Knight of the Living Dead

BY ANDREW MOODY

With Halloween fast approaching, amidst a global pandemic where world governments can shut down their respective populations inside their homes at a whim, you could do worse than revisiting George A Romero’s zombie trilogy for a night where the streets will be eerily empty of trick or treaters.

Made on a shoestring budget back in 1968 by a group of enterprising advertising men, Night of the Living Dead was famously described by an anonymous critic as “the best movie ever made in Pittsburgh”. Given a Mary Whitehouse worthy review of sheer outrage by notable Chicago Sun critic Roger Ebert, word of mouth spread further than its drive through audiences, gaining popularity with other film critics who liked it much more than Ebert and his reactionary review. Kim Newman, the horror novelist and critic wrote:

Night of the Living Dead uses its cheapness creatively. Romero is a skilled director/editor who can and does work in the style of Hitchcock or Whale if it suits him. But a lot of Night of the Living Dead not only the cinema verite new sequence, has the naturally lit, slightly tatty look of actuality footage of an event so horrendous that its significance obscures cinematic shortcomings. Even the budgetary necessity of black and white filming is exploited. Decades of newsreels, newspapers, TV documentaries and still photographs have conspired to give the impression that, though real life is in colour, black and white is more realistic. In Hollywood the Land of Oz was in technicolor, but Kansas was drab monochrome. Night of the Living Dead didn’t bring a general return to black and white, but George A Romero did take the horror film out of the Land of Oz and let it loose in Kansas.

A massive box office success, and the New York Museum of Modern Art even requesting a print of the film for posterity (who would later do the same for Tobe Hooper’s bodacious The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 1974), Romero was able to work independently of the Hollywood industry. He dabbled in apocalyptic horror with The Crazies (1973) about a military plague in a small town that was a careful satirical attack on the Vietnam war; and a serial killer/vampire parable of industrial wasteland Martin (1978) whereby a delusional young man believes he is a vampire and stalks the streets of Braddock with razor blades and a hypodermic needle preying on victims.

Romero biographer Tony Williams wrote in his study of the director’s cinema Knight of the Living Dead (published before Romero’s Diary of the Dead 2008):

To date, Day of the Dead remains the last episode in the original, allegorically inclined, unpublished story George A Romero wrote many decades ago under the title Anubis. Initially composed of three movements which roughly corresponded with the themes contained within his cinematic zombie trilogy… …Romero looked upon Anubis as an allegory dealing with the consequences of an incoming revolutionary society represented by zombies who replace an existing social order of humans. Ironically the moral is that nothing really changes.

The second part of the trilogy, Dawn of the Dead (1979) follows a shut down of society and the escape of a group of humans who find solace in a shopping mall besieged by zombies, who have returned there after some instinct of consumerism that innately reminds the undead of their previous human lives.

The third part, Day of the Dead (1985) sees a military attempt to train the zombies to use weapons, talk and follow army orders. Set in the retirement state of Florida, which is now the stronghold of the living dead, the army and the medical powers that be plan to welcome millions of zombies into their army. As expected, following the logic of the previous two Dead movies, human arrogance and hubris result in their consumption by the zombies.

Influenced by his own Catholic upbringing, a conflict of guilt and attrition and a complex personal struggle between good and evil, Romero’s Dead movies are subtextually more involved than their gory appearance may suggest. As Romero was quoted as saying:

Zombies are the real lower class citizens of the monster world and that’s why I like them…

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @Voguishfiction