Tuesday, October 14, 2014

MR Night of the Living Dead

Can you believe I haven't reviewed any "zombie" film yet?

Opening this subject, let's start from the beginning, where it all started...

Movie: George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead aka Night of the Living Dead or simply Night or NotLD
Directed by George A. Romero
Release date 1968
Genre Independent Horror/zombie film
Country USA

It's time to have a look back at the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead!

The film was a small independent horror film directed by George A. Romero on a small mere budget (for a film) of about $114'000 USD budget at the time, his first feature-length film.

It was produced by Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner, written by Romero & John A. Russo. The cinematography was in fact entirely handled by George A. Romero, finally edited in one piece by him and Russo.

At the time Romero was fresh off from university. He wanted to enter the film industry, but that was a pretty difficult thing to do back then, as such he was only able to direct a few commercials. He founded a small film company with his old friends and classmates John Russo and Russell Streiner. They wanted to finally make a real film, a horror movie!

Thing is, there was this big trend for "the bizarre" at the time. They pitched an idea for their film to  the Hardman Associates, Inc. And so they were able to get a deal for a big picture.

Problem is the original budget was going to be a mere $6'000. And you couldn't do much with that, besides cheap B-movie reels. All of them invested their own money from their share from the production company and were then able to get it up to approximatively $114'000.

John Russo and George A. Romero  originally first wrote the film as a horror comedy (it would have made it one of the very first of the genre!), first simply titled "Monster Flick".

At first the film revolved around aliens visiting Earth. But then Romero changed much of the plot (for practicability) to center it around the rotting corpses the aliens would leave behind from the first draft. Romero mostly rewrote the final version of the film by himself.

There wasn't any mention of "zombies" then, simply "ghouls" when he was writing it.

That final draft would be cut down for the actual draft, Romero was quite inspired writing it, calling it a "novel". Most of those ideas would be kept aside and most of that would become a 3-part story, this story he first imagined in 1967! Night of the Living Dead would only be followed decades later by Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and Day of the Dead in 1985, playing with the remaining parts of the original concept.

Night was mostly inspired by Richard Matheson's 1954 horror novel classic I Am Legend, which is about a plague of vampire-like creatures. Playing with the idea an infection of Dracula-like beings. Romero loved the idea, its parallel to a revolution and all. But he was really sad to see the book start already with one man left. What about the beginning of it all? That would be more interesting to play, with this unknown new plague people couldn't understand at first.

But he didn't want to also use vampires, and also avoid people call it plagiarism. Instead what if the creatures would be the dead that simply didn't stay dead?

(I Am Legend itself would go on to receive three actual film adaptations over the years, one first in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, another in 1971 as The Omega Man, and finally the 2007 I Am Legend)

Since the film would be made on such a small budget, they couldn't use lots of locations or shot whatever they wanted. They filmed the entire film in a small place, a remote location used as a set on the spot for most of the film, near Evans City, both for outdoors and indoors.

All the rest of the money was simply used on props and special effects. Like they used actual roasted ham for entrails.

Finally near the filming date they had to come up with a final title to replace the working titles of  Night of Anubis and the later Night of the Flesh Eaters from the last drafts.

Because of all of the above, all this forced Romero to film Night of the Living Dead on 35 mm black-and-white film, not by choice but due to the small budget remaining by that point. Yes, there already was color in 1968. But by that point it was easier to just do the filming "guerrila-style", and it's also easier to control and hide limitations in black & white. It even gave the film a slight involuntary but pitch perfect documentary tone.

Our story opens with Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner), in Pennsylvania. As the siblings visit their father's grave. Johnny is mocking her at first, trying to frighten the girl... when suddenly they're attacked by strange man... a zombie! (this memorable role being played by Bill Hinzman). Johnny tries to save his sister but he's killed instead on a gravestone. Barbra flees, and crashes the car into a tree. She stumbles away, but falls down near a farm.

She sees some dead corpses. More people like the man from the cemetery!

That's when this guy, Ben (formidably played by Duane Jones through the film) arrives in a truck. He helps Barba get inside this house. Barba is in shock. Ben fights off these monsters outside. He also starts boarding the walls, windows and doors. But they missed a cellar.

Turns out there's a couple hiding there, Harry and Helen Cooper, and their daughter Karen (respectively played by Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman and Kyra Schon). They ended up hiding there after a horde of zombies attacked their car, along this couple of teenagers that also heard this emergency broadcast telling people to shut themselves inside their homes and stay away from the infected. It seems it all came by surprised suddenly, starting with this strange series of murders before anyone knew what to do.

Karen's getting sick, she was bitten on the arm by one of those zombie creatures. Meanwhile upstairs, Ben's listening to the radio. This Harry guy wants everyone to hide in the cellar. Ben thinks this will be a deathtrap for them (and indeed it will, since they will shut down from any news outside, with someone about to turn into a zombie probably when they would fall asleep later on). Ben prefers staying upstairs while he continues to barricade everything. They listen to more radio reports. It's happening all over the country, nobody knows what this plague is or where it came from. In a later new emergency broadcast they learn the recently deceased can and will reanimate and start consuming flesh of the living. Scientists and the military are trying to understand the situation. Some think this contamination came from radioactive material from outter space that might have fallen into the atmosphere.

A few rescue centers have been set for refugees. Ben wants to leave and head over there, to help Karen. But then nearest one's several miles away. They try peaking outside. They need some fuel for the truck. They throw some molotov cocktails at the undead. But things only turn for the worse as the truck explodes and the young couple is killed. Ben tries to get back inside the house but Harry has locked his home. In a new broadcast they learn a few gunshot to the head, if the brain of the creatures is destroyed, will kill the zombies for good.

A posse of armed men is being organized over the USA. People are starting to band together in order to bring order back and kill all the zombies they find in their path. But it's getting too late for our protagonists! And soon the undead is finally able to break through the barricade! Harry turns on Ben, Karen's already dead from her contamination, the living dead are after Barbra. Karen is now eating her husband Harry. Barba sees her brother Johnny again, now a zombie creature. The zombies grab her and devour her! The zombies soon overrun the entire place! Ben is left all alone, fighting for himself! He tries to lock himself in the cellar. He finds Harry and Helen now zombies as well.

Our story ends in the next day, the next morning. Ben wakes up to the sound of gunshots. The posse has finally arrived nearby! They're really doing it! They're shooting zombies and getting rid of this pague!

Some rednecks hunting with the cops sees Ben through the window, and shoot Ben in the head. Was he mistaken for a zombie? (Was he?)

Everyone dies.

Night of the Living Dead starred a few unknowns, which is understandable given the situation. Duane Jones is the leading role of the film, as Ben. This marked the first time a Black actor was cast as the actual star of a horror film, mind you studio film alone. Despite a discrete career following the next decades, Duane Jones was no amateur, he was already the executive director of the Black Theater Alliance and played a few roles in movies here and there. He was just an unknown stage actor at the time, casting him at time was a big controversial move, but Romero just honestly found him to be a great actor and the best possible lead he auditioned for the role. Judith O'Dea's signature role as Barbra got her a few horror films over the years. Barbra was a great simple character, I always kind of felt sorry for her in the story. She did a great performance all things considered. And Karl Hardman was actually an American horror film producer, this role resulted in his appearances in a lot of other later horror films over years. Romero & co used several friends and families for the zombie extras.

The film was... something truly unique at the time, really impressive for a bunch of filmakers that never made a full feature-length film prior to Night.

Romero did a fantastic job with the tension and the mood of the film, turning what could have been just a cheap B-movie into a horror classic.

The film is clearly inspired by horror and science-fiction films of the late 1950s. It prompted a great revival of horror films.

It's such a simple but effective film, about this desperate situation quickly getting worse and letting the way for plain despair and tragedy. The film noir style really helps sell the film despite all the shortcomings and limitations they went through. Playing with the taboos of the era, such as death (generally considered sacred) and cannibalism.

Since this was his first film, the "Living Dead" here are never truly shown to possed any kind of intelligence whatsoever. They're simply walking corpses. Because of some kind of "alien radiations".

Despite Romero saying continuously the fact Ben was cast as a black man being a pure coincidence, one can't ignore the film featuring an African-American in a lead role right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s. I'm pretty sure he knew perfectly well what he was doing at the time. It makes the film still relevant to this day and helps sell its believability.

The zombies also shown here are no running creatures like we get so often these days. They're clearly dead bodies, rigor mortis and all. It helps make them more frightening, because all is kept pretty simple and real, thanks to the limited low budget.

Romero was a pioneer, who would get to show all of his talent with the next two sequels.

Night wasn't actually the first zombie film ever made, per say. But if anything it changed the entire concept how the world would view zombies. It's a milestone in horror movie history.

Finally the music was composed by William Loose, using some stock recordings from Fred Steiner. The soundtrack is composed of musical score recycled from The Hideous Sun Demon (1959), the film itself being as well also in the public domain.

Night of the Living Dead went on making over $12 million USD domestically. As you can see, it was a pretty huge success, solidifying its cult classic status.

At time the film was heavily criticized for its graphic visuals, there had been nothing like that back then. So of course it got censored in a lot of places. And it's only now the film was finally considered "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant." by the Library of Congress.

It was a huge success with teenagers, like most horror films back then. But its success went above and beyond all this. This was something really different from anything that had came before. Sure, it gained lots of controversies at the time. Some saying Night was the first real most profitable horror film ever produced, and all that not even thanks to any major film studio! 

Now, onto the issue between Romero & co, and their distributors.

Thing is, nobody ever expected it to be such a success. That is why it is now completely free, available to anyone in the public domain. All due to the poor job their distributor did at the time. Their original theatrical distributor, the Walter Reade Organization, never bothered do any copyright, and why would they? I mean this was just some small indie film with barely no budget and in black and white of all things. And because of all this, the film was never truly owned by anyone, why and where most issues would rise between the original Night of the Living Dead creators. And also why all kinds and sorts of publisher were able to distribute the film over the years, on all sorts of home releases from VHS to DVDs. The film is also availabe for free to download through many legal places all over the internet, be it the Internet Archive, Hulu and even YouTube, etc. Heck, you can even watch it for free from Wikipedia!

There's been several film series span from the original Night of the Living Dead.

First and foremost, there's the "principal" ones being George Romero's "Of the Dead" franchise, all only directed by George Romero himself. Starting with Dawn of the Dead, followed by Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and finally Survival of the Dead. While those are not direct sequels, story-wise or character-wise, they do follow the same kind of evolution of this zombie plague, the same overall structure and really seem to be following each film from the same interpretation of a zombie plague taking place in the world. It's about the evolution of zombies as an infection spread through humanity, all adapted to different kinds of social messages and different periods, but the only constant is really the evolution of the zombie.

Meanwhile John Russo went on to offer his own follow-up, and interpretation of Night the same year Day of the Dead was released, with his own sequel titled The Return of the Living Dead. Return of the Living Dead would then follow its own continuity, independent from the original Night of the Living Dead. While the first "Living Dead" film started in a tone closer to horror comedy, more of a parody compared to Romero's satirical realistic approach, it would go one having its own four sequels each darker and darker, and more serious over the time (and also cheaper, and weaker as time went on).

Finally there's also been all kinds of remakes, unofficial or, sequels and prequels. And just plain homages, tributes inspired by the original film Night of the Living Dead. Entire spin-off series have been "inspired" by the original film. And I believe there's never been a truly successful good one since the most famous being the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, by special effects artist Tom Savini, and based on the original screenplay. It didn't detract much from the film, only expanding around its core concept, mostly increasing the quality of the special effects and the gore. And that one also turned Barbra into a more effective heroine for the plot.

Overall, Night of the Living Dead is easily one of the greatest horror films, but also one of the best most ambitious and impressive independent films ever made.

So perfect in its simplicity. It's the movie that started it all. The entire zombie phenomenon as we know it. You can even see how big an impact it left, countless zombies films are made each year (... mostly for the worse), and the zombies can now be found as common enemies encounter in video games in so many games.

Great performance from a solid simple modest and small cast. An intense pacing and story. Culturally, an important milestone since it features one of the first African-American lead roles in a movie right along the Civil Rights Movement.

It has now been over 50 years later and the original film is still very enjoyable. A great success that would influence the entire horror genre (from exploitation films to splatter flicks from the 80s), and even spawn its own sub-genre of "zombie films". The term "zombie" itself now a popular and well known word. Despite never being used in the film itself, it would from now on define these re-animated flesh eating undead creatures! Prior to Night, the only kind of "zombie" there was was only associated with the Voodoo-possessed reanimated bodies, entirely different things. And now there's a whole new sub-culture around the Romero's zombies. It inspired countless films, from simple imitations to all-new original concepts, fake-sequels or simple successors, be it on film. comic books or even video games (where for some reason most zombies can be find these days, for some reason..? I guess it's okay to portray the death of zombies over actual human beings.). And all these rules where established here, by Romero.

It's a must watch for any zombie or simply horror fan out there. Highly Recommended, a timeless classic.

Romero would go on to direct not only its sequels but also many more cult classics he produced during his career such as Season of the Witch (1972), The Crazies (1973) or even Creepshow (1982), and it all started here.

The film was colorized for  the first time in the 1980s. Since then there's been several more attempts by different companies over the years. To some success, more or less. But I don't really recommend those butchered versions of the film.

There also was a relatively "new" modern cut of the film. Since there's never been any copyright on the film and anyone could essential cash in on title of the film to produce a "sequel" of their own or re-release the film, co-writer John A. Russo thought playing with the original footage was the only way to get the rights back. In 1999 he produced a new version of the film, a new cut of film with a few new stories intercut along the original film. New content without the consent of Romero, to claim the film as his own. This new version was titled Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition. The original film was paced differently, newly re-edited, helmed together by new additional scenes and a new recoreded soundtrack composed by Scott Vladimir Licina, giving the film a more modern pace. This cut was itself followed by its own "original" sequel, titled Children of the Living Dead which followed in 2001.

Besides remakes, there also was two attempts at an animated re-interpretation of the original film, a first one in 2010, Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated, and another unrelated version this year in 2014, Night of the Living Dead: Origins 3D. Both featuring an impressive voice cast of horror veteran actors.

I give it:
2.5 / 3 Necronomicons!

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