On Halloween, 1968, an independent film named Night of the Living Dead hit theaters across the nation. Forty years later, millions of zombie fans look back on that event as the start of a massive popular culture phenomenon that has inspired a large number of other films, video games, books, comic books, TV shows, conventions, t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc. To many, the idea of flesh-eating undead ghouls is not exactly shocking. It is, rather, an accepted vehicle of entertainment. When I was in high school, I starred as Jonny, the singing zombie in a musical named Zombie Prom. Films like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland are, to a lot of people, hilarious. Although a certain level of humor has been used in zombie lore as early as the branched off sequels (George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and John Russo’s Return of the Living Dead, respectively) the original film had none of that. It was deadly serious.
As a culture bombarded by a thousand and one flavors of zombie apocalypse, the basic structure of that type of story is disarmingly familiar. But there was a time when the concept was unheard of. When the shock and horror of it all was raw, unexpected and very real. When it was the stuff of nightmares.
These days, every form of entertainment is rated in some way. Music, videogames, TV shows, movies, it’s just an accepted part of society. But these systems weren’t always in place. I remember when the TV ratings system first went into place in the ’90s. I didn’t like the idea at the time, but then got used to it, and now I don’t even notice it. As an adult, ratings systems don’t affect me in any way, so I don’t spend much time thinking about them. However I do find it hard to envision a theater full of children watching Night of the Living Dead. Yet that’s exactly what happened, all across the country when it was first released.
Saturday matinees were very popular with kids back then, and horror monsters were all the rage. It just so happens that the MPAA ratings system went into effect November 1st, 1968, a single day after the release of Night of the Living Dead. Thanks to that happy little coincidence the film wasn’t rated, which meant that it wasn’t restricted. The poor little buggers had no idea what kind of a ride they were in for.
Roger Ebert, the late legendary film critic, saw the film for his Chicago Tribune review in a theater packed with kids under 16. Most of his review concerns the effect the film was having on them as it unfolded. He talks about how much cheering, laughter and screams there was in the theater as it started. How lots of kids went to get more popcorn during the boring dialogue sections towards the beginning. But then, right around the time the pickup truck explodes in a series of dumb mistakes made by two characters, as the zombies surround and then feast on the bodies, he remarks on how much things quieted down.
I find it easy to empathize with the traumatized kids in Roger Ebert’s review, because I was about 10 or so when I first saw it, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The slow build up does a fantastic job at disarming first time viewers. By the time things really start going sideways, you’ve been lured in too deep to bail. You have to know what happens next, and by the end of it you feel like you’ve been dragged through a gauntlet.
In hind sight, my choice to save the first zombie encounter for the sixth chapter of my first book, The Outbreak, was a tribute to that slow-cook pacing. It allowed me to establish a number of characters and an environment first, before threatening them with the possibility of being eaten alive by corpses. I have doubted that decision at times, but ultimately feel that the slow start of a zombie story can really help make the whole experience that much more intense, as long as it’s done right.
RIP George Romero, you are missed.