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Night of the Living Dead
Bar Harbor
kestrell has just introduced me to another classic horror movie that I had never seen before: George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead. Again, spoilers follow:

For a low-budget gorefest, this movie has a lot of thematic depth. It's situated directly between what I think of as the two main categories of horror movie: those in which the monster is defeated and the normal order of society is restored, and those in which the monster wins.

At the end of the film, the forces of order appear to be prevailing against the zombie threat, and are confidently restoring order, which would tend to be indicative of a Type A ending. But these soldiers and cops are very different from the ordinary people we've spent most of the movie with, all of whom are dead, which indicates a Type B ending.

Indeed, the one protagonist who survives the zombie assault is casually killed by the soldiers, who cannot be bothered to distinguish between zombies and civilians. The soldiers lift his body onto a bonfire using meathooks; like the zombies, they treat people merely as meat, just like the zombies do. Perhaps this echoes feelings over Vietnam; it eerily prefigures the Kent State Massacre two years later.

Throughout the movie, there is this identification of the forces of order with the zombie menace. For one thing, the zombie plague appears to have been caused by a NASA probe returning to earth -- a modernized version of the Frankenstein trope that portrays Science as a Pandora's Box. Over the radio (and later television), we see politicians, generals, scientists, and the media, all flailing about helplessly, with little or no useful information to offer. When the forces of order appear to offer protection -- by advising people to leave their homes and travel to centralized, protected areas -- the effect we *see* is that our protagonists overextend themselves in the effort, getting two of them killed. Although the original social order is restored (Type A), that order remains inherently corrupt and the souce of further monstrosities (Type B).

I think this film marks a turning point between the time when almost all 'horror' films were Type A, and when Type B endings became more generally acceptable.

One gets the impression that, somewhere else in the world, simultaneous with these events, there is a more old-fashioned horror movie happening, with a square-jawed WASP college football hero wooing the scientist's lovely daughter, and discovering a way to defeat the zombie menace once and for all. But we don't see that story; we see a much more ground-level story, in which a courageous working-class black man does all that he can to survive and to protect those around him, ultimately to no avail. Class and race issues are never made explicit, but are implicit in the film's placement in its genre.

Despite being the direct progenitor of the modern zombie movie, the word "zombie" is never actually used. At first, the media just refers to them as "murderers"; later, when it becomes clear that they have risen from the dead and are feasting on human flesh, they start using the word "ghoul".

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Interesting stuff to think about, there.

I heard a radio commentator state her opinion that Night of the Living Dead was also the seminal bridge between the 1950s monster movies and the gore-filled slasher movies of the 70s and 80s. She also mentioned that while race issues are not directly addressed, they are so firmly in the subtext that in its own way it was a more powerful expression for tolerance than most dramas of the late 1960s.

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