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BFI Film Classics: Night of the Living Dead review – “No Shelter Will Save Us”

It is perhaps fortuitous that Ben Hervey’s BFI Film Classics: Night of the Living Dead monograph has been republished in 2020. Not only was this the year when we most needed stories about the failure of systems we have trusted implicitly, but it was also the year that The Living Dead, a novel by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus, was published by Tor Books.

BFI Film Classics: Night of the Living Dead

It is difficult for me to reconcile the image of the multiple creators of Night of the Living Dead that Hervey discusses, who were both very talented and very lucky in creating what they did (“the whole movie was an accident,” George Romero claimed in an interview), with the in-control, singular-of-vision George Romero that appears as one of the authors of The Living Dead. The film and the novel are of similar strains, and it is tempting to think that the scope and themes of The Living Dead are what the makers of Night of the Living Dead had in mind when they shot their shoestring budgeted film in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Pittsburgh all those decades ago.

That is, however, a story we’re telling ourselves retroactively, which Hervey makes clear. BFIFC: Night of the Living Dead is a reprint of an earlier monograph by Hervey, but the work within it hasn’t aged at all – indeed, it has, as I’ve said, grown all the more relevant. Originally, I was tempted to say that Hervey’s text would only really be attractive to cinephiles or fans of the Living Dead series of movies, but I’ve just now realised how large that group of persons must be in modern day. Certainly, theatres were overflowing shortly after the film’s original 1968 release, and as Hervey notes, Night remained a midnight-movie mainstay for years afterwards (and became a mainstay of certain high society venues like MOMA as well). I know that I’ve seen the film dozens if not hundreds of times since I first saw it on VHS back in the early 1980s (thanks, mom and dad), and I think it’s safe to say that I’ve never been more than a stone’s throw away from a Night of the Living Dead fan since then.

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So why, then, should fans read Hervey’s text? Surely they know everything about the movie already! Well, not so. Hervey tackles much of the history of the film’s production, release, and, significantly, its promotion. That tackling serves as an antidote against a lot of the mythology that’s built up about the movie and its makers since then. Which is needed, because that mythology has led many of us to collectively buy into the notion that Night of the Living Dead had a singular message for a singular audience. In turn, we’ve been led into thinking that a novel like The Living Dead is in-line with the original film in some necessary way, as though the earlier film was always already a blueprint for the later novel. Hervey’s text disproves such spurious beliefs, then, and that is something much to be desired.

For Hervey, the history of the film is always centred on “a few minutes to midnight, any weekend in the summer of 1971” in New York’s Waverley Cinema. Hervey returns to this moment of audience appreciation and anticipation again and again throughout the book, and he accomplishes much through this simple rhetorical trick. For Hervey’s broad point is that Night of the Living Dead as a film, a text, and a cultural phenomenon, cannot be clearly divorced from the soil of its creation. That is, Night of the Living Dead is a specific work that came from a specific place on the globe and a specific temporal location. What we see on the screen, then, and what we mythologise all these decades later, is tied inherently to a particular cultural history that influenced the actors, writers, producers, editor (there was only one: Romero himself), and, eventually, the audience themselves–critics and fans alike.

This is not to say that Night of the Living Dead is hitched to one specific interpretive lens, however. Indeed, Hervey takes great pains to show that the film’s reception and interpretation have changed significantly over the years – and Hervey takes even greater pains to show that there was never a stable set of interpretations of the film to begin with. With our historical distance from the time and place of the film’s creation, for example, we might be unable to realise that, for a time, Night of the Living Dead was considered rather conservative in tenor and was thought by many to be a warning against the destructive potential of youth movements like the nascent hippies. Even Romero himself identified the ghouls of Night of the Living Dead (they are, we should remember, never zombies per se) with the revolutionary left.

It was early critics who instead interpreted the ghouls as a metaphor for Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” (the bloc of underrepresented conservative voters who were, it is commonly thought, responsible for getting Nixon elected to the American presidency). Under this interpretation, the ghouls are the steadfast and the ignored base of the populace rising up to destroy the new. Youth culture (especially as exemplified by Judy and Tom) is the locus of ignorance and incompetence, this interpretation runs, and the lack of cooperation between individuals is indicative of the wedges that the radical left is pushing between us. Zombies, as Clive Barker once put it, are “the liberal nightmare […] the fear of mass activity, of mindlessness on a national scale” (quoted in John Skipp and Craig Spector’s Book of the Dead).

Of course, neither of these interpretations can be said to be true in any finalized sense. Hervey spends much of the book going through the various cultural influences upon Night of the Living Dead, from feminism to fallout shelters, Boris Karloff to the brutality of the Vietnam war, to specifically show that if the movie is to have one singular interpretation, that interpretation would be nothing more than a deep distrust of any and all interpretations. For a solid and trusted interpretation would be a safe harbour, and no such thing can exist in Night of the Living Dead – or in the nightmare culture that it is reflecting back upon its viewers even all these years later. As Hervey puts it, Night of the Living Dead claims only that ambiguity reigns, that every character is a hero and a villain, and that “the government cannot be trusted; the US military endangers us, not protects us; the insular family is claustrophobic and dangerous; no shelter will save us”.

To a large degree, I think Night of the Living Dead works because its plot depicts the moment when things are all said and done for humanity. When the boards start going up over the windows and the rifle shells start being counted, then it really is time for the curtains to close and the lights to go up. We are, collectively, done at that point. However, it’s not because of the presence of cannibalistic ghouls outside the door, scratching to be let in. We are, as Hervey points out in his rigorous and thorough study, beyond the point of help because we’re human, and humans are self-disruptive. The flaw that destroys us is the one that we’ve fostered throughout the life of our species, and Night of the Living Dead does nothing more than to paradoxically show that “we do not want to see normality restored: normality itself is monstrous; a brutal, painful repression”. Bring on the ghouls, perhaps; we had our chance.

In truth, I did enjoy The Living Dead, though I am a bit perturbed that I don’t know how much of the novel was by Daniel Kraus and how much of it was by George A. Romero. Its depiction of the Living Dead “universe” (what an uncomfortable term for a series grounded in a film whose commitment to verité was shockingly high) is lovely, and painful, and it all comes out all right in the end (from a certain point of view, at least). Ultimately, however, if I had to choose between texts concerning this body of work, I think I’d prefer Ben Hervey’s BFI Classics: Night of the Living Dead. It’s a lot messier, and a lot rawer, and it strikes, I think, closer to the bone.

Night of the Living Dead is a film that was made, accidentally or purposefully, to disrupt. To force doubt and anxiety and uncertainty upon the audience. Hervey’s text reminds us of this and shows us that the power of the film comes from the fact that however we see it, however we choose to receive it, we have to ultimately come to grips with the fact that whatever representation of power and belief we see running through the movie, those powers and beliefs are supported by nothing and come to nothing. We came expecting a midnight monster movie, perhaps, but we got, instead, a radical subversion of the pillars of Western civilization.

So, Hervey’s text is worth reading by any fan, certainly. Moreover, any cinephile should have it on their shelves. If you, dear reader, fall into neither of those categories, I would encourage you to at least find a good, high-quality copy of Night of the Living Dead (several exist on YouTube, since the movie is famously without copyright), watch it, wait a while, watch it again, and then read Ben Hervey’s book. And then, maybe, eventually, read Daniel Kraus’ The Living Dead.

Just try to keep in mind that at the end of the day, no shelter will save you. Then you’ll be all right.

Night of the Living Dead (BFI Film Classics) is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

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