Welcome to the latest Movie of the Week segment! Each week, I take a trip back in time to learn more about the films and filmmakers that have influenced the art form, in a way that is hopefully both relevant and entertaining.
When it came to selecting this week’s film, there was no clearer choice than George A. Romero’s inimitable classic Night of the Living Dead, especially with the recent release of Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die, which was heavily inspired by the 1968 film. Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first film to feature the undead, but it is widely considered to be the definitive introduction for mainstream audiences. The mythology it established all those years ago continues to be the standard for almost every other zombie movie, TV show, or other medium in the genre to come out since.
Romero’s film even opens with death. A man (Russell Streiner) and a woman (Judith O’Dea) arrive at a cemetery in a remote wooded area of Pennsylvania to replace the flowers on their father’s grave. The man, Johnny, expresses frustration at the long drive, shows very little respect for the dead, and taunts his sister Barbra when a strange man appears. Barbra attempts to apologize to the man but is suddenly attacked, seemingly unprovoked. Johnny is viciously killed trying to save her, and she has no choice but to run for her life.
The intensity of the situation escalates within minutes, and Romero impressively carries it through to an assuredly ambiguous conclusion. It’s important to know going in that most of the movie doesn’t directly feature the zombies, or ghouls as they’re referred to. The film’s incredibly low budget was obviously a concern, and the makeup effects aren’t nearly as detailed as we’re used to seeing these days. But the conceptual dread of this particular horror is emphasized just as much, if not more, than the literal, physical threat onscreen.
Barbra flees to a seemingly abandoned house, and she’s quickly met by Ben (Duane Jones), another survivor hell-bent on making it out alive. Almost the entire remainder of the film is spent barricaded indoors, as the zombie apocalypse truly feels like a plague or an epidemic. There’s a distinct feeling of confused anxiety that is especially enlightening to watch with modern eyes, due to the fact that we’re all aware of zombies in movies, but the characters are learning about them for the first time.
Fittingly enough, the universal understanding and acceptance of an eventual zombie apocalypse is a primary driving force behind The Dead Don’t Die. Like Romero’s film, it takes place in a secluded region of Pennsylvania, this time in the small town of Centerville, a separated part of the world content on its own terms. Its citizens are in no rush to be anywhere or do anything, and when the zombie apocalypse suddenly breaks out, their general reaction is one of only mild concern.
Numerous references are made to popular horror films in The Dead Don’t Die, including those of Romero himself, so this is a world in which zombie mythology is clearly established and understood. As a result, there’s a bizarre sense of acceptance channeled by several of the characters, particularly officer Ronny Peterson (Adam Driver), who breaks the fourth wall on several occasions to directly point out what is happening in this admittedly generic storyline.
The plot doesn’t attempt to innovate or add much to zombie lore, but rather, it presents a familiar story inside the framework of undramatic irony. It makes for a film with a dry and straightforward sense of humor, which certainly isn’t out of character for Jim Jarmusch as a director. His characters often behave rather passively, so it’s clear that the film isn’t gunning for the action and intensity we might expect from a typical zombie film. The problem is that it’s not going for much else, either.
Going as far back as Stranger Than Paradise, Jarmusch has always had a nebulous and cynical view of humanity, dictating that we’re little more than consumerist entities wandering our landscape in search of meaning and satisfaction. Applying that perspective to a movie about the apocalypse (where zombies literally wander the landscape) generates an on-the-nose story about our own worthlessness. It appears to believe that we’re nothing more than fodder, and crudely asks who the real zombies are.
There’s certainly a place for that sort of downbeat storytelling, but it only comes off as halfhearted here. The huge all-star cast rarely gets moments to stand out, with the exception of Chloë Sevigny, whose convincing hysteria is criminally underused. The film doesn’t demand to be taken too seriously, but the text and subtext are inherently dramatic, and it quickly becomes strange and unrewarding to watch this story unfold.
In many respects, Night of the Living Dead isn’t a particularly deep film, but that’s probably one of its selling points. It’s a movie about how easily an unexpected shift in reality can doom us all, and that humanity would undoubtedly fail to survive a catastrophe on this scale. It’s not uplifting in any way, but it is sincere and intelligent. The action scenes are excitingly sparse, and the horror imagery compensates for the more tedious set pieces thanks to a well-cooked atmosphere. There are a handful of moments that don’t play as well 51 years later, but the film is too deft to be overlooked or dismissed as anything short of a classic.
The Dead Don’t Die obviously can’t influence the industry to the same extent, nor does it even appear to try. So placing the two films together might seem like an unfair comparison, save for Jarmusch’s effort to pay almost constant homage to the prototypical zombie flick he clearly loves. His film shoots to subvert Romero’s framework, but it fails to build into anything beyond its own (admittedly confident) sense of humor and irony, which I sadly found to be just a bit too obnoxious. It might make you laugh at times, but that’s about all it achieves. And I’m dead serious about that.
Night of the Living Dead is streaming on The Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime Video, with a restored version available for rental on Google Play. The Dead Don’t Die is playing in select theaters now.