After a presentation hiatus of over six years, Henry Alitto returned (from the dead?!?) to present at movie night once again. As is his wont, he started with a Looney Tunes short, in this case a little ditty called One Froggy Evening, which marks the debut of Michigan J. Frog.
You know the frog: “Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my rag-time gal!” See, he’s a singing, dancing frog, but he only sings and dances for the chump who found him in a time capsule during the demolition of a building. If anybody else is around, he goes into frog mode. Naturally this causes all sorts of distress for the poor schlep trying to profit off of a singing, dancing frog.
And then it was time for the real meat of the evening: George Romero‘s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead. While it wasn’t the first zombie movie (and in fact in the film the zombies are only referred to as “ghouls”), it is the first film to treat with reanimated cannibals as opposed to living beings under the possession of a Caribbean witch doctor.
Romero wastes no time getting his movie going. Siblings Johnny and Barbara have driven out to a remote cemetery to place some flowers on their father’s grave. Barbara is a bit creeped out, and Johnny taunts her about it. Oh, see that gaunt guy over there? He’s probably coming to get you! Boo!
Um, yeah. He was. He’s a bit clumsy because he’s dead, but he manages to kill Johnny by knocking him down so his head hits a tombstone, then he chases Barbara, who lacking the keys is coasting their car down the road. He’s pretty quick for a zombie – well, “ghoul” – but she eventually escapes to an apparently empty farmhouse before becoming essentially useless for the remainder of the film. She just doesn’t handle stress well.
Fortunately for the short term, the film’s hero Ben shows up shortly thereafter, his truck on the run from the ghouls and in need of gas, and he takes charge. Ben sets about boarding the place up and discouraging the ghouls with fire. He’s a survivor, this guy. He finds a gun and bullets in the closet and turns on a radio, whose special reports keep them updated on the rapidly unfolding zombie apocalypse. The official orders are to stay inside.
But it turns out that they aren’t alone in the house. There are five people – living people, for now – hiding out in the basement. There’s the Cooper family (Harry, Helen, and ghoul-bit daughter Karen) and sweethearts Tom and Judy. Harry and Ben spend quite a bit of time cattily arguing over what ought to be done – should they hide in the basement? Should they defend the first and second floors? At any rate, they find a television on the second floor and replace the radio with the more-informative TV reports.
It appears that some super-scientific “space radiation” is causing the reanimation of the recently deceased. So it’s not contagious through bites and the like (that’s the later, antibiotics-resistant version, I guess), but all you gotta do is die and in a few minutes somebody’s putting another quarter in the pinball machine for you. The only difference is that with that second ball you’re afraid of fire and enjoy eating human flesh. Oh, and by the way, the TV is now recommending that people make their way to shelters, while pointing out that law enforcement is definitely able to kill the ghouls.
Well, they’ve got a truck, and there’s a gas pump around back, but there’s a lock on it. They find a key they think is going to work, and Ben and Tom (and Judy, who unexpectedly tags along) make a run for it. When the key doesn’t work and the zombie horde is closing in, Ben shoots the lock off. You’d think this would work, but apparently it starts a gasoline spill which subsequently catches on fire and makes the truck explode, just like in the movies. Tom and Judy become ghoul BBQ, and Ben makes his way back to the farmhouse, now sans truck. He’s forced to break in, because Harry, who is a bit of a coward, has locked him out. So he shoots Harry in the gut. Seems logical, really. I mean, in time of crisis, anybody you can’t count on is just dead weight anyway.
Of course, there is the whole problem of the recently dead coming back as zombies, so maybe that wasn’t the best strategy. Gut shot, Harry retreats to the cellar…where his recently dead daughter finishes the job, and then starts eating him. Next to go is her mother Helen, who goes down to the cellar to find this horrifying scene only to be killed herself.
Upstairs, things are hardly going any better. The ghouls break in, the Johnny Zombie gets Barbara, and Ben retreats to the cellar, where he forces Zombie Karen out, then uses head shots to make short work of Harry and Helen as they reanimate. Then he waits out the night. The next morning, the citizen posses are making some headway and finally get to the boarded up farmhouse. They see Ben moving about inside and assuming he’s a ghoul, snipe him out. The end.
The “if the bad guys don’t get you the good guys will” fatalism is a bit heavy handed, but all in all, it’s hard to complain.
An interesting thing about Night of the Living Dead is that it was decidedly a “B movie”. It clearly had very little budget, inexpensive visual effects, and the script bore the hallmark elements of the terrible films routinely featured on MST3K. But despite this, it was a very good film. The story, simple as it was, was pretty solid, tension was built well, the visual effects were not only gruesome but generally believable, and outside of Tom the acting was quite good. It’s a testament to the surprising fact that B movies can in fact be good. I don’t know exactly what the secret is – why practically every B movie is utter dreck but Night of the Living Dead succeeded. One repeated refrain regarding B movies is that “they just didn’t care”, but I find it hard to believe that of the thousands of B movies coming out of the ’50s and ’60s that Romero and crew were among the few to “care”. But what combination it was that made this movie succeed where so many others failed, I have no idea.