Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Night of the Night of the Living Dead


The first zombies I ever encountered were possibly many people’s cherry poppers, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. What is a touch unusual perhaps is where I saw it.

Washington College Academy had their newish gym and pool facility that’s I‘ve mentioned before I had to spend inordinate amounts of time in both for gym class and for slaving away working off the dept of my tuition, a debt frankly I should not have been accountable for since both my parents worked for the school running the kitchen. What cheap skate establishment can’t comp student fees for employees? Not Washington College Academy, that’s for sure. I believe on paper my parents occupied a single staff position as well, a strange interpretation of the unity of marriage, that’s for sure.

So outside of class and cleaning/ maintenance duties, I spent a lot of time in the upper parts of that building for social functions. Dances were a big one, though awkward as you might expect, since there were only a hundred something students in the school, and half of them were from out of town, so any other new blood attending the dances were either related to a student that lived locally, or to someone on the staff of the school. What I did learn very quickly were the importance of songs like “Hotel California” that last forever and don’t require dancing skills beyond the ability to grapple, sway, and shuffle in a vague circular motion.

Alternatively to the dances / cop-a-feel-a-thons, there were also movie nights arranged by the student council, a blonde haired blue eyed all star Ivy League pedigree clique cluster reminiscent of the jocks or popular people from your average teenage sports drama like the sorts John Hughes directed or John Cusack showed up in a lot. And one of those movie nights, the first one my folks let me attend actually, began with a forgettable until you find yourself alone on a trail on Whistler movie called Grizzly and ended with the game changer called Night of the Living Dead

A couple of things make this double bill noteworthy. First, that the films cost money to see, raising funds for something or other, and breaking the laws for non-commercial viewing the FBI legal warnings at the start of the VHS tapes are about, right after those ones about not making copies. Judging from the quality of the films, I'm pretty sure both were second generation duplicates, which really only served to make Grizzly feel more authentic, like NIN's faux-bootleg Broken video. Second, the films were both intended for audiences over 18, and while everybody knows the real target audience for horror films rated R is 16, I'm pretty sure 7th graders were too young for the R rated market in the early 80's. Now, they're still to young, but the content is available to them anyway. Smile, hold out hands as though handing someone a birthday cake or tray of mewling kittens, and say, "May I introduce you to the internet." 

The final, and biggest thing to make this line up strange is that Washington College Academy had a very Christian-centric agenda, with daily all hands announcements in the auditoriums that began and ended with hymns getting sung, with Sunday services for any kids living on campus, and with Bible bits constantly popping up in various aspects of annual fund raising / for profit school functions, like the Christmas Dinners and the mid-spring BBQ. Nothing southern folk like more than a big BBQ social. Posts for other days. The take away is that this pious Christian leaning school allowed Friday night double features of Rated R horror films. And I'm so glad they did, just as I appreciate that they allowed the students to perform Thurber's Carnival in the same auditorium we sang hymns like "The Morning Has Broken" every weekday. 

True, overall there are a couple later zombie flicks I like more, yet they wouldn’t have happened to hit the screen without this precedent setting picture. Night of the Living Dead is brilliant for a lot of reasons. Part Lifeboat, part stage play, and part character piece, the zombies were chiefly a shocking backdrop, a condition like a typhoon or earthquake, that a group of people throw together had to contend with when none of them had any expertise as to how. Romero enhanced all that with less than subtle social commentary about racism, an extremely bold angle to approach on the backside of race riots and MLK speeches still vivid in the mind’s eye of the viewing public, and still relevant to a room full of naive kids when they happen to be living in the still stilted South in the early 80s.

When the end of the film comes and the hicks posse marches up to save the day and mistakes our black protagonist for a zombie and shoots him, the metaphor read through even for me at that young of an age. Perhaps because I’d been bullied, or because I’d grown up seeing passive segregation all around me. The mob mentality demonstrated in the film, coupled with the wholesale gleeful slaughter of zombies, including lynching, taunting, and abusing them before putting them down, left me feeling unsettled, nervous, and full of questions. Of course flesh eating zombies were scary, however as a metaphor for anyone different or outsiders, they became victims. Inversely, as a metaphor for Communism, or Fascism, or religious zealotry / cults, they become far more sinister, especially as stragglers turn into groups, and their mobs outnumber the forces that fear and hate them. The richness of the simple little film is that it isn’t simple, and can’t easily be dismissed.

The subsequent zombie films I’ve enjoyed or thought well of have also been character pieces and left me with questions to consider. Sure, gore can be fun, and seeing a film chow through a cast until no one alive is left standing has some charm when you want mindless, primordial eye stimulation. However that sort of fluff is forgettable, flat, and doesn’t remotely measure up to the brilliance I find in Night of the Living Dead, or Return of the Living Dead, or the two very different versions of Dawn of the Dead, my preference actually being for the remake over the original for repeat viewing, despite the silly V baby scene.

Zombie fare worth watching / reading / consuming should have character development and social commentary / insights / questions. This is probably true for any horror fare really, and probably why I’m not a fan of torture porn or home invasion films. I like a few blocks off Vancouver’s worst strip, and have lived near the equivalent areas in Cincinnati and Columbus. I don’t need to see fictional extrapolations of the horrors and prospective evils of desperate predators, junkies, juvenile delinquents, or social malcontents. The mainstream and local news programs already mouth water over that tripe trope well enough, thanks.

Max Brooks wrote what feel could potentially make the finest filmic example of social commentary / experiment with World War Z, or at least the most sweepingly epic and global one.  I hope the film does the book justice. Until then, I believe for me, the ground Night of the Living Dead broke remains uncontested, or bested.

Also, what is with the remake Romero produced for Night of the Living Dead? The revisionist decision to make the rednecks shooting the black guy OK because in the remake the black guy has been bitten and turned into a zombie infuriated me, like Lucas having Greedo shoot first. WTF?

Games have a whole other potential for bringing Lifeboat scale societal questions to bear, though so far only the side quests saving survivors in the Dead Rising series seem to touch on that potential. Dead Island’s recent 10 minutes of gameplay appears to delve deeper into the idea, yet still seems to get sidetracked addressing gratuitous genre conventions about gore and action, which is fun to be sure, just not very deep. Makin choices about saving, exploiting, or abandoning people is where the real fun emotional and intellectual challenges come in, especially combined with resources management and allocation. Exciting stuff, and I look forward to playing through.

I would love to create a more grounded, Walking Dead sort of open world MMO zombie outbreak game, each persistent server a new outbreak with a new clock, when you die you migrate servers and begin a new account, or play on as a zombie, your choice. Of course, I also want to make an action MMO out of Stephen King’s The Stand, so you can guess what sorts of epic horizons my interests trail off towards.

By the way, if you have never seen the spoof of Night of the Living Dead called Night of the Living Bread by a Columbus filmmaker, look it up. It is awesome, especially seeing it during the 24 horror film marathon the Drexel theaters used to host, all that bread flying around the auditorium ample evidence of a tradition well established. 

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