It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Fears come back from the dead and walk in the day. Goths thrive at midnight showings of “Rocky Horror” and vandals throw eggs at houses. And the Film Beat? We’re popping popcorn and crawling under blankets to watch some of our favorite scary (or just vaguely spooky) films. ’Tis the season for tricks and treats — whether we’re jumping in our skins or howling at the moon. Join us as we walk through films that remind us of the dark night of Halloween.
Before I watched it for the first time last week, George A. Romero’s (“Iron City Asskickers”) “Night of the Living Dead” loomed large as the only horror movie that had ever scared my dad. This was a great accomplishment, because for most of my childhood, I thought he wasn’t afraid of anything. When it came to horror movies, my dad told me two things: First, most of them weren’t very good, and second, they rarely scared him.
“Night of the Living Dead” did scare him, though. He told my sister and me about the first time he saw part of it as a kid, when his older brother won tickets to see it in a theater. They got so scared before the end of the initial scene in the graveyard that they had to leave.
With all of this build-up, I was practically expecting to inflict life-long trauma onto myself when I decided to finally watch the film. I enlisted my friends to watch it with me. I considered whether watching it would be one of the choices I would look back on weeks later with regret.
To say the least, I was surprised. The movie follows Barbara (Judith O’Dea, “Night of the Living Dead: Genesis”) after she and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner, “The Majorettes”) are attacked by a zombie in a graveyard. Only Barbara escapes. The graveyard scene, which drove my supposedly fearless father and his brother from the theater, takes place in broad daylight. When the first zombie approaches Barbara, we see it walk up behind her with no attempt at a jump scare.
The majority of the story takes place inside a farmhouse where Barbara finds temporary safety with Ben (Duane Jones, “Fright House”), family of three Harry (Karl Hardman, “Santa Claws”), Helen (Marilyn Eastman, “Santa Claws”) and Karen (Kyra Schon, “Iron City Asskickers”) and another couple. Tension builds as an army of zombies approaches the house. More conflicts develop between the characters, specifically Ben and Harry.
After almost 19 years of avoidance, “Night of the Living Dead” did not scare me. My friends were laughing throughout the graveyard scene, and I was not sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. However, while it let me down in this regard, it didn’t disappoint me. Despite its inability to put me in a lingering state of confusion and unease, something modern horror movies tend to succeed at, the film does have some truly unnerving scenes. In one moment, Karen kills her mother Helen with a trowel; at the end, Barbara and Johnny embrace, resulting in Barbara being killed because Johnny is a zombie. These scenes, especially the latter, are more disturbing for their emotional impact than for any gore.
The movie is disturbing for the same reasons that it isn’t scary in a traditional sense. Everything happens slowly: There are no jump scares, and nothing is especially graphic. Even the zombies look like people who you might avoid on the street, but nothing that would make you run for the hills. This slowness that infects every scene until the climax creates the movie’s tone, one less of suspense and more of dread and unease. The nearly square aspect ratio, canted angles, use of shadows and beautiful framing all contribute to a feeling of being trapped.
Even the murder scenes happen slowly. This is disturbing in its own right, if not in the way of traditional horror. Seeing how long it would actually take to kill someone with a crowbar to the skull is not as shocking as having it happen quickly, but it is undeniably eerie and presents a feeling of realism, which characterizes the entire film. While certain plot points feel comical, they could also be seen as realistic to the situation. My friends and I laughed at Barbara for her bizarre actions, but then again, of course she was having a breakdown — if I were assaulted by a dead person and lost my brother in the same afternoon, I would not be acting like myself either.
I appreciate the film not only on a cinematographic level but also for having a contained and understandable storyline that is never sacrificed for the sake of scaring the audience. Tension builds throughout the story with the imminent need to either get out or be killed, as well as from relationships between the characters within the house. Beyond that, I appreciate the movie for connecting to the outside world, if only slightly. Rather than highlight the supernatural parts of the plot, the story focuses mainly on human connections and emotions. Barbara’s desire to find Johnny despite the danger of going outside is more affecting than any scenes with the zombies. The growing hostility between Ben and Harry kept me at least as invested as the imminent danger from outside the farmhouse. The ambiguous ending and racial subtext give the film a connection to an issue outside of itself, something I feel many horror movies lack.
Regardless of any personal connections you may have to the film, there is a nostalgia inherent to its black-and-white, no longer terrifying scenes. It is more fun than it is scary, depressing or traumatizing — since watching it, I have become convinced that if anyone from the ’60s saw a horror movie made today it would cause irreversible psychological damage.
As much as it failed to meet my expectations, “Night of the Living Dead” has earned its place among the films I plan to return to. At the very least, it is worth rewatching to consider why Barbara doesn’t just keep driving at the beginning and avoid this whole mess. Personally, it will always remind me of my dad, the scary stories he used to tell and hearing him say, “Let’s go into the graveyard” in his spookiest voice when my sister or I brought up the movie. Having watched it for the first time near the beginning of college, it will serve as a reminder of my family on Halloweens to come.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.