Tuesday, 11 January 2011

#1 Night of the Living Dead: And the drinking game rules

Okay, first things first: SPOILER ALERT. I’m going to spoil the heck out of this film. The plot, how it ends, who dies and when, everything. Then, just to show I’m not fucking around, I’m going to spoil the endings of Citizen Kane, and the classic Real Ghostbusters cartoon “Ghostbuster of the Year”.

Read on at your own risk.

It’s pretty hard to say anything about Night of the Living Dead that hasn’t already been said. That’s what happens when a film kicks off a whole genre. But just take a second to realise how different the world would be without this movie.

Without this movie, Plants Vs Zombies would be a garden simulator, Rob Zombie would probably be called Rob Vampire or something, and the modern classic, Zombieland, would look like this:
It's a dark and terrifying world
 There were zombie films before Night of the Living Dead, sure, but without that one movie, the zombie would be at best a C-list monster, maybe on a par with Egyptian mummies in our nightmares. That’s right: The only zombie films of the last fifteen years would have featured only one zombie, fighting Brendon Fraser.

But let’s forget for a moment this film's many, many imitators and to focus on what made this film so spectacular. Firstly, it’s a very small film. It’s a film about a zombie apocalypse (admittedly, a rather small one that only covers the “eastern third” of the United States) and it’s implied through TV and Radio broadcasts that somewhere President Bill Pullman is arguing with a gruff army chief and Professor Jeff Goldblum over the best way to combat the uprising, but we don’t get to see that.

Instead, we see the disaster from perspective of a few ordinary people trying to get by. If this was a movie about the Battle of Britain the characters wouldn’t be pilots, they’d be on the ground, hiding in shelters and listening to the noise outside, without really a clue what was happening. We don’t see the Venus space probe crash, spreading zombie radiation all over the place. The first we hear that something’s wrong is a report on the radio- that is promptly turned off because Barbra and Johnny have things to do.

This is a film about ordinary people becoming killers. The make-up on the zombies occasionally gives them flaky looking skin, or the occasional injury, but on the whole a mob of the zombies in this film looks like a mob of pretty much anyone else. They’re scary because they look like us.
Not like this
But the zombies (Should I call them ghouls? Nah, screw it. They’re zombies) aren’t the only people who turn into killers. At the start of the film, it’s safe to say none of the characters seem to come from a military background, or have any kind of violent past. Yet soon they’re shooting, lobbing Molotov cocktails and bludgeoning the zombies (and occasionally one another) to death.

If you’ve come to zombie films through ploughing through the hordes in Left 4 Dead, or watching the slapstick violence of Zombieland, the violence in this film might actually shock you. The first time we see Ben kill a zombie, it’s not a swift blow to the head to destroy the brain. Instead he sits atop the zombie going at it repeatedly with a tire iron, and it looks like hard work. The next zombie he kills, we see him actually struggling to pull the tire iron out his victim’s skull when the job is done. There are no quick videogame deaths in the movie. When Helen is attacked by her zombie daughter, stabbed to death with a cement trowel, George Romero thinks “Why not linger here a while?” and the stabbing goes on for an age, with Helen’s screams heard throughout.

And at the end of the day, the zombies are not the biggest threat in this movie. They’re an excuse plot, a reason to lock up these people together. Most of the deaths in this film are entirely avoidable (particularly Tom and Judy who, let’s face it, die in what looks like a freak gasoline fight accident) but are brought about because Ben and Harry can’t decide who gets to play alpha male.

Of this films many, many rip-offs and imitators, the most successful clue into that element of the film. The most successful zombie films are all variations on the “characters stuck in a lift” formula, with the lift replaced with any building surrounded by zombies. The reason the dead rise is something you only have to give lip service to. The hope of humanity against the rising horde is irrelevant (although it has to be said, out of all the zombie films, Night of the Living Dead probably gives humanity the best odds by the time the credits roll). It’s all about putting people who hate each other in a situation where they have to work together.

Now, I promised you some drinking game rules yesterday, so here they are. For future blogs, please following the drinking instructions every time one of these is the case, because nothing says “Good Times!” like drinking alone while you read something on the Internet. For the record, for Night of the Living Dead you have to drink for each and every one of these:
Do the characters spend most of the story under siege in some manner of building? (One shot)
Are the people coming to rescue you incompetent (One shot) or more dangerous than the zombies? (One shot)
Is mankind the real monster? (One shot)
Has anybody said “They’re coming to get you Barbra!” (Two shots)
Are the zombies walking dead (One Shot) who move slowly (One shot) and can only be killed by destroying the brain? (Head shot)
Kiddy zombies? (Two shots)
Do the dead rise regardless of whether they were “infected”? (Two shots)

Finally, in both Citizen Kane and the Real Ghostbusters cartoon “Ghostbuster of the Year” it turned out at the end that Rosebud was the name of his sledge.

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