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Losing My Living Dead Virginity, Part 1: My First Time With “Night”

Duane Jones as Ben in Night of the Living Dead

Dom returns, taking a break from his ongoing promotion of little known German media in his series of Bewegtbilder posts (latest here, for example) has just joined the fight against the undead and is aiming for the head from now on. He’s a quick student.

So…it all started with a t-shirt.

Every once in a while everybody feels a little bit like a poser. When I had purchased a zombie themed t-shirt from Threadless with the most delicious design, I had one of those moments. Although having seen a few movies with zombies and zombie-like creatures in them, I was fully aware that the classics and milestones of the genre–in any medium–were something I had yet to experience.

Being an insecure geek who tries to know it all (or at least all about the things that are referred to on my clothes. Note to self: find out more about cotton), I decided to catch up on what had happened in the world of the moving corpses. The question was: where to begin? I sent an email to our chief cook, bottlewasher and zombie hunter Widge (as I often do when I am too lazy to Google things). He quickly supported my idea, supplied me with a shortlist of essential movies and comics, branded me a zombie virgin, stole my lunch money and made fun of my DVD collection.

[ad#longpost]About a month later, with further assistance in the choice of the exact DVD release by filmmaker James Raynor the original trilogy of zombie movies by George A. Romero arrived at my doorstep. Which was, incidentally, the day of the director’s 70th birthday. I was impressed by life’s sense of humor and popped in the DVD of Night of the Living Dead.

Right from the start, I noticed how much I miss black and white horror movies. To me, they just feel stronger and bleaker than their technicolor relatives. I may be wrong but it seems to me that many modern horror-movies try to compensate this by bleaching out the color palette or use a lot of strong, cold light to achieve a certain bleakness. While my research shows that Night was shot in black and white due to a limited budget, that does not diminish how effective it is and how well it works for this movie.

Furthermore, Romero is really good at using shadows (which I love seeing done well) and light, his picture composition is very very strong. After the first thirty minutes, the movie already reassured my old suspicion: that good horror directors are good directors in general. Someone who has to constantly keep the direct effect of the movie’s images in mind, will learn quickly how to compose his shots (or fail miserably).

Night shows its real strengths as soon as the opening narration is over. While the introduction proves that Romero truly has a sense of humor (See “They’re coming to get you!” on the right there, or click here if you’re one of the feedreaders)…it is one of the weaker parts of the movie but serves its purpose.

The house, the battle against the ghouls (no ridiculous zed-word in this movie), the fighting among the trapped group inside of the house–these all belong to the most intense scenes I have seen in a movie for a long while. Although I was not approaching this in an arrogant fashion of a cynic movie brat who eats spaghetti with meatballs while watching films like Saw (in fact: I haven’t seen any of those movies–with or without pasta), the longterm effect that Night of the Living Dead had on me, surprised me a great deal. So while I embraced the ending of the movie as a very good choice, the omnipresent feeling of “abandon all hope ye who enter the cinema” stayed with me longer than I wanted. Yes, it has been a while, a long while, since I have had dreams about a movie I watched. I would not even call them nightmares…but pleasant they were not.

This is quite an accomplishment for a movie with a story that, when you think about it, is a cousin of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

My introduction to Romero’s work could not have been better. I have finally found my answer to anyone who wonders why this ping-pong balls and chocolate syrup production is considered a classic. The short version reads as follows: it’s well made, smart and it will fuck you up.

Stay tuned for my report on Dawn of the Dead. Once I get my nerves steady and can stick it in the DVD player…

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