Movie MonDAVEs: Halloween Edition (Part Two)

It’s October again, friends. It’s the time of year when all movie geeks turn their attention towards the macabre and creepy. Here on MonDAVEs we will be doing the same thing, though perhaps in a different way.

This month I shall be focusing on some of my favorite independent horror/sci fi B movies from the early to mid 1960s. These are films that fall outside of the studio system, made by a ragtag bunch of hopefuls with limited funds and resources, but fueled by the desire to make their own movie. Sometimes the results are good, sometimes…not so much. I will give equal time to both. Join me as I discuss the stories behind the films, and the movies themselves. Then, by all means, watch them for yourself…if you dare.

Part Two: Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Last week I mentioned that one could pretty much draw a direct line between Carnival Of Souls and this movie. Not only do they have similarities behind the scenes, but on the screen as well. While I don’t know that the filmmakers of Night ever actually saw Souls, the resemblances are uncanny. If the intent however was to take the tropes of Carnival Of Souls and explode them into an all new (and better) thing, then mission accomplished. Now, let’s draw that line, and then we’ll discuss the film.

Stop me if this sounds familiar. Night Of The Living Dead was directed by George A. Romero, who worked as a director for Latent Image, a small company in Pittsburgh that made commercials. He co wrote the script with John Russo, and made the film with friends and colleagues from the business, local actors, and even some local townspeople, as they set about filming in rural Pennsylvania. Armed with a budget of $114,000, and 16mm black and white film, Romero and crew used their skills to make the most out of their limitations. Boy, did they ever.

Apart from their similar beginnings, both movies share similar tropes. Both films are shot in black and white. Both have a genuinely creepy atmosphere. Both movies are actually helped by not having anyone famous in the cast, and even their occasional amateurish moments somehow seem to help each film’s overall tone rather than hurt it. Both movies begin with a damsel in distress scenario, and feature a theme of alienation throughout, with a similarly bleak viewpoint. Finally, each film features ghouls (who look nearly identical, by the way) as their main antagonists.

That’s right, “ghouls”. While Night Of The Living Dead is widely considered the template for modern zombie movies, the word “zombie” is never used in the movie. That terminology came later. When Romero made his movie, zombies were still the product of Haitian folklore, and were brought to life by voodoo magic, mostly acting as slaves to the one who gave them life. In 1968, the main reference would have been the Bela Lugosi film White Zombie from 1932, which is still widely available but, fair warning, doesn’t play well here in 2022. As for how the creatures in Night went from “ghouls” or “things” to “zombies” I don’t have a clue.

Anyway. Clearly the initial images and ideas were all there for the taking, so much so that it has been stated that Carnival Of Souls is Night Of The Living Dead, only done five years earlier. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it certainly bears examination. In fact, I think the two films would make for a terrific double feature. The main difference, though is that while Herk Harvey’s film is an interesting, thoughtful, moody little film beloved by those who seek it, Romero’s film is a stone cold classic that redefined a genre, and still has influence on film makers today.

For those who may be unfamiliar (is anyone really?), Night Of The Living Dead is the story of a group of individuals who, through different circumstances, find themselves taking refuge in a farmhouse from a horde of flesh eating ghouls. As their plight becomes more and more precarious outside the farmhouse, tensions rise inside as well. The group must find a way to rely on their own cunning, strength, and sense of order and decorum to survive not only the attacking flesh eaters, but also one another.

That’s where the film really succeeds, in that it’s not just another horror movie. It could certainly be viewed through that lens if one desired. The tension amps up regularly throughout the movie as we wait to learn the fate of our heroes. The subject matter is grisly, and the filmmakers make sure we do not forget that. The gore level is fairly miniscule compared to today’s offerings, but it is handled here in a way that makes it very effective, especially in stark black and white. In fact, the black and white look and the decision to present most of the feature in real time makes the film feel almost like a documentary-one that you shouldn’t be watching. All these things line up together to make a harrowing night at the movies, and if that’s all you’re looking for, then there’s enough here to satisfy.

However, there’s so much more to this movie. You see, it’s not really about a zombie attack. I mean it is, but not totally. There are plenty of themes tackled within this story. This is a film about power and control. It’s about how we act as people when faced with extraordinary circumstances. It is a study, and an indictment, of the failings of late 60’s political and moral structure (which, let’s face it, is pretty similar to what we’re dealing with now) especially when it comes to the oppressed. Night also deals with the crumbling of the family unit. Most famously, it is also a movie about race relations, although accidentally.

The main protagonist in this story is a character called Ben, and he is an African American gentleman (played by the late Duane Jones) who finds himself in charge of what happens to the group, while being at loggerheads with the group itself. Interestingly enough, Ben’s character was written as Caucasian, it’s just that Jones was the best actor for the role, therefore he was cast. No racial commentary was intended at the time, but casting an African American hero, especially in 1968, gave the movie racial undertones all the same. Considering how the movie unfolds, it wound up bringing more power and chilling effect to the movie than it ever could have had otherwise.

These facets are all there, though not focused upon in the story. It is up to the viewer to consider the many layers and sub texts involved and figure out for themselves what it all means and what is really being said. One personal observation, though. Most horror movies, especially ones from this time period, offer solutions in the hope of normality. That is to say that the monster is killed (seemingly anyway) and the survivors can get back to their normal lives, normal in this case being the traditional, conservative, all-American “Mom, hot dogs, and apple pie” way of life. With the understanding of its subtext, Night Of The Living Dead posits that these things are all broken, and even if you survive the attacks there’s no normal to go back to. And that may be the most frightening thing of all.

Okay, so far in this series we have looked at B movies that, against the odds, have succeeded. One is a very good, over achieving think piece, and one a touchstone of both modern horror and pop culture at large. But what happens when things don’t go so right? We’ll examine that next week when we look at a film with a shady director, and a shag carpeted beast that is sure to induce nightmares for absolutely no-one. It’ll be fun. Join me, won’t you?

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