[All this week, leading up to our top ten horror films on Halloween, the staff at Flixist will be presenting ‘Scared Flixist.’ Here we will be talking about movies that really, truly scared us. There’s plenty of great horror out there, but a movie that truly gets into your head and creeps you out for years to come is a rare creature. These are those movies.]
Picture this: It’s broad daylight. I’m at a friend’s house watching a VHS on a tiny television with a terrible picture. The room I am in has sunlight streaming in, flowers on the drapes, and enough pink to make you think you’ve possibly stumbled into a room made out of cotton candy. My friend’s little sister is constantly coming in and out of the room yelling things and being kind of adorable. There is literally a bluebird chirping outside one of the windows. It may in fact be one of the most cheerful settings I have ever been in.
I am scared. Really and truly horrified.
This is the setting I first saw George A. Romero’s seminal zombie film Night of the Living Dead. I was around 14, and clearly, I was not in a setting conducive to enjoying the film to its full extent, and yet I was horrified. My friend, who lived down the street, had a massive VHS collection and his parents let him watch R-rated movies. He was clearly a badass. I, on the other hand, was not allowed to see R-rated films and so when I came to his house and saw Night of the Living Dead sitting on the shelf I instantly knew what I wanted to watch. We popped it in in his parent’s bedroom on their truly tiny television and sat down to enjoy. That night I could barely sleep I was so afraid of zombies. Romero’s film truly horrified me.
It wasn’t like I was a wimpy kid, and you can’t even say it was my lack of R-rated film watching that upped my ability to be scared by the movie. Aside from the fact that it actually came out before the MPAA established its rating system, it’s not actually that graphically violent. No, it definitely was not my lack of horror movie experience that made Night of the Living Dead so scary. It was simply the fact that it is actually and truly scary.
But what makes Night of the Living Dead truly scary as opposed to the “ahhh, zombies!” scary of most films of its ilk. When the movie first came out it could be argued that it was scary because people really hadn’t seen much like it before. Zombies weren’t the uber-popular phenomenon they are now and the makeup and special effects guys on the film pretty much defined how zombies would look in film for all eternity. That explains a lot of the initial fear over the film, but it doesn’t explain why the movie is still actually scary after all these years. In fact the film doesn’t feel dated at all and if you’ve never seen it your first viewing can easily feel like you’re watching one of the most original zombie films ever made.
First off, let’s all respect the black and white. It not only makes the zombies make up all the scarier and their dark eyes all the more dead, but gives the movie a found footage feel long before that style ever came into vogue. If you’ve ever seen a colorized version of the film it makes the whole thing seem less serious and the zombies less threatening. Something about the simplicity of the shades of black and white make the film far scarier and, of course, the darkness far darker.
Second, let’s respect the slow zombies. I love me some fast zombies, but when slow zombies are done right (as they are here) they are a hundred times scarier and a million times less reliant on cheap pop out jumps. And the slowness affects the entire film. Night of the Living Dead is paced pretty darn slowly compared to modern horror films, but it works wonderfully because it actually gives the characters time to burn and fester. Trapped inside that farm house and with simply a bunch of plodding zombies eternally attacking the film’s tension and horror build wonderfully. You might not jump as many times as most zombie films, but the slow and growing terror that is created by the film as the people in the farm house die off is far more chilling than any quick pop. Anyone who has seen the re-edited version of the film that tried to update the pacing knows that its Night of the Living Dead‘s careful and methodical destruction of a group of people that actually makes it work so well and leaves you scared far beyond viewing the film.
Finally, what’s truly most terrifying is the fact that an equal number of people die from being killed by other humans as from zombies. I’m pretty sure this is not something that scared me when I first saw, as I was petrified of the never ending flow of relentless zombies flowing in. However, upon more screenings later in life it was the human interactions and steady breakdown of their sanity that really starts to get to you. While Romero’s social commentary often goes overboard (see Dawn of the Dead), but in this film its just subtle enough to really worry you after seeing the movie. The end result is a movie where you never know what to be afraid of since anything can kill anyone. Even at the film’s end, when you think all is safe, things do not go as they should. It’s an impressive feet to keep a film scary and shocking until the very last frame, but Night of the Living Dead does it.
In the end, it’s the zombies that really make the film scary, though. They are just so well done and somehow still seem original after being copied hundred of times over. Even Romero himself has been unable to touch his original masterpiece. It’s scary, disturbing and sticks with you long after viewing. In short it can scare the crap out of you in the middle of the day without even trying.