My Thoughts on Night of the Living Dead

Tuesday night, in the seasonal holiday spirit, I finally saw the original Night of the Living Dead. It really is one of the greatest horror films ever made. This is fear without compromise. The terror and suspense never let up. There’s absolutely no room for a happy ending.

The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (no one ever calls them zombies, that name came later) were shockingly gruesome in 1968. After countless imitations, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear haven’t gone away.

First-time director George Romero shot Night in black and white to save money, and I’m glad he did. As I pointed out in Black and White Films in a Color World, gruesome imagery delivers a greater emotional punch without color. We react to gushers of red blood as gory spectacle. But when the blood is dark gray, the emotions go deeper. Night of the Living Dead has been colorized three times (it’s in the public domain, so anyone can do it), but I see no reason to watch anything except the original version.

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It’s also, quite unintentionally, a comment on race relations in America, then and now.

Romero cast an African-American actor, Duane Jones, as the film’s hero. The director insists that it wasn’t intentional; Jones simply gave the best performance at the auditions. That is, of course, the way it should always work, but we all know that it rarely does.

And yet, in scene after scene, things he does and things that are done to him take on imagean additional, racial significance. When he slaps a hysterical woman to calm her down (maybe I should be addressing gender issues here, too), the act seems especially daring because it crosses so many taboos. When an older, cowardly and selfish white man argues loudly and angrily about strategy, we react to him as a bigot, even though there is nothing in the dialog to suggest that he is. I won’t describe the ending, but it takes on additional, probably unintended racial weight.

The very fact that the star’s skin color makes a difference tells us something about the invisibility of whiteness. We’re conditioned to look at a black man as a black man, and a white man as simply a man.

Racial issues aside, Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on the dangers of government research, a look at American society, or simply as one of the scariest horror films of all time. For more on the subject, see Race and Casting in American Movies.

Bit of trivia: Romero’s first professional filmmaking job involved shooting short movies for a local public television children’s show hosted by Fred Rogers. He went on to create a truly terrifying day in the Neighborhood.

Happy Halloween.

Violence as Light Entertainment–The Moral Question

I love a good turn-off-the-brain action movie–one where the hero gets to dispatch multiple bad guys without remorse but with plenty of clever quips. But the older I get, the more I begin to wonder if there’s something inherently wrong with these pictures. Do they teach us that we can solve our problems by killing the right people?

I’m not talking about thrillers, which usually involve a relatively normal person stuck in a dangerous situation and having to find a way out. I’m talking about movies with an exceptional hero, a high body count, and absolutely no moral ambiguity.

Some personal history:

I was a very serious young cinephile in the spring of 1974. I loved Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and The Seventh Seal (I still do). I thought of cinema only as a serious art form in the service of fixing the world. I also loved Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers, but I justified these on the grounds that.great comedy was inherently subversive, and thus doing it’s part for making the world a better place.

But action movies? Unless they were black satires, or lessons in the horror of violence, I had no interest in them.

That spring, I attended a special afternoon screening devoted to three-strip Technicolor. It included two features, the second of which was The Adventures of Robin Hood.

That movie was a revelation. I had no idea that a simple action movie, with a silly plot, witty dialog, and beautifully-choreographed but utterly unbelievable fights, could be so much fun. I discovered a whole new purpose for cinema, and I was hooked.

I still consider Adventures of Robin Hood the gold standard for mindless (but not witless) action. Other such movies that I love include the original Star Wars (AKA A New Hope), The Flame and the Arrow, Die Hard, some of the James Bond movies, and the first and third Indiana Jones movies.

None of these movies are entirely amoral. The villains are unquestionably evil, whether they’re imperialists, usurpers, exploiters of the working class, heartless murderers, and/or Nazis. Not using violence would only result in more innocent deaths.(Actually, I don’t really see usurpers as necessarily evil. The fact that your father was king doesn’t–in my book–make you the right person to rule the country. But the usurpers in these movies are always far worse than the rightful king.) But in real life, things are never that simple. Even Nazis have mothers, wives, and children. Most of the hero’s victims are mere henchmen who, for all we know, were forced into serving evil.

There’s a wonderful shot in The Bridge On the River Kwai. A new recruit has just killed a Japanese soldier in hand-to-hand combat. It was, in the context of war, an entirely justified act. But the camera briefly lingers the dead man’s Buddhist prayer beads and a photo of a smiling family. That sort of nuance never shows up in mindless action pictures.

Real conflicts don’t just dirty the hero’s hands–they dirty his (or her) soul. Sometimes, they kill the hero or people very close to him. In Adventures of Robin Hood, with all of its battles, not a single merry man takes a mortal wound. By contrast, Harry Potter is very realistic.

So what do these movies tell us? That violence, when in the cause of good, is trouble-blackswanfree? That killing the right people will solve your problems and not cost you anything except a minor wound and a few hours’ annoyance?

In these movies’ defense, I could argue that they’re so unrealistic that I have a hard time believing that anyone would take them seriously. I’ve shown these movies to my kids when they reached appropriate ages–and with Robin Hood, that was very young. I don’t regret it. And I’m not going to stop watching them. After all, what serious examination of the horrors of violence can match something like this video (which I unfortunately can’t embed).

But I wonder…

Race and Casting in American Movies

Try this exercise:

Start with a large selection of American feature films. They could be your all-time favorites, the ones you own, or AFI’s most recent 100 Best American Films list. Or simply the unsubtitled movies currently in theaters.

Now, remove all of the films where the protagonist–the central character or hero–is portrayed by a white actor (or actress).

That gives you a considerably smaller list. But let’s make it smaller:

Out of that tiny list, remove any titles where the lead role really couldn’t be played by a white person. Perhaps it’s based on a true story–you can’t very well star Brad Pitt in Hotel Rwanda. Or where the story is specifically about race, so that making the character white would have been an entirely different story. In the Heat of the Night would have just been a mystery if it had starred Marlon Brando. Also, remove anything that was made for a predominantly non-white audience, such as Tyler Perry’s work

Got anything left? Okay, remove all films where this non-white protagonist is a cop, criminal, or member of the military.

You may have one movie left–perhaps Night of the Living Dead. But there’s a good chance you won’t have any.

I’m sure you already see what I’m driving at. Hollywood studios and independent distributors have always been shy about casting non-whites in lead roles. They need a reason–and it has to be a good one. In fact, even when the story is about race, studio heads prefer a white protagonist (see The Help; or better yet, don’t see it).

It all comes down to the invisibility of whiteness. Americans see a white doctor, a white scientist, or a white high school student, and we think “doctor,” “scientist,” and “student.” But when we see a black doctor, scientist, or a high school student, we notice skin color. In a movie, an actor’s race inevitably becomes part of their character–unless they happen to be white.

But why is it okay if the protagonist of color is a cop, criminal, or member of the military? I suspect that studio executives believe that Americans can accept non-whites in those particular careers. How often have Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, or or Will Smith gotten to play characters who didn’t fit one of these categories? Occasionally, but not often. In I Am Legend (a movie I liked very much), there’s absolutely no reason why Smith’s character, a brilliant scientist and doctor, is also a Lieutenant Colonel. It was just a way to make him more palatable to the perceived audience.

The good news: The trend changed a bit in the last 15 years, especially in children’s films. Family-friendly comedies such as Dr. Dolittle, Spy Kids, and The Game Plan all had non-white leads in stories where race simply wasn’t an issue. None of these are great films (although I liked the first Spy Kids very much), but they broke the racial barriers more than any serious drama I can think of. Perhaps the studios could figure out that the kids who grew up on these movies are now old enough for adult fare, and adjust their casting practices accordingly.

But I doubt it.

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