Night of the Living Dead on Criterion

Is the new Criterion Blu-ray edition of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead worth purchasing? I’m of two minds on this question. Part of the eerie charm of the original edition is its low budget–its grainy black-and-white film, cheap sets, tinny music, and actors nobody ever heard of.
 
The Criterion edition attempts to enhance the cheap black-and-white print with Blu-ray technology. But do we really want it enhanced? Doesn’t enhancement take away part of the sinister charm of the grungy original?
 
On the other hand, it’s good to see that the movie is getting the attention it deserves from its groundbreaking reenvisioning of the zombie as a flesh-eating creature that feeds on living humans. Before this movie, zombies lumbered around with their eyes bugging out of their heads, looking spooky, but they were harmless. They were the walking dead without a bloodthirsty appetite, as in Bela Lugosi’s White Zombie.
 
Then along came George Romero and the invention of the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead. And the zombie was forever changed. It has now become identified as the monster that is the most terrifying threat to humanity, much more terrifying than vampires and werewolves.

Why Are Zombies So Popular Now?

Zombies aren’t just about zombies. They’re about people and how people react to them. People are the main characters in any good zombie fiction, not the witless zombies.
 
Unlike zombie fiction, vampire fiction is more about the vampires and their personalities than about the people that oppose them. Count Dracula is the most interesting character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, not Dr. Van Helsing, who is his human antagonist. The fascinating count is an aristocratic charmer who seduces women so that he can sink his fangs into their necks and suck their blood. He is so seductive he can make women swoon simply by staring at them with his transfixing gaze that immobilizes their wills and renders them his slaves, all so that he can suck their blood and go on living till the end of time.
 
Zombies as characters, on the other hand, are insipid creatures that lumber around eating human flesh and insects as well, as depicted in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which set the standard for the modern zombie. Zombies are filthy rotting corpses that have become reanimated and go around feeding primarily on living humans. In contrast to the charming Count Dracula, they are creatures with no personality. They all blend into one amorphous, shambling, stupid, flesh-eating mob.
 
In zombie fiction, the zombies aren’t the most interesting characters. They simply propel the action and motivate reactions from their human prey. What is most interesting in zombie fiction is how the main human characters battle the zombies and battle each other, as well, in their struggles for survival in a world overrun by mindless repulsive creatures bent on human annihilation.
 
For example, what is fascinating in Romero’s classic zombie film is how the main characters that are trapped together in a farmhouse battle each other as well as the zombies that besiege them. The tension among the trapped inhabitants is palpable and, combined with the zombie onslaught, generates nerve-racking horror.
 
In contrast to aristocratic vampires with intriguing personalities who are basically loners, zombies are ghastly creatures without any personalities who congregate in huge mobs. Zombies are symbols of modern democracies where numbers are more impotant than royal bloodlines. It’s a case of the majority rules, as in democracies (from which zombies were bred), versus the aristocracy rules (from which Count Dracula was bred). Zombies are perfect monsters for democracies, where everybody is considered equal. All zombies are equally characterless, mindless, and horrifying. Unique vampires with intriguing personalities, on the other hand, are perfect monsters for Victorian England and its dissolute bloodlines and crumbling aristocracy.
 
Zombies then are truly products of modern democracies, whereas vampires are products of decaying aristocracies. Now is the age of the zombie. Zombies rule.

Zombies vs. Vampires

Which are scarier—zombies or vampires?

It used to be that vampires were scarier than zombies—back when Dracula and Nosferatu ruled the roost of vampires.  But vampires have become so romanticized what with such movies as Interview with the Vampire and Twilight that the creatures have been leeched of their fiendishness and nowadays are avatars of eroticism rather than of evil.

Gone are the days of Nosferatu, the ugliest and creepiest vampire of them all as Max Schreck portrayed him in F. W. Murnau’s eponymous 1922 German film, and of Dracula, the vampire with the evil eye as Bela Lugosi realized him in Hollywood.

Whereas Hollywood once envisioned the vampire as the maleficent, bug-eyed Bela Lugosi (in Dracula) with an eldritch Balkan accent, it kept reinventing the creature of the night.  Along came Tom Cruise as the ashen-faced romantic fop of a vampire in Interview with a Vampire and then Robert Pattinson as the frail, anemic vampire in the Twilight series.  These modern vampires aren’t scary by half.  In fact, their victims actually lust for these creatures to bite them!

Justin Cronin tried to juice up the vampire’s fear factor when he penned his horror novel The Passage.  Eschewing the term vampire because of its modern evocation of the words erotic and romantic, he called his vampires virals and made them hideous to behold and bloodcurdling in their assaults on humanity.

The fact is, though, that Cronin’s creatures aren’t really vampires.  Cronin himself cringes when the term vampire is used to describe his evil man-made creatures.  These days, no horror writer worth his salt wants to write about vampires if his goal is to stoke fear in his readers.  On the other hand, it is romance writers who employ vampires, and it is not to generate fear but to generate eros.

Enter the zombie.

The zombie is the walking dead.  It is an ugly, reeking, decomposing slab of dead flesh that walks the land day and night feeding on living human beings.  There is nothing romantic about this ghoul.  It is a filthy, disease-riddled creature that fills people with equal parts fear and disgust.  These creatures resemble the original film image of the vampire as Nosferatu more than they do Ann Rice’s Lestat.

Could anyone actually be turned on by the flesh-eating, lurching walking corpses in George Romero’s zombie classic Night of the Living Dead?  Unlike modern vampires, zombies instill only one feeling in people—that of horror.  Young women may lust to have their throats bitten by vampires in the guise of Robert Pattinson, but no young women alive (unless she’s suicidal) is dying to get bitten by zombies played by unrecognizable Hollywood extras with putrescent faces and ragged clothes and bites that will rip their bodies to shreds.

Who’s scarier in this day and age?  It’s not even close.  Hands down, it’s zombies over vampires.

 

Sanctuary in Steel by Bryan Cassiday

A short excerpt from the first chapter of Bryan Cassiday’s Sanctuary in Steel is now available for reading at Amazon. The cover image of Sanctuary in Steel should be available soon.

The Rise of Zombie Noir

September 9, 2012

The term noir used to refer to crime fiction and movies with cynical characters, bleak settings, and a pervading atmosphere of gloom and entrapment.

There aren’t any crime thrillers these days that convey such desolation and hopelessness. Instead it is the zombie apocalypse genre of books and film that can best be described by the term noir.

In the zombie apocalypse genre, society has collapsed or is in the midst of collapsing. Characters are so cynical that they turn against each other at the drop of a hat in order to survive.  And the outlook of society is an oppressive hopelessness.

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a textbook example of zombie noir. Zombies are overruning the world and devouring humans.  A band of surviving humans make their last stand against the zombies in a deserted house.

While battling the zombies, the characters fight against themselves as well, and, in the end, the characters are all wiped out.  Ironically, the last survivor in the house is shot and killed by vigilante humans who blow him away thinking him a zombie.

Night of the Living Dead is classic film noir, and it’s not even a crime thriller. Contemporary films like 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later continue the tradition of zombie noir in the movies.

When it comes to hopelessness, a bleak desolate environment, and cynical desperate characters, nothing can compare to the zombie apocalypse genre.  Hence the popularity and rise of zombie noir during these days of a sluggish economy.