Welcome to October of the Living Dead! In keeping with my tradition of devoting the spookiest month of the year to a film franchise–in 2020 it was October of the Corn and last year it was The Hellbound Halloween–this year I’m focusing on… Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead? Okay, sure. Those are closer to a top tier horror franchise than, say, any of the Children of the Corn films. And who knows, maybe by the end of this I’ll like zombies more! Probably not, but it could happen!
So first of all, I want to say what I’m not covering this month. Because the original Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, it has more spiritual sequels than actual ones including a plethora of reboots. Between the two “of the Living Dead” franchises, I didn’t have a lot of room to cover most of those unofficial films. So this isn’t 1990’s Night of the Living Dead, Night of the Living Dead 30th Anniversary Edition, or Night of the Living Dead 3D (or it’s sequel, Night of the Living Dead 3D: Re-Animation featuring Jeffrey Combs). I’m also not covering Night of the Animated Dead, Night of the Living Dead: Resurrection, or Night of the Living Dead: Darkest Dawn. Or most of the parodies, including Night of the Living Carrots. Honestly, all the films I skipped over could be their own event month. That sounds awful so I probably won’t do that, but still.
I’m also breaking with tradition a bit and not doing weekdaily posts this month. My day job still gives me very little free time to watch movies, so I’m pushing the limit doing this. The goal is to keep to a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, and I think I can manage that. Good? Good. Now on with the film.
Siblings Barbara (Mrs. Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Mr. Russel Streiner) are visiting their father’s grave amidst strange conditions. The radio was dead silent until they pulled up and they ignored the breaking news, which will of course doom them. The pair are attacked by a ghoul (Bill Hinzman) who kills Johnny and chases after Barbara. Remember that name, cause he’ll come up later this month. She hides out at a house whose previous owner has been eaten by the suddenly reanimated dead. The whole thing sends her into shock, which means she’s no real help when another survivor named Ben (Duane Jones)–the only person of color in the cast–shows up and starts barricading the place. Other survivors start popping up, including Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) who is a diiiiiiick… Through several failed attempts at either sneaking past the living dead or ensuring their current location is safe, people start dropping like flies. A couple dies when a truck explodes–a failure to gas up a getaway vehicle on every conceivable level–Cooper’s daughter turns after one of the creatures bit her and kills her mom, and Cooper’s continued antagonism against Ben forces the man to shoot him. Barbara gets swept away in a wave of ghouls, one of whom was her reanimated brother. In the end only Ben is alive, but exiting the house at the same time as local hunters are cleaning the area up sees him getting shot by a guy named Vince (Vincent Survinski). He’s another name to remember for later on.
Notice how I specifically avoided using the word “zombie?” That’s because in the original script the living dead were referred to as “ghouls” or “flesh eaters.” Zombie–more specifically “zombi”–comes from Haitian folklore and Vodou, a belief practice that movies has turned into a parody of itself. The original idea was a spellcaster called a bokor would reanimate a slave to keep them working, which served as a threat to their living slaves that they might not even escape their duty even in death. There’s actually an interesting possibly scientific explanation behind supposed real life stories of zombis, but that may be for another day. While Night of the Living Dead never used the term, the story of living dead and a black male lead had fans connecting the dots, and the term has stuck ever since.
There’s a lot of trivia I could go into on this movie, but I’m gonna end with my favorite. By all accounts, Duane Jones was an incredibly pleasant and likeable guy. The racial overtones–Cooper sure seems to disagree with anything the only black man says–were largely unintended as the role was a colorblind casting, but that doesn’t negate the vibes, especially during the Civil Rights movement. But there were apparently no hard feelings, and Jones and Hardman were apparently very good friends. Aww! You love to see it, especially since they had some great hate chemistry on screen.
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