Why NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD Was the First Film That Ever Terrified Me
Sometimes our understanding of a particular film simply has to be autobiographical. That’s not something to apologize for. Sometimes there’s really no way around it, and that’s wonderful, because it can deepen our appreciation and understanding of the work at hand. I genuinely believe that people who don’t watch The Breakfast Club as teenagers might never truly grasp its emotional pull, and I kind of feel sorry for those people. Likewise, there’s something very special about seeing Star Wars as a very young child, when you’re awash with the wonder of it all. Very often – indeed, more often than some of us film writers would like to admit – when we see a movie often matters most of all.
I would argue that this phenomenon finds its purest form in the horror genre. The things that scare us change and shift as we age, as we move, as we find new things to be worried about. I’ve never seen the home invasion film The Strangers, and I might never see it, because these days I harbor a particular fear of madmen bursting into my house and robbing me of any sense of security, even if there’s no evidence to suggest that such a thing might happen to me. I’m the sort of person who hears a relatively innocuous noise somewhere in his house and then spends the rest of the night getting absolutely no sleep, so a movie that bolsters those fears might be a little too much for me.
I’m telling you this because, perhaps selfishly, perhaps out of a need to confess, perhaps just because I like putting words on the page, I want you to understand that I truly believe that context and location and emotional state matter when you see a horror film. That the kind of person you are, the kind of person you were raised to be, the kind of environment you live in when you first see any particular horror film can make all the difference in determining whether it really terrifies you or not. So, with that in mind, if you’d care to indulge me, here’s my scary movie background.
I think the first film that ever scared me (beyond the simple startles of films like, say, Disney’s Beauty & the Beast) was the James Bond film Live and Let Die. The Voodo0-tinged weirdness of it, the snakes, the man who could cut off your fingers with a snap of his claw hand, all of that really got to me as a young kid who was just discovering such elements of villainy. From there I progressed to being scared of things in Indiana Jones movie, from the crypt full of skeletons in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the man who literally ripped someone’s heart out of their chest in Temple of Doom. These might seem like child’s play compared to “actual” horror films, but keep in mind that I was young and living in a household that was somewhat sheltered from such things. A bit later, though, I grew up, got a car, and suddenly I could rent and buy my own movies.
Hoping to make up for whatever time I’d lost, I went on a horror binge. I saw every entry in the great slasher franchises, I gobbled up the classic Universal monster movies, I watched The Exorcist. It was great fun for a formerly sheltered teenager to suddenly and completely become so in touch with his dark side, but somehow none of those films really brought out the terror for me. They had their scares, but they didn’t dig deep down into my brain and stay there overnight, crawling around the inside of my skull and denying me sleep with their spidery taps on the backs of my eyes.
Then came Night of the Living Dead.
It might seem strange that I call this the first film that ever truly terrified me, especially when I came of age at a time when many far more gruesome and intense horror films had already been produced, but Night of the Living Dead didn’t just terrify me because of its craft. It’s a horror masterpiece to be sure, but my reasons for having been terrified by it are almost purely autobiographical.
I’m a country boy, you see. I grew up on a gravel road with nothing but a cow pasture on the other side of it, and nothing but another cow pasture and a forest of oak trees behind me. The nearest place to buy groceries was a 15-minute drive. The nearest shopping mall or movie theater was 45 minutes. I mention all this not to pain for you a picture of a Podunk, boring-as-hell lifestyle. I quite enjoyed my years in the country. No, I’m telling you this because you need to know how isolated I was. You need to know that I was living in a different world, a world very similar to the one Night of the Living Dead portrays.
The opening shot of Night is a simply static camera watching a lone car wind its way up a deserted road. The film’s opening minutes are quiet, basic, and extremely isolate. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) are quite literally the only living souls we see for several minutes, as they wander through a graveyard and spot – unbeknownst to either of them – the film’s first zombie. Out here, they are alone with the dead.
When Barbra finally does find another living soul in the form of Ben (Duane Jones), it is in an apparently deserted farmhouse that is so far from civilization that the farmer felt the need to install his own gas pump on the property. This, plus Johnny’s earlier mention of how long their drive out to the cemetery was, plus the constrictive quiet as Ben boards up the farmhouse’s doors and windows, drives home even more the sense that Ben and Barbra are truly alone out here. Then, the dead come marching in.
Now, I’m not so naïve as to be unable to admit that there are some logical problems with the film as the action really picks up. We soon discover, after all, that while Barbra and Ben were upstairs, five more people were huddled in the basement the entire time. We also find that apparently every zombie in the tri-state area found their way out to this isolated patch of land rather than being drawn to the noise and chaos of nearby towns. Think about it too much and the strings that hold it together start to fray, to be sure, but as a viewer I never really cared much about that, because when those zombie started surrounding that house, brothers and sisters, this fearless young horror consumer was terrified into sleeplessness.
And I know zombies aren’t real (yet), and I know it’s a black and white film made in the ‘60s and the zombie effects don’t begin to compare to the things people like Greg Nicotero are doing now, and even the illogical horrified voice in my head knows that the events of the film are taking place in rural Pennsylvania several decades in the past while I am safely in rural Texas in the present. I know all of that. And yet I’m terrified. Why?
Because darkness is different in the country.
I know this because I’ve spent the last five and a half years of my life living in cities. The most complete darkness I’ve ever experienced in my life was experienced in a city, when Hurricane Ike blew through in late 2008 and knocked out power for several days. That darkness, in the middle of the night when everyone had blown out their candles, was thick and impermeable and permanent, but it was not mysterious. It was simple, unadorned dark, the kind that only a place like a city – where there’s always something glowing somewhere – can really experience.
Country dark, though, is different, as anyone who’s been camping in a truly isolated place will tell you. Even on moonless nights, the dark has a kind of aura, a kind of life. I swear I’m not making this up. Even when there’s no discernible light source you feel like the darkness is somehow alive. It’s unsettling, but you get used to it, and after a while it becomes sort of majestic.
The purest form of country dark, though, and the one that matters the most in relation to Night of the Living Dead, is what I call the porch light halo. It’s a thing you can’t really experience in the city, because the next house over or the next street light over or the next skyscraper over is always glowing at you. At my parents’ house, though, you can switch on the back porch light, walk outside, and see the small halo of halogen glow provided by the porch light be suddenly devoured at its edge by a powerful darkness. It’s actually a kind of beautiful thing to see on a cool autumn night, but the real scary part comes when the high grass in the pasture starts to hiss at you, and the trees beyond start to rustle, and you hear something crunching down on leaves or twigs and you realize that, while there are several entirely likely explanations, you actually have no idea what’s out there in the dark, possibly looking back at you at that very moment…
And so, with all that in my head, stuck there from years of living in the country dark, I watched as a horde of hungry zombies came out of the trees and shambled toward Night of the Living Dead’s farmhouse, watched as they emerged from the darkness and into that porch light halo, watched as they moved closer and closer to the windows, while the darkness beyond hid just how many there really were, and then they started reaching in, and I realized I couldn’t sleep that night until the country dark had given way to sunrise.
So, for all of George A. Romero’s social commentary, for all of the shock value the film packs, for all of the terror that comes from the zombie girl in the basement, the thing that really got to me about Night of the Living Dead, the thing that gets me still, was the flawless way Romero used the darkness of the country to create a suffocating sense of encroaching doom for me. That feeling haunts me like no other film I’ve experienced. It haunted me as I re-watched the film to write this piece, even though I now live in a major city far away from the country dark. It haunts me because it was a perfect use of an eerie environment to generate fear on a shoestring budget. It’s great filmmaking, and I’m still feeling the after effects, still thinking of those hands reaching out of the dark.