactic redneck scene where the zombies just become an absurd stumbling shooting gallery, but the film’s characters all fear them. Dawn is unafraid to play up their lumbering comic nature even within the film, there’s even a scene of the brutes getting custard pied! But even as we laugh we know the inevitable result. When the trooper gets bitten there’s no feigned surprise or attempt at a twist, he slowly, painfully becomes a zombie and is blown away by his buddy. Unlike Night, Romero plays us more than one note this time. But he’s just as keen as Brecht to tell us where all this is headed…
Unlike the supernatural ‘ghouls’ the zombies are here ‘things’, the superstitious element gone for an anti-consumerist satire. The zombies have to be given some human residue, or they wouldn’t be trying to get back in the Mall. With the extra ‘space’ to it’s mid-section, Dawn finally spells out some of it’s zombie mythos via radio voice-overs and the like. As Wikipedia put it, “…the movie standardised the practice of eating human flesh in zombies, and… the zombie outbreak being a contagious virus spread through being bitten by an infected being.” (Rules which seem to contradict somewhat. Once you’re bitten by a zombie you tend to get eaten, in which case how do you ever manage to come back to life? Maybe we’re better off not asking…)
Fran is poised between Barbara’s scream queen and Day’s post-Ripley survivalist Sarah. I’d guess that her whole character comes from Romero being unsure what to do with her, but he uses this ambiguity to good effect. At first she’s constantly having to be rescued by the menfolk and exhibiting women’s intuition (only she can see the Mall’s a trap). She’s even revealed to be pregnant, as if to underline her girly vulnerability. But by the end she’s transformed, shootin’, flyin’ and fully taking care of herself.
The anti-consumerist satire survives the screechy fate of other such Seventies movies, partly through Romero’s endless eye for detail. When the humans need to learn to shoot, the line up storefront mannequins to fire at. While the anti-consumerism’s little more sophisticated than Stairway to Heaven, and character development negligible, the film survives by being stitched together from such iconic moments. Romero would quite likely have been useless in any other medium. But with this eye he can make a film compelling even when telling you exactly what’s going to be happening.