George Romero Made A Perfect Movie

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Sam Wilkinson

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

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22 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Casting and effective use of a tiny amount of money aside, I wonder if Night‘s biggest idea was not explaining the zombies. As the OP indicates, it’s ambiguous whether this was something stumbled into or deliberate, but it sure is effective. It makes the zombies scarier when the origin story is left entirely to the viewer’s imagination. Was it eldritch magic that made the dead rise from their graves? The military or some mad scientist Experimenting With Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know? Space aliens and/or communists and their radiation weapons? The protagonists don’t know and neither do we the viewers. Which makes it scarier.

    Replicating this, IMO, requires something of a light touch. It’s one thing to say “Well, the weird creatures just EXIST and the characters have to learn to deal with it,” and there is a siren’s call to explain things that the author really needs to understand before she even decides whether or not she wants to try to get away from it. Which is why I lean to the “Romero just didn’t have the budget to shoot the exposition scene at all, so he cut it out of necessity” school of thought, and thus inadvertently demonstrated how a hole in the backstory can contribute to the emotional impact of the story.Report

    • @burt-likko You might enjoy this EXCELLENT article from the New York Times about the influence of Japanese horror movies in the mid-2000s. It gets at the same thing that Romero had decades earlier: too much explanation can be a very real problem. The more that the world is understood, the more it can be broken down, the more that characters can be second guessed, the more that audiences can say, “I’m watching a movie.”Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        Sam,
        Even when you can understand things, like the Lonely Assassins or Dr.Who’s haunted library… they can still be really, really creepy.Report

        • Avatar Sam Wilkinson in reply to Kimmi says:

          @kimmi Done well, sure. Done without considerable thought – which is how most media is created – it undermines the point. (It is worth noting that Romero did make one substantive mistake with NOTLD, which was having his characters decide between the first floor and the basement, even though there was a second floor. That second floor was going to end up being much, much safer. This though is a problem that is replicated throughout zombie storytelling.)Report

          • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

            Sam,
            Have you watched Stranger Things?
            (oh, that is a tale with some lives in it.)

            The key to the very, very best horror is the understanding that whatever someone creates in their own mind, transplanting into the yawning, great unknown — is going to be MUCH scarier than any special effect.

            It is possible to build a house that seems haunted. It isn’t even all that hard.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kimmi says:

          Going to the well to many times with the Angels is exactly what killed them. (Then he desecrated their corpses w the friggin Statue of friggin Liberty)Report

          • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kolohe says:

            K,
            “He” is plural, which should tell you a lot right there.Report

            • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kimmi says:

              Moffet’s been the captain for every episode w them after Blink. The responsibility is entirely his.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kolohe says:

                Moffat signs his name to a lot of things, doesn’t he?
                Davies did too.
                They’re not always written by them personally.

                You should see the backstory for the lonely assassins — an entire world and ecosystem filled with quantum effect creatures.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kimmi says:

                signing your name to something makes it your responsibility. That’s how things work in every professional endeavor.Report

              • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kolohe says:

                K,
                If you sign onto a project, you take responsibility for what you’ve said you’ll do, regardless of whose name gets signed to the end product.

                I mean, we seriously have a television show that was written by the thrice-damned security consultant. And it was deliberately written to be awful, because that was the goddamned job.

                (And then, god rest his benighted soul, SOMEONE unearthed the damned scripts, and actually thought it was good enough to go on air — and it got more episodes than Downward Dog, which was Actually Trying)Report

          • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kolohe says:

            Yup. The Angels scared the crap out of me the first time I saw it, and then the return was pretty good but eventually stopped being scary because they’d become too familiar.

            The Silence, they were pretty scary too. Don’t recall so much of them.Report

            • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Burt Likko says:

              Burt,
              I think it’s not their familiarity, it’s the corruption of the original vision.*
              *yup, I’m biased. Disclaiming that now.

              The original vision didn’t have the Lonely Assassins as things that could travel through videotape, and it definitely didn’t have the statue of liberty walking around.

              Having the Lonely Assassins show up en-masse and nearly drained? That’s hella creepy. (Lovecraftian, almost). And entirely in keeping with the original authorial vision and intent.Report

  2. Avatar Aaron David says:

    I think that the genius of Romero here is the knowledge of what to cut out and what to put in. @burt-likko is right that leaving out the exposition of where the zombies come from is right, but I would add to that. Ben being black would in many ways be more disturbing than zombies for many at that time in our history. And Ben hitting a white woman, even more so.

    Romero was making a horror movie and the greatest way to shock and horrify the audience is to strike at the preconceptions that people hold. Zombies are just window dressing. Looking at it with 2017 morals is not conductive to understanding the fears that would motivate the viewers of the time. The fears that would get their hearts pumping faster. Romero plays with the fears and hopes of that generation quite well in this regard. (Plays with it so well that these specific fears from that specific movie show up and are a central part in the Stoker award winner from 1988, Night the Missed the Horror Show) Whether this was intentionally political or not is, in my view, irrelevant to the genius of the film. Romero instinctively new what would scare people.Report

    • Avatar InMD in reply to Aaron David says:

      I’ve seen retrospective statements from Romero implying that there was some intentional political/social commentary in production but I’ve always found them kind of dubious, at least to the extent of there being a specific agenda. Like you (or as I read your comment) I think its more likely him and his team had a good sense of what would be generally subversive and used that to heighten the disturbing atmosphere of the film. Its a fine line that the best genre filmmakers (think Cronenberg and Clive Barker) figure out- working on social fears and tabboos without appearing to be advocates for a particular political cause.

      I suspect something similar happened with casting Sigourney Weaver in Alien, again despite later comments from Ridley Scott suggesting that they knew what they were doing.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to InMD says:

        Exactly. And that is the genius. I think it is more subconscious than the directors and writers let on, mostly as they try to explain it to themselves and posterity.

        Jack moves. Context, with Donny, seemed to indicate that these were either deliberate but extremely lateral, thus taking the competition by surprise, or, more likely in Donny’s case, simply crazy, same result. He’d never said what jack move, exactly, in a given situation, he was contemplating, and maybe that was because he didn’t know. Maybe it had to be improvisational and completely of the moment.”

        -PATTERN RECOGNITION, WILLIAM GIBSONReport

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Watched the final clip posted in the OP again. One other thing stands out as super-creepy especially for audiences at the time. After Ben hits Barbara (regressively saving her from her own … “hysterics” is the word that comes to mind but that word is regressive now too), he then almost tenderly picks her slumping body up and rests her comfortably on the couch. Then, he reaches over her and… unbuttons her coat.

    It looks almost sexual. Add race and violence to that and bam, you’ve got yourself one uncomfortable 1968 audience.Report

  4. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    Night of the Living Dead is a great film that I’ve seen dozens of times. It seems to play every Halloween on some channel. I actually prefer Dawn of the Dead, which has some really sharp social satire at its heart and a few surprisingly haunting scenes. Perhaps his most underrated film is Season of the Witch. I love the film, but I seem to be alone in that.Report

    • Avatar Will H. in reply to Rufus F. says:

      I have sort of a different take on it myself.
      FWIW, I like Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, as far a zombie movies go.

      Storytelling: It is sequencing of clips, and not scripting, that is the filmmaker’s art.
      Scripting is an import from theater, and it isn’t required at any rate.
      You can’t get past sequencing of clips.
      Manipulation of time, and exposition of space (i.e., making the scene look larger, more parts to it, or smaller, only a few parts to it).

      I’m more inclined to believe leaving off an explanation for the appearance of the zombies had to do more with technical matters that a deliberate decision; either being time-wise, more compelling footage elsewhere, other parts of the storyline he preferred to emphasize, or something weird about the reel with the exposition footage with not enough time or money to re-shoot it.Report

  5. Avatar Kazzy says:

    Cracked often pushes a theory that we see an uptick in zombie films during conservative rule because the zeitgeist fears the mindless id and groupthink that is associated with conservatives and zombies.

    And during liberal rule, we see an uptick in vampire movies because the fears shift towards these often androgynous elite isolated bloodsuckers.

    Not sure if it’s true… the trend itself or the rationale… but it’s interesting.Report

  6. Avatar Patrick says:

    “Explaining the monster” is the reason why most of Dean Koontz’s books go from being “scary” to being “not scary” in the last third of the book.

    The poster child for this is Phantoms. The first half is legitimately scary, and then as the monster is explained it goes from being “I’m dealing with something beyond the ability of humans to comprehend” to something else entirely.

    The flip side to this is explaining the monster in a way that makes it more inexplicable without creating the house of cards Sam talks about, above, where the explanation itself can’t hang together.

    The best example of this, I think, is H.P. Lovecraft. He had a whole mythos of explanation that worked without creating the house of cards, because the inexplicable horror was never reduced to something that explicated away the horror of it.Report

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