NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) is a horror film about a one group’s efforts to survive a night in a farmhouse while zombies try to eat them. It was remade in 1990.
12/08/09 | Film

Night of the Living Dead

by Spencer Dew

On the afternoon of the anniversary, too cold, with too sharp a wind, they set out for the cemetery carrying a wreathe for their father’s grave. Johnny delayed their leaving, for whatever stupid reason, so when the siblings arrived the sun was already declining behind the stand of small pines, their boughs silvering in monochrome, a sense of menace to the angle of the light.

Barbra wishes she had a sweater. Johnny jokes about the spooky games he used to play on her, in childhood.

Darwin writes of the “sense of the normalcy of continual variation.”  Ours is a tough world, and it is Darwin’s, thick with teeth, tar pits, spirochetes, and broken antlers.

This morning I saw a squirrel curled on its side, white belly streaked in brownish red, eyes already swarming, half gone.

Last night, I touched a girl—all over for a while, but then, more precisely, midpoint along her right ribs, where there is, just under the skin, the yolky mound of a dermoid cyst.

Mutation is natural, needful, inevitable.

“I’m not afraid, Johnny,” says Barbra, then repeats it, then again, keeps saying it, deep in a state of shock, hours later, remembering, reliving, describing the staggering graveyard scene to Ben as he barricades them both in the house they have found.

You know the story. It is our basic cultural horror, distilled. It can be read as a kind of ritual of mourning, though fear follows fast upon grief. There are angles of sex and race and money, paranoid capitalism with its hierarchical squabbling. Think of our basic national myths—from the first Calvinists figuring the measurements for effective fences to newly kidnapped slaves gritting their way across the slosh and stench of the Middle Passage. It is what we think we are, what we will ourselves to be: a mix of folks making it together in a house on a hill, surrounded by the hostile ghouls of history.

Barbra goes silent for a while. The trauma repeats, wordless, till her circuit snaps.  “I’m not afraid, Johnny.” Her awareness can only go so far before the mechanics of consciousness kick in, shutting itself off. Subtle surface tension plays across her face as the malignancy of confusion is met with the slow advance of memory, then the phrase, now rote, signifying something close to its inverse, “I’m not afraid, Johnny.” She’s not, exactly, because her brain is drowning out her mind, blocking all emotion.

Shock, a reaction, is a detour from reactions, a cut with the consequences of the past, their repercussions. Our bodies are designed to placate themselves.

The knife in Barbra’s hand is as alien and unknowable as the walking dead outside.

Ben and Barbra stand so close they touch, yet they exist only in their own screaming or silent world, both coping. Ben acts; Barbra freezes. Ben drives nails into doorframes. Barbra stares with rapt wonder at a music box.

The lover of Venus is War, wrath personified. He is not calmed by love, only temporarily exhausted, disarmed, by coital satiation. This is the classical tale, at least, with Venus holding a mirror, her symbol reflecting her image, a solipsistic circle that cannot be penetrated. Though War drips from her, drains down her inner thighs.

The planet named for this goddess, this dynamic, Venus, mirrors earth, and a probe has just returned from orbit around that place, laden with radiation, energy sufficient – scientists speculate – to re-animate the freshly dead. “We find it difficult to believe what we’re reporting to you.” There is still electricity in the house, a media feed, and a shotgun. The radio promises to stay on-air day and night through the “crisis,” reporting in baffled disbelief “an explosion of mass homicides,” armies of “assassins.”

Ben collects useful information. He’s going to need to remove some brains.

In lieu of decoration, the house has taxidermy. There is a flayed skin on the wall shaped like a giant, reaching hand. Under it, Barbra begins to come around, though it doesn’t make her any less in the way. “No! My brother is not dead,” she says.  The eclipse is over. A shell rises from the frothy sea. Barbra stares at her hands, imagines them as objects detached from herself, purely physical, without self-reflection or knowing, just hunger, strength.

Ben hammers at the barricades. Barbra collects canned goods in a pillowcase. They find some more guns, ammunition, and prepare to make a run for the gas pump, the truck. To pause would be to die, to die would mean to join the dead outside, slightly alive and extremely hungry, hordes of them, bodies remembering only their bodies’ needs.

So there is no pause for it, just fluid action, an extension and rebuke of the day thus far. Barbra opens her mouth to speak, but Ben clamps a hand down. They fuck standing up, her overcoat hiked absurdly. What in any other situation would be too quick, too rough, too suddenly done, too bestial even, is, here, a victory for the human. Orgasm substitutes for death.

On the porch, after, they share a cigarette and shoot dozens of people in the head.  They line their sights, aim, squeeze. They take their time. They carve a path out through the mass of staggering monsters.

Death is a continual process of revelation, undeniably real yet always beyond our comprehension, an unavoidable paradox, a half-eaten corpse on the stairs.

Here, in this pause between levels, and with a flicker of the eyes, the last hush of breath segues into a harsh inhalation, death and the life beyond.

The house consumes itself, razed by the dead. Ben and Barbra are in the truck, reloading, ready to ride off into the sunrise. They are in love, obviously, because this isn’t a movie, this is our life.

They make up little games, shooting contests, and tell stupid but human jokes.

“We left late this morning because of you, Johnny” says Barbra. “Well, you’re not going to slow me down any more.” She fires, and his head explodes.

Ben gives her a high five. “I’m not a ghoul,” he says, “But I sure have a urge to gnaw on you.”

And off they go, dealing death to death.