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Night Of The Living Dead
Poster by Tim Greaves
Text by Caryn Coleman
In 1968 two films were released that changed the landscape for cinema and ushered in the era of the post-modern horror film. The first is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (an adaptation of Ira Levon’s novel) in which a young New York woman is betrayed by her husband and neighbors into having Satan’s child. With its colorful characters, saturated landscape, and lush style, Rosemary’s Baby is in stark contrast to the gritty black-and-white reality expressed in the wholly original second film of 1968 - George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. Like Rosemary’s Baby, Night fundamentally questions our ability to trust other people, particularly those closest to us. Its expression of the utter collapse of society (because of an unexplained phenomena
that causes the dead to walk and because of the inherently violent nature of the living)
and its not-so-subtle socio-political representations, makes Night of the Living Dead
a devastating experience still today.
To write something new about Night of the Living Dead is nearly as unthinkable as watching the dead rise up from the grave. This isn’t because its relevance is relegated
to the past but rather frighteningly because the issues attacked in the film are still
very much a part of America’s cultural fabric. The antagonistic familial relationship as expressed between brother and sister (Barbara and Johnny: first in dealing with their dead father’s grave and then in dealing with their separation in life/death) and the nuclear family (in Night the young girl kills and eats her parents) are still familiar.
Of course, Night’s famously known for its shocking representation of racism through the main character Ben whose blackness is unaddressed throughout the film until the end where he is shot, killed, and burned by the redneck authorities. They may have mistaken him for a zombie but the visceral reaction to the news-footage style sequence at the film’s end – where Ben’s dead body is brutally carried by meat hooks – is a very painful visualization of America’s racism in the 1960s. Whereas then it was a representation
of that turbulent time, now it’s a challenge for our generation to process these
Pop-culturally, Night of the Living Dead marks the birth of the modern zombie.
Only a slew of “zombie” (Haitian Voodoo zombies) films existed before and although interesting correlations can be drawn between pre- and post- Romero zombie cinema (mainly in their cultural reflections), it’s undeniable that Romero constructed the near unbreakable collective notion of the zombie narrative. Now, it’s imperative to re-think
the zombie in order to establish contemporary allegories however, at the same time, it’s crucial to revisit Night of the Living Dead (and the rest in Romero’s “Dead” series)
not only as a reminder of what innovative filmmaking can produce but also as
a reminder of cinema’s power to painfully confront life as we know it.
Caryn Coleman is a curator and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She currently works in the Programming Department at Nitehawk Cinema and is the Curator for the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts’ Art & Law Residency. She is the co-editor of the bi-annual journal Incognitum Hactenus and writes the blog on horror and contemporary art The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Recent projects include the artist film screenings The Art of Fear and Sparkmarker. Upcoming exhibitions include On the Desperate Edge of Now at the Dumbo Arts Center (February 2013), Empty Distances at Mark Moore Gallery
(June 2013) and Contagious Allegories: horror cinema and contemporary art
in Los Angeles.
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