What Not to Watch at Christmas: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

Christmas is by far and large a subjective experience, and thus it is not for me to tell you that horror has no place within the jolly celebrations of the holidays. In fact, in the 1950s, the gimmick horror flicks of the famous William Castle and their carnival atmosphere might even be perfect for some of the less traditional Christmas experiences out there. Films like Macabre (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Tingler (1959) offer an outrageously timeless schlock that’s light hearted nature and cheap thrills bring with them certain merriments comparable to the Christmas spirit.

A lot of these cheap thrills came from the films production; one example would be Castle’s $1,000 Fright Insurance Policy from Lloyd’s of London insuring audiences in the case of death by fright. A gimmick woefully misused in the advertisement of George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead. Though the promotions for the low budget zombie thriller promised the same death by fright insurance, the unapologetic violence and bleak social commentary of the movie quickly dismissed any similarities between Castle’s gimmicks and Romero’s nihilism.

Want to watch some good old fashion family values being reinforced through the visual medium of film? Try Romero’s undead Karen Cooper brutally hacking her mother to death with a trowel after being interrupted from the feast she had been making of her father.

Though Night of the Living Dead set the precedent for the zombie horror, many unknowing viewers could easily mistake it with the silliness of Romero’s later counterparts such as Land of the Dead (2005) and Survival of the Dead (2010). In truth, Romero’s very first venture into film came with a very contextual cheerlessness epitomising the soul of 1968. A year that can be summarized in events: the assassination of Martin Luther King; the TET offensive; the assassination of Robert Kennedy; the Chicago police riot and most notably the peak of the Vietnam War. All of which find themselves embodied within NotLD’s graphic and unprecedented levels of violence and the inescapability of the horrific situation of which the characters find themselves.

As we reach the conclusion, Ben, our protagonist, emerges from the basement of which he had sought refuge after a night of frantic struggle. What follows I will not spoil, though its suddenness and pointlessness quickly dawns on us as we realise that not only were the events leading to this point futile but so were the ramifications. Director Romero, and screenwriter John Russo, effectively create a scenario in which hope is never allowed to fathom in the minds of their audience. In which from the very outset, the remorselessness of their zombie horde constructs an atmosphere of total despondency and a tone of an utter macabre melancholy.

Though horror can have its place at the Christmas dinner table, Romero rather takes the piss of such a liberty.

RICHARD JOHN DORRICOTT

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