I don’t know when I first saw “Night of the Living Dead.” Sometime in the 1970’s, probably when I was in high school. Everyone considered it a really scary movie at the time. Mainly because the zombies (who weren’t called zombies, if I remember correctly. I have seen the movie a bunch of times but it’s been a few years.) ate real looking flesh. It was cow parts from a local butcher, but in the context of the movie it was really disgusting.
I certainly didn’t expect zombies to become a big craze in the 21st century, to the point that cartoon versions are common in media meant for children. I suppose I should have expected that, the same had happened to the classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman and the Mummy around the time of my childhood.
As a would-be filmmaker I always thought the genius of NotLD was its premise. George Romero was making a film on very little budget, and creating a truly scary monster with no money would have been very hard. However, getting a few locals together, slapping some makeup on them and teaching them to walk funny was a much cheaper alternative.
I now find it amusing when big-budget zombie movies come out, most of them not nearly as scary as the original. In fact, the scariest movies tend to be the ones made on low budgets. The limitations force the filmmakers to come up with ways to scare that don’t cost much. That’s also why horror is having trouble in the age of computer graphics. It’s too easy to show too much.
One of Romero’s themes, which I have never seen anyone else mention, is that in a zombie apocalypse there would be living people who find that they really like shooting other people in the head. People who have been living normal lives, working, raising families, all the things people do in modern society, are suddenly given license to kill other people violently and discover that it is fun.
Of course they have to shoot zombies. Shooting living people would still be frowned upon. Unless that person has clearly crossed over into zombiedom. But there are always mistakes. When you get used to putting bullets into heads, and often have to do it very quickly, well, once in a while you’re going to target the wrong head. The ending of NotLD shows just such a mistake, as the troops mopping up the countryside casually kill the hero of the movie.
That one moment is unlike anything in any other zombie movie. They usually assume that everyone will shoot only zombies, and only zombies will be shot. But I guarantee you that if a real zombie apocalypse ever happens, a lot of perfectly alive people will die by friendly fire.
I have been watching “The Walking Dead” recently. I watch it on Netflix, and I am halfway through the second season. If you comment on this blog, no spoilers please! In an episode I saw recently, Andrea almost kills Daryl when she thinks he’s a “walker,” but just grazes him. That’s the closest I’ve seen to the ending of NotLD.
The episode I saw this morning has an official title, I’m sure, but I will always remember it as What Happened at the Barn. On a tangent, TWD is the only zombie story I have seen where the zombies or walkers regularly eat animals. This seems to me to change the complexion of the zompocalypse entirely. I haven’t seen a single dog in the show, for instance. There are horses at the farm where our group takes shelter, but a place like that surely had dogs before. What farm doesn’t?
Back to What Happened at the Barn. When I first saw the walkers in the barn I thought they were being kept for some sinister reason, and Hershel and his family would turn out to be trading with brigands or some mad scientist that was studying the walkers or something. Pure compassion, thinking of the walkers as sick people who might be cured someday, never occurred to me.
I have been conditioned for all these years to accept shooting human beings in the head, as long as they are in bad shape and walk funny, as acceptable. The episode of TWD that I just saw, ending with a massacre, the slaughter of people that we know are the relatives and neighbors of Hershel’s family, made me think of zombies as people again.
Then of course Sophia steps out of the barn. I saw it coming, I think she was even in one shot inside the barn in the previous episode, but that didn’t make it easier. And Rick has to hero up and do the deed. That one gun shot made me so sad.
So what is it about zombies that make them so popular these days? The cartoon versions are green and have straggly teeth. They clearly aren’t people. We can shoot them in the head without compunction. But there is still an idea buried in the concept that someday we will be given permission to shoot just about anybody in the head. Who’s going to punish you for murder during an apocalypse? Everyone around you will understand that it was a mistake. Things happen in the heat of battle. If you secretly liked it, who will know?
My one and only zombie story is “The Mayor,” set about fifteen years after the zombie apocalypse. I call my zombies “zeds.” It is available in my collection, “Halloween Sky and Other Nightmares.” The book is available in all ebook stores and in print at Amazon.com.