Monday, October 01, 2018

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at 50: The Bite Goes On

World Premiere, Pittsburgh 1968
It was 50 years ago today that George A. Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD had its World Premiere at the Fulton Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is one of a very small group of movies that can authentically be said to have reinvented its film genre. If DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN heralded the penetration of horror into sound, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD represented, in a way, the genre's emancipation. After NotLD, the horror genre belonged to anyone with the bravery to pick up a camera and the talent to put a story across. Horror films became more personal, more violent, more sexual, and most importantly, more political. Made by a generation reared on Rod Serling's THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the resulting films often told stark political truths undercover, truths that no other film genre was yet willing to confront head-on. While his contemporaries went on to become absorbed in the Hollywood system, Romero remained resolutely independent, making a shelf of personal films that went their own way even when they acceded to the prevailing tastes of the marketplace. When George Romero died a year ago last July, he had accomplished more than most, yet he could also look back on a career largely spent fighting the system, trying to get his original stories told. He probably had a longer list of films that didn't get made than can be read off his actual filmography.

Of course, the reverberations radiating from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's initial impact are still being felt. AMC's THE WALKING DEAD begins its 9th season on Sunday, October 7th. Even though the show's star Andrew Lincoln is bailing out this year, which will likely tempt many viewers to follow his example, AMC has said that they hope to keep the series going for another decade. Provide your own kicking a DEAD horse joke.

Earlier this year, while viewing Criterion's new 4K restoration of the Romero film, I realized that an important part of what is now recognized as the LIVING DEAD mythos is not present in it. Namely, the idea that, once bitten, living victims of the dead become one of the walking dead themselves. Let me clarify: we see victims die and become one of the living dead - as happens to Johnny after he's knocked on the head - but we do not see the consequence of their having merely been bitten. The film is about cannibalism, but not yet about infection. It's true that the little girl Karen (Kyra Schon) has been bitten by someone dead and gradually succumbs to the ensuing fever, dying and then rising up to slay her mother - but the film doesn't make her transformation a result of the infection; it's the condition of death itself that causes the transformation. The living dead that we see are almost entirely made up of people dressed for burial, fresh from fatal accidents, or in hospital gowns. It's only in the later films and spin-offs that the bite alone acquires a legacy of meaning and becomes dreaded in and of itself.

Though not quite present in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the idea takes form in Romero's sequel, DAWN OF THE DEAD, released more than a decade later in 1979. When Roger (Scott H. Reiniger) is bitten, Romero chronicles his excruciatingly slow death, the brief peace that follows his passing, and the chilling moment of his resurrection. Later in the film, when Stephen a.k.a. "Flyboy" (David Emge) is attacked in the elevator, he is messily infected and - due to an edit away from the action - he returns to the story fully transformed. It would seem that the matter of infection was truly added to the mythos on the basis of that edit. Thereafter, the bite of the living dead made one the living dead - an idea that actually goes back to another wing of the genre, to DRACULA.

I was reminded of all this by a recent viewing of Gordon Hessler's THE OBLONG BOX, first released in 1969, the year following NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Spoiler ahead, but in the climax of this film, the horribly disfigured Sir Edward Markham (Alister Williamson) - wrongly infected by a voodoo curse intended for his brother Julian (Vincent Price), and locked away in a tower room of the family estate and passed off as dead  - is shot by his brother to end his reign of murderous terror. Edward then uses his last energies to crawl to Julian, to take his hand, and bite it viciously. As one critic observed, the bite is so deep, it almost appears that Edward leaves his teeth in the wound. In a chilling coda, we find that Julian has been infected by the bite. Turning to his wife's calls as he stands in Edward's old room, he shows his face similarly disfigured on one side as he says, "It's my room now."

Though Sir Edward is not literally a living dead, what we have here is not quite the same thing, but it seems a far more pertinent connection to the LIVING DEAD mythos than DRACULA, which proposes a somehow more fanciful monster, one in which we cannot quite fully believe. The way Romero filmed NotLD, with the look of a television news report, its monsters were intended to convey a more documentary vibe; DRACULA originated from folk tales out of Romania, but NotLD originated from evening news reports of the Vietnam war. THE OBLONG BOX may be a horror film, but it too strives to make an authentic point - about what we now call "white male privilege," a subject that Romero would have undoubtedly loved to sink his own teeth into. Very probably, there is nothing in THE OBLONG BOX that couldn't happen, so it seems to me much closer than DRACULA to the kind of story Romero set out to tell. The principal author of THE OBLONG BOX (who was actually more its re-writer) was former film critic Christopher Wicking, a contributor to such magazines as SCREEN, THE MOVIE SCENE and MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE. I'm sure that he saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but unless he saw it in another country, or on bootleg videotape (more likely), he would have been prevented by BBFC censors, who held the film back from UK release until sometime after THE OBLONG BOX was in the can - and then with six minutes of cuts imposed.

The vital connections here are infection and consequence, which only becomes a point of discussion in THE OBLONG BOX.  Romero's living dead needed this because, without these inherent dangers, they ran the risk of becoming the buffoons they were briefly treated as in DAWN, with the pie-fight sequence. It should also be emphasized that, in DAWN, Romero himself invited into his mythos the necessary subject of Voodoo - the basis of Sir Edward's bite.

This subject may well require a more detailed presentation than I can give it, here and now, but consider it meat for further discussion. Have at it.

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.