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Notes on "Night of the Living Dead" (1968)
In the “zombie movie,” zombies move slowly (or quickly, as the case may be) because they’re zombies. In Night of the Living Dead, they move slowly because they are dead flesh. This is the crucial thing. They’re “all messed up,” says the news. They fiddle with rubbery innards. Their fingers smear away like clay. They’re not even zombies, they’re “ghouls.” It’s not the first movie with zombies in it, but it’s the last movie without “zombie movies” in it. Even movies set sometime before cinema even existed, now, are movies set in a world where “zombie movies” exist. How could they not be? Knowledge is a virus, and it moves in four dimensions. You can never close the lid on the box, once it’s been opened. Night opened it. It’s the last movie in which the zombie can be mistaken for a man, and the last in which its slaughter can carry the weight of that misidentification. Barbara, before regressing into childlike catatonia, describes being attacked in the graveyard like an attempted rape.
Romero is like Murnau, in that he takes a thing he has not invented, and a thing, at that, which is nothing in itself – a superstition, a metaphor, a diversion for small minds – and places it under a light so bright and piercing that it appears as something wholly new and different, a sort of absolute, perfectly horrible distillation of itself whose refractions lodge like shards of glass in a million minds, spawning imitations like devotional objects, often beautiful but never so much as to eclipse their inspiration.
The first sign of the outbreak is a family annihilation, 7 dead at a ranch in the woods. The news calls it “an explosion of mass homicide.” This is the language. Mass murder does not really exist yet, in America. It’s only thinkable by proxy. The war hasn’t really come home. Night is one of the first films to tell us that it will. It will and we can’t stop it. The news in the film, for what it’s worth, is a patchwork of small stations pooling resources cooperatively to report broadly reliable information from authoritative sources. Basically, it seems to be trying in good faith to fulfill the civic function it’s supposed to. This is a better version of “the news” than anything we’re familiar with today, but it’s not enough. However accurate it might be, the reports are still baffling, incomprehensible, because the basic situation exceeds the limits of what the system is equipped to communicate, to even think. We feel we are on safe ground, until suddenly we’re not. We never were.
“The cellar is a death trap.” Everywhere is a death trap. Some just close more slowly than others. Something I had forgotten, something most people, I think, forget, is that the official explanation for the ghouls is radiation from Venus, carried back on a space probe. People forget this because it’s something of the old world, the world that’s dying. B-movie sci-fi stuff. The stuff of scientists in cardboard labs and aliens in silver paint. It doesn’t make sense anymore. What makes sense, in terms of explanation, is “the dead are coming back to life.” That’s it. Simple, blank, unfathomable. The will of God. Mass homicide. Dead flesh.
When Barbara tries to phone for help, early on, we see her lips move but no words come out, just the buzz of a dead connection. At the end, the reporter tells us, “Everything seems to be under control.” Then they kill the hero.
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