Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sign of the Times: Violent Imagery and Romero's Night of the Living Dead

       The first film that we covered in the Zombie Fictions class that I am co-teaching at Buff State was Night of the Living Dead (obviously). As I mentioned in the my post on Zombieland  a few days ago, we thought it was important for me to try to model the type of readings that could be made of the films we are covering. I've decided to share these model blogs here as well. Their assignment was as follows (my class blog starts after the awesome dead face).
"For your first movie blog, you will be looking at George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. As we transition into 'reading' film as text, it is important to consider those elements of film that most obviously differentiate movies from literary texts. For this blog, then, you should pay careful attention to the visual elements of Romero's horror classic: i.e. lighting, camera work (angles, movement), editing, costume, setting, acting performances, casting, special effects, etc. You do not need to analyze all of these elements - indeed, I would encourage you not to attempt to include all of them - but instead should focus on one (or two) visual aspect and use it to make an informed reading of the film."
     In many ways, modern cinematic horror owes its existence (as we know it) to three films: The Texas Chainsaw MassacreNight of the Living Dead, and Psycho. Though these films are all drastically different from one another in both tone and subject matter, they exhibit a clear progression in the ever shifting boundary between acceptability and indecency, when it comes to portrayals of violence on film. Situated perfectly between the horrific implication of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the in-your-face brutality of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead initiates the transition from horror by hinting to horror by showing. Given that Night was released in 1968, however, one of the more tumultuous years in U.S. history, perhaps such an evolution in horror’s imagery shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Although it might be a stretch to claim that Romero was explicitly responding to the violent images that had grown so prevalent in the news of the late sixties, both on television and in print, it’s clear that Night of the Living Dead reflects a certain loss of innocence in the public consciousness.
     Prior to the release of Romero’s horror classic (indeed, the film transcends horror and is now widely recognized as a classic of American cinema; it was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1999, for preservation in the Library of Congress), the most frightening scene in American horror was unquestionably the infamous shower scene from Psycho. Take a look:

While this scene has stood the test of time and still has people trying to wash their hair with their eyes open, despite its entire lack of the gore and special effects (does chocolate syrup count as special effects?) that horror audiences have grown accustomed to, the scene is a far cry from the explicit nature of the gore and viscera depicted in Night of the Living Dead. Where Hitchcock relied heavily on editing and “cuts,” forcing the viewer to fill in the gaps with their imaginations, Romero’s camera doesn’t always look away. The audience is allowed, even invited, to watch the awful that is unfolding. If they dare.

Obviously, these scenes are a little tame when viewed alongside the carnage so gleefully depicted in modern horror, or even the splatterfest Romero himself produced just ten years later in Dawn of the Dead. It’s important to acknowledge, though, how shockingly distinct Night of the Living Dead was from anything that had been shown in American theatres up to that point. In fact, the imagery of the film was so disturbing that, instead of actually discussing the film, Roger Ebert focused almost entirely on the reactions of the audience in his 1969 review, and used it as an opportunity to push for movie rating reform. And yet, the movie did remarkably well commercially. For all the concerns about its graphic depictions of cannibalism and bloodshed, audiences couldn’t get enough: the film grossed between $12-15 million in the U.S. and over $30 million worldwide ( Quite the return on a $114, 000 investment. As startling as the film was to audiences at the time, something about it clearly resonated as well.
For an explanation, there’s no need to look any further than the newspaper headlines. Without question, 1968 was a turbulent time in U.S. (and world) history.  Below, is just a sampling of the images that were available to the American public, on newsstands as well as their TVs.

this photo by Eddie Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1969

A grotesque mirror of our society’s inadequacies, then, Night of the Living Dead offers a compelling look into the cultural unconscious of a confused and unstable moment in our history. Released at a time when the population was being bombarded with images of actual terror and dread, a time when, in many ways, real-life was appalling and frightening in its own right, perhaps it is only to be expected that a film like Romero would come around and redefine our conception of horror.

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