01/09/2008. Contributed by Neale Monks
pub: Palgrave Macmillan. 128 page small illustrated softcover. £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84457-174-1.
check out websites: www.palgrave.com/bfi and www.bfi.org.uk
The 'BFI Film Classics' series of books attempts to analyse and explain some of the most influential films ever made. Subjects span the range from pop culture to high culture, including such diverse titles as 'The Seventh Seal', 'The Wizard Of Oz' and 'Groundhog Day'. Each of the books review the development of the film, its context within society at the time, artistic merits and legacy.
If all that sounds a trifle pretentious, well that's a fair point. These aren't fun, breezy books of the sort cranked out to service the movie buff market. The SF market in particular is replete with books written with much enthusiasm but little skill by well meaning if not terribly well-read fans and buffs. These 'BFI Film Classics' are rather different, being very much scholarly works written by respected critics and aimed at a more discerning readers than the usual movie pot-boiler.
That's all very well when you're analysing 'Citizen Kane', but how well does Ben Hervey spin out a discussion of something as seemingly banal as 'Night Of The Living Dead'. The answer is perhaps surprisingly rather well.
While a casual viewing of 'Night Of The Living Dead' would suggest nothing more than a cheap horror movie what Hervey reveals is that the reason this classic zombie movie works so well and remains so important forty years after its release is that it dips into a deep well of containing the fears and tensions of 1960s American society.
For a start, Hervey makes a strong case for America's love affair with the zombie movie being, in part, at least a reaction against its fear of nuclear holocaust. In particular, the idea of the atom bomb as a technology out of hand, threatening to wipe out humanity is exactly paralleled with the accidental release of radiation from a space probe that is turning people into zombies. Consciously or otherwise, director George Romero continually draws from this nuclear war iconography throughout the movie, with clear visual references to bomb shelters, useless civic defence plans, updates across the radio waves and the macabre but important problem of dealing with the dead.
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the film in its time, though easily overlooked today, was the ethnicity of the leading male protagonist, Ben. Played by African-American actor Duane Jones, this was one of the first times a black actor was leading in a film not about race or race issues. The filmmakers don't make a big deal of this fact but as Hervey makes clear, that's the point, that's what was revolutionary.
'Night Of The Living Dead' is also put into context with regard to the other social and political currents of the time: assassinations, rising crime, the civil rights movement, anti-establishment activism and the reaction against the Vietnam War. For many Americans, the 1960s were a time when their culture and society was under siege. Being trapped in your house and surrounded by malevolent forces was precisely how many Americans felt. Substitute man-eating zombies for liberals, cynics and hippies and you had a pretty fair impression of what white, middle-aged Americans in their suburban homes were feeling. The transition from the narrow, comfortable world of the 1950s to the uneasy and distinctly dangerous world of the 1970s wasn't easy for many Americans and as Hervey makes clear, 'Night Of The Living Dead' exemplifies that.
It would be easy to assume that because Hervey's book is relatively erudite and high-brow it would be difficult to read, but nothing could be further from the truth. Academic he may be, but dry and dusty he is not. 'Night Of The Living Dead' is an easy read. Footnotes are sensibly placed at the back of the book so that readers can look them up or ignore as preferred.
The book is competently rather than profusely illustrated in monochrome, the only oversight perhaps being the lack of captions in many places. But provided they're used to supplement the well-written text they work well. Hervey uses them to demonstrate parallels between real-world events and scenes in the movie, reinforcing his argument that while 'Night Of The Living Dead' is clearly fiction, it's taking place in a world not so very different to our own.
This particular volume of the 'BFI Film Classics' series is illuminating and educational. Anyone with an interest in horror films generally will find it fascinating and students of social history will find the analyses contained stimulating and informative. In short, it's a relatively brief, thoughtful study on a much loved film that Hervey firmly places in the turbulent world of the late 1960s. Highly recommended.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA