Re-Visiting Night of the Living Dead with a 12-year-old

Night Of The Living Dead, Dir. George Romero

I hadn’t seen Night of The Living Dead in a while and it wasn’t until I was considering a post on films lost to the public domain that it occurred to me again how much I really wanted to see it.

George Romero’s first film is arguably his best – though Martin and Dawn of the Dead are all in the mix – and sadly the one he makes nothing on.  At the time of NOTLD’s release copyright law required a copyright notice to be placed on films and because the original distributor of the film failed to do so the film slipped into the public domain.  Because there is no copyright on the film anymore, and therefore no copyright to violate, it can now be sold by anybody which is why some jackass decided to colorize it and why I managed to get a copy of the film bundled onto a trio of discs with 11 other ‘masterpieces’ of the genre.  I kind of felt dirty when I bought the movie, knowing how George Romero generally got screwed on that deal so if he somehow contacts me I will gladly fork over a couple of bucks to make it right.  The other 11 films on the disc get nothing.

Because I’d seen the film before – even if it had been a little while – I knew what the movie was all about and it was far from scary.  I just wanted to watch it to watch it.  My 12-year-old daughter is a different story, though, and when I told her I was going to watch it and she said she wanted to watch it too – even though it’s in black-and-white and she hates black and white – and I let her, if only to see if the movie still  had the power to get a scare out of somebody.

Sadly, while the movie holds up in general, for my daughter the scares fell a little short.  Maybe it’s that the makeup was a little unconvincing on the Zeds.  Maybe it’s because the Zeds really don’t seem all that dangerous to begin with.  Maybe it’s the grandstanding speeches everybody makes.  Anyhow, the only time she cringed at all was in disgust when the zombies are eating the flesh of Tom and Judy after the truck blows up and the daughter having a nosh on her father, or when the daughter stabs the mother to death with a trowel in the basement but even then, I think she was reacting more to the soundtrack to the death than the death itself.

This really made me wonder if the reason the movie fails to scare today is simply because it wasn’t scary or if it was just a product of its time.  After all, to really get the full value of the movie you sort of have to know your history.  At the time it was released I’m sure the zombies were shocking but part of me thinks the zombies were probably less shocking than the films forward thinking about race relations.  After all, people weren’t as used to seeing a black man in America being intelligent, cool under pressure or comfortable with telling a white man what to do.  Nor were they used to seeing a black man beat up a white man without fear of the consequences.  I mean, America knew who Sidney Poitier was but another black actor?  Nope.

Needless to say, the subtext of the film was lost on my daughter.  And given her aversion to seeing flesh being bitten it’ll probably be a while before she sees Dawn of the Dead, which I suppose is just as well, as the subtext there will be lost on her as well.

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