George A. Romero has passed away. After a bout with lung cancer the legendary filmmaker is gone at age 77.
To look at the man’s film work, it’s hard not to pigeonhole him as a Horror director. But that’s not to say that Horror was all that Romero was good for. As the director himself said, there’s more to it than that: “I’m able to say exactly what I think. I’m able to talk about, comment about, take snapshots of what’s going on at the time. I don’t feel trapped. I feel this is my way of being able to express myself.”
Of course, social commentary and horror stories often go hand-in-bloody-hand, both literally and figuratively. And that’s what I’ve always appreciated about Night Of The Living Dead, Romero’s first feature film from 1968. It’s a story that at once creeps you out with fantastical undead monsters, but really disturbs you with the true horror that is often found within humanity itself.
Night Of The Living Dead, in my estimation, set a standard. It stands as an archetype of survivalist horror storytelling, and remains relevant as such to this day. Whenever you see a horror tale involving dynamic groups of people struggling to survive both monsters and each other, that’s Romero. To be honest, for all I know he probably took that general archetype from someone before him – everyone is influenced by someone or something. But when it comes to horror filmmaking, I believe the consensus is that Romero set that particular standard of people-vs-monsters-vs-people.
Beyond that Night Of The Living Dead is a strong, unique film. It establishes a simple world and premise and rolls on masterfully from there. After a while you start to realize where the true horror lies: different people with different minds. Everyone in this film just wants to survive the onslaught of the flesh-eating undead, but the true struggle is in how nobody can agree on how to do this. Their living nightmare sees no respite from the zombified hands pounding on the doors. When the threat doesn’t let up, cooler heads can’t prevail. And so the stronger heads must clash.
It’s a tale of trying to find sanity amidst chaos, only to create more chaos in the process. Is there futility in this? Does the film’s cold, not-quite-happy ending mean there’s no hope? Not if Romero is expressing social commentary. The specific topics are so varied – conformity, race, communism, left-vs-right, etc. But even in all that, that’s the point. Romero didn’t have to focus on one social issue. The audience would hopefully, to this day, come out thinking about something, on a level they’d likely have been pretty passive about. Or in denial over.
For me the biggest focal point is the combat between Ben and Cooper. Two very different men, with very different mindsets and one striking commonality: rage. Put in a corner by swarms of flesh-eating ghouls, each lashes out with their own power. But when each man’s power fires at different trajectories, they don’t see eye-to-eye. And how could they? There’s no time for diplomacy when the wolves aren’t simply at the door but pushing it down.
In moments like these the best one can hope for is some modicum of understanding, of simply listening to the other side, to the best of one’s abilities. There doesn’t have to be full-on agreement; there doesn’t have to be total political consensus. Ben and Cooper simply have to put their differences on hold long enough to throw their fists and bullets at the merciless enemy outside, not each other.
© 2017 Andrew Hall Writes