If you want to scare the crap out of me, just say the words "They're coming to get you Barbara" in a mocking tone. I'll be up in your backpack in about two seconds flat. If you mention said line whilst taking a stroll with me in a semi-rural area near dusk within the proximity of some strange man shuffling along just about twenty yards away, then you best be trained as a first responder...or have handy wipes cause it ain't going to be pretty.
In junior high I stumbled across a dusty old gem called "Night of the Living Dead" in the $1.99 bin at Wal-Mart. Ever since then I have been keeping a keen eye out for anything lumbering, shuffling or leaving a trail of dust as it walks. For some ridiculous reason I forced myself to keep watching this film even though I had paralyzed myself into rigor mortis-like state of complete fear within the first ten minutes.
Terror in black and white....from the Sixties. How scary could it be? That's its hidden strength, for all of it's olden days feel, George A. Romero knew something about psychological terror. It's the everyday setting with an everyday cast of almost everyday looking, barely decaying zombies that made it all so real. I grew up in the country of a small rural town in the Midwest where many days I would sit and wonder just how remote my location was; how mundane yet inherently evil it looked at dusk as the sun set on the old farmhouse or abandoned barn in the pasture. What would happen if an army of unstoppable undead rose up and came down the hill silently toward my house. This is exactly why this film struck home more than it did to probably anyone else who saw it. I lived in the exact same environment and setting that Night of the Living Dead took place...and my town was populated with the same type of good honest folk that are depicted in the film. The same ones that you just couldn't imagine turning on you and seeking you out even though you used to play in their backyard or ride in their car to church. I certainly couldn't imagine growing up in the Pennsylvania countryside where this was actually filmed; however it is probably a shopping mall by now (ironic as it is the setting for the second film in the Dead trilogy).
Silence1111111111111111 No dialogue, no reason why they are doing it, it's happening and it's happening right now. To you and you don't know why. Most horror films have an elaborate set up with tons of CGI or full-color gore to get the point across. "Here's what the inside of someone's neck looks like! Scary huh?" Romero didn't use any of those things, but they were always implied, in fact that black and white graininess of the film helped hide many flaws (including acting) but also accentuated the the unseen in your mind. The premise as to why any of this was happening is never really revealed. A satellite passing over the U.S. (an attempt to prey on cold war fears) is blamed for the reanimation but the cause of the attacks is never explained. The worst part is, you were never going to find out from the "people" doing this to you either. They couldn't talk but they could see you and sense that you were there, just on the other side of that ridiculously flimsy wooden paneling. Most of all, it's the silence that kills you, a few moans here and there but mostly the sound of shuffling through grass just outside your window or the snapping of a fallen twig as it is being stepped on. The kind of silence your mom gave you when you got into trouble. No telling you why you what you did or why she was doing this to you for hours on end. Deafening, maddening silence...maybe she was a good zombie candidate. They always come after the ones they know!
Its underlying premise much like that of an Arthur Miller play, Night of the Living Dead deals with the push and pull socio-drama of the characters not outside the house, but inside. Sharp and poignant for its time, the unrest in the besieged farmhouse had as much to do with societal woes such as racism, sexism and American's fear of being attacked by "them" (again, a thinly veiled jab at the Cold War) than it did with the zombies on the outside. Nuttier than shit, Romero created something that plunged your heart into the pit of your stomach, the ability to be attacked by someone you know and love. Case in point Karen, the little girl bitten by one of "those things" kept safe in the basement of the farmhouse under the care of her mom and dad until she feels better. Since nothing is known of zombie lore by these unassuming captives, they have no idea that no matter how long they keep the people on the outside from getting in, there was already one of them brewing on the inside. Just before she passes away and subsequently wakes up, she tells her mom "it hurts" which just about sends me into orbit every time I hear it. It is bad enough to think that each one of these attackers was someone with feelings and with lives at some point before they became what they are. Probably the worst aspect of the zombie genre is the ability to keep spreading the epidimic, which is exactly why this film can still parallel today's fear in the form of HIV and the AIDS epidemic. Anyway, poor Karen loved by her mommy and daddy soon turns and attacks them both. At about the same time, the zombies upstairs have just about broken through and Barbara notices some "familiar" faces in the wall of humanity coming forward, including that of her brother Johnny who was killed at the beginning of the film.
Only for a brief moment do we get to know Johnny, the brother to Barbara (the victim of the film...in more ways than one) as he is foolish to point out that the lonely stranger stumbling through the empty cemetery just behind them (within earshot!) might actually prey on Barbara's fear of being attacked by the living dead. "He's coming to get your Barbara!" What an ass! Come on really, other than seizing a perfect opportunity to prove what a tool you are to your sister, why would you make fun of some poor guy there to presumably visit his wife's grave? Especially if he can hear you. And doesn't the torn suit give you any indication that you probably don't want to involve him in your immediate conversation. Even if he isn't a zombie, he's probably an unstable homeless guy. Unstable homeless guys who make the cemetery their home are pretty much off limits eh? And why is it always just one of them at first? That makes it worse!!! Just let me know it's an onslaught so I can have the coronary and not know what hit me. Either way, this begins the first gut wrenching moments of Night of the Living Dead. Johnny does appear later in the film as a zombie, he has finally tracked Barbara down and I assume after he pulls her through the farmhouse window and chews on her a bit, they reunite with mother whom they both came to see in at the cemetery in the first place.
It's that freaky thought process that will not leave my brain. It's not he outright being chased by something tirelessly but the thought of your persuers looking like everyday people, your dad, grandpa, the mail man, the guy upstairs you couldn't really give a shit about. They all know where you live and they all want the same thing...you! And it's not like they are doing it because you owe them money or anything, they can't help it. Like men they got only one thing on the brain and this time around it isn't sex. Although that would be an interesting twist on the genre. No, you are sought after for one primary function, for food. Even if the zombie wasted their life as a vegeterian, they are coming back wanting meat! I personally couldn't imagine if this was my fate, who the person would be to take me down. At that point, you'd want to be pretty selective. I mean, if you are cornered and are going to be eaten then might as well "accidentally" trip in front of your undead wife or dog or something instead of the nasty zombie chick still in her Long John Silver's uniform.
Scariest Scene - the wallpaper of my nightmares looks like the graveyard zombie from the first scene of Night of the Living Dead. I can basically turn the movie as soon as Johnny and Barbara get out of the car and be alright. If I watch two more minutes into the film, I'm toast. It generally takes about a week for me to fry the zombie residue from my synapses by drinking Wild Turkey & Coke and watching a lot of Golden Girls. The reason this freaks me out so much is the fact that he looks relatively normal. I grew up seeing guys who look exactly like this. Torn jacket...could happen to anyone, tooth decay...I grew up in Missouri and Arkansas - welcome to the class photo!, old man with white hair in the cemetery...common place, leaving a trail of dust behind him....ummm, probably a dead give away that something's not right. But otherwise, look at him, no features that would suggest anything but normal midwestern farmer. As a kid, I basically freaked out because I was surrounded by hundreds of the graveyard zombie in daily life so it wasn't a stretch for my 13 year old imagination to imagine them wanting to eat me!
Okay, so I'm messed up. But at least I am prepared in the event of total world domination. I have seen just about every undead movie there is to see and not because I am an avid fan, but because I am dumb enough to believe that this shit could actually happen. Nooo, I really don't but the one enchanting thing about me is that I let my imagination have a greater role in my life than most people and it has served me well in life (if I live a day longer than you, you'll know why) but it comes with a small price to pay and that's occassionally stopping to presume the impossible...oh, and also imagine that you have latent mutant super powers for which you will someday be asked to attend that "special" school in Westchester, NY. For those without the nerve, time or fortitude to endure countless hours of bad makeup and even worse acting, Max Brooks has written a wonderful book for just such an occassion as "Z" day for Zombies called appropriately enough, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead.
Somewhere in recent years, two elements were added to the zombie vocabulary that I could have quite done without, thank you. First in Return of the Living Dead, zombies are given the ability to talk, and they are sassy muthafuckers. Scariest zombie image burned into my brain part 2 involves the handsome guy from above, dubbed tar man, who shocked moviegoers everywhere by gargling the word "Braiiiinsssss." Yeah, we always knew that they were hungry, we really didn't need to hear them sing for their supper. Secondly and most recently in films like 28 Days Later and the re-make of Dawn of the Dead, zombies are given the ability to run. As in fast. After you. At Olympic speeds. These things are in better shape dead than you are alive. And that my friend just sucks.
In unrelated news but equally terrifying is this:
Not sure why but somehow this image made it into The Shining and has scared the beJesus out of me ever since I was a kid. Ambiguous and certainly sexual in nature, it is freakish and just wrong on so many levels. The twin girls are one thing but this is completely another. At least we know what's up with the girls, this is left unexplained and forever burned into my memory.