B Written in a Country Church Yard
Seldom have so many pundit parses and public praises owed so much to so little as in the case of the career-launching Night of the Living Dead. For a short time a critical and commercial dud rejected by some theaters as “pornography of violence” and an “unrelieved orgy of sadism,” this indie unreeled this Hallowe’en at the Museum of Modern Art, which had early recognized the potential of George A. Romero’s first feature by honoring director and film in 1970 and acquiring a print in 1980, two decades before the Library of Congress/National Film Registry and the American Film Institute added official imprimaturs.
Released a month before the inauguration of MPAA ratings and long since surpassed on any gruesome meter, NLD came out of ‘fifties schlock shock, John “Cool Ghoul” Zacherle, and an era’s pop novelties like “Zombie Jamboree (The Song That Killed Calypso),” “The Blob,” “Dinner with Drac,” “Purple People Eater” and “Monster Mash.” Its innovation lay in setting horror, not in the mythic Haiti to which Tourneur loosely relocated Jane Eyre -- “She’s alive . . . yet dead! She’s dead . . . yet alive!” -- but in autumn-sere rural western Pennsylvania (where one couple has unaccountably come to swim). That location as well as the wax and Bosco Syrup special effects, guerrilla-type technique on 35 mm b&w, eclectic archived music, mixed unknown and amateur cast sometimes in dual parts or uncredited, and improvised dialogue chunks, were the serendipitous forced result of recently formed Image Ten’s shoestring $114,000 backing. These coalesced effectively for the horror comedy script by Romero and John A. Russo, inspired by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (filmed as The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man) and its own uncopyrighted self inspiring other features and remakes, a thirtieth anniversary edition, several sequels by Romero (two of them presented as parts of the original script) and others by Russo (which brought the two former friends to courtroom confrontation).
Among such progeny was Assault on Precinct 13, in which John Carpenter went for the funny bone and jugular and skipped any political or social innuendo. By notable contrast, gallons of ink have been splashed foisting upon B movie Living Dead all sorts of Freudian and “anti-“ commentary: Vietnam War, racism, capitalism, militarism, industrialism, sexism, vigilantism, optimism, etc. Romero agreed -- “it was 1968, man” -- conveniently forgetting his earlier insistence that, ironically doomed, the African-American hero “simply gave the best audition” and that the three women are such timid souls that a 1990 remake saw fit to rewrite one of them into a tower of strength.
This much background is a only a fragment, but the ensuing four decades did overblow and overshadow the actual movie, still a dependable slasher cash cow. Never mouthing “zombie” or “undead,” it serves up half-baked theories like radioactivity but does not care to explain the “ghouls” who emerge full-blown from those in morgues, funeral parlors, fields or basements who died bitten by one of them. Not smart, strong or resilient, they succeed by sheer numbers in menacing the eastern third of the nation (though ingeniously used radio and TV background mentions other areas).
Her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) killed by a shuffling man (S. William Hinzman) as they argue on a visit to their father’s country grave, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) escapes to a lonely farmhouse with a mangled corpse upstairs and two couples and the daughter of one barricaded in the cellar. Ben shows up with a pickup and a tire iron to fight off other pasty attackers in boxer shorts or nightgowns or jackets and ties. Skinny in a Perry Como cardigan, he is played by African-American Duane Jones, sexy and better five years later in Ganja and Hess aka Black Vampire, etc., but doomed to cinema mediocrity by race and the times.
Barbra goes from hysterical to comatose as practical Ben boards the place up and they discover the national crisis as well as the people downstairs: sweethearts Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne, in his only film, and Judith Ridley), and married Harry and Helen Cooper and their sick, ghoul-bitten daughter (Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Kyra Schon). As drips of news filter in along with conflicting opinions, as rifle-armed posses scour the countryside, as the trapped protagonists attempt to fight off the flesh-eating dead and refuel the pickup truck, calm Ban and manic Harry square off about tactics in a battle into which one may today read back racial and (Harry and Helen’s) gender tensions.
There are commentators who see conscious irony in the last seconds and end-credits, together with a bitter post-Kennedy/King postmortem on our jubilant mood of the 1950s. That could be, though titters during the showing might just as easily have been the result of changed times and the realization that in this particular case memory and reputation have outstripped the real thing.
(Released by Walter Reade Organization; not rated by MPAA.)