Have you ever actually seen this movie? Was it a while ago? Because this is NOT the movie I remember and it’s definitely not reflected well in modern pop culture.
Say George Romero or Night of the Living Dead to most people and the image that gets conjured up is that of very slow moving, clumsy creatures that just sort of moan and drool. How many times have you seen them lampooned? Because every time I see someone make a zombie joke it usually involves showing how easy it is to get away from these silly things but how clumsy and stupid the people are as they twist their ankles and fall down in their silly escape efforts. Even for zombie fans we sometimes distinguish zombies as either the slow moving, shufflers or the fast type runners.
So since I’ve been writing this zombie blog and even referenced the Romero zombies a few times I decided to go back and refresh my memory of the movie and see how it had held up.
What I found is that this is NOT the movie I remember.
First of all Romero’s zombies are fast. No, they aren’t the high speed berzerkers we’ve seen in recent years but they aren’t the ridiculous shambling things I remembered either. The classic first attack at the start of the movie is a great example of this. The zombie kills the brother then chases down the girl to her car. He isn’t slow, he doesn’t hesitate or shamble at all. He runs. Granted he runs like a drunk but he runs! With her locked inside the guy starts FREAKING OUT outside hurriedly pounding on the windows. (Why he didn’t eat the brother is a mystery but hey.) And then he did something very significant for all zombie stories.
He used a tool. Sure it was just a bludgeon but I’d forgotten that Romero’s zombies were good at using tools and this only becomes more pronounced as the series goes on. This zombie realizes he can’t get into the car by breaking the glass so he reasons, he thinks, he grabs a rock to smash his way in and goes to town.
The zombies were brought back by radiation from Venus. One thing I had suspected but needed to confirm was the cause of the zombie outbreak. I vaguely remembered something about Venus, and radiation. It turns out to have been true. A NASA space probe returning from Venus brought back some sort of radiation that effected the earth.
In context this makes a lot of sense. It was the end of the 60’s and NASA was flying high, just one year away from the lunar landing. Plus with the Cold War in full effect, the threat of radiation was a very real concern. Zombie movies always play upon people’s fears. So in today’s movies we see disease run wild similar to what we read in the headlines about the N1H1 virus, Bird Flu, etc.
Thinking scientifically about the idea of radiation from Venus bringing the dead back to life is pretty crazy. Okay I know the idea of dead people getting up and walking around is crazy anyway but let’s look at this in the context of the story. How big was that space probe? And how much radiation was it carrying? And where was the radiation dispersed, in the atmosphere, or on the ground? I could buy the story of some radiation infecting a few people even a few dozen people on the ground, them getting sick and dying and reanimating and then going on to infect other people so that the outbreak continued from a single location.
But watching the movie you kind of get the sense that this is happening all over the world which would mean the radiation got into the atmosphere. But once it was disbursed in the atmosphere there’s no way it would be enough to infect the entire world. So the radiation lines seems a little bit odd to me. It seems more of a reflection of the style of story telling and filmmaking at the time growing out of the movies that were popular rather than realistic storytelling.
Another cultural factor that I think gets played up in this movie is the role of African Americans. In fact an African-American plays the lead character in this movie. I’m not sure that at the time that would’ve been groundbreaking but it certainly helped it stand out. It’s important to remember that the civil rights movement was in full swing and the role of African Americans in American society acting as major parts of social change was on everyone’s mind. In that light it’s interesting to see how Romero portrayed the characters. The lead character in this film generally stays calm and tries to make his way through the situation by weighing his options, and choosing the best one. He tries to help the people around them and keep the situation under control. Meanwhile the white characters are either panicking or fighting.
And one last note. Please remember that Romero’s zombies are flesh eaters. They don’t eat brains. They would eat your brain if they could get to it, but it’s flesh they crave. Sweet sweet human flesh.
You can watch the movie on Youtube here:
And check out the poster below. This is a great poster with the figures moving your eye around the title. We read the title left to right so the absence of figures to the left of the title means the figures on the right beautifully move our eye to the main twist of figures below. One seemingly incongruous thing is the naked woman on the poster which, if you’ve seen the film doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything.