Fun with Opening Shots: Night of the Living Dead
This week, I continue my breakdowns of opening shots for hidden meanings, veiled truths, and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow with George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. This 1968 classic invented the zombie film, and zombie mythology, as we know it. Despite its virtually non-existent budget, amateur cast, and decided lack of zombies for a convincing swarm, “Night of the Living Dead” is one of the most effective horror films ever made. It conjures dread and mounting despair better than any zombie film other than “28 Days Later” (which I think represents the pinnacle of the genre, zombie purists be damned). Here’s how the first couple of minutes play out.
We’re treated to a series of shots of a car winding down a dirt road as eerie music plays. This isn’t subtle, but then horror is rarely a subtle genre. These shots are very effective at achieving their purpose; creating the sense of desolation that ends up being so important later in the film, when the characters are stranded in the middle of nowhere at night, surrounded by zombies.
Romero is having some fun here with foregrounds. One of the most basic aspects of a good horror film is blocking our field of vision. The director can be as arbitrary as they want; once they establish that there’s danger about, they throw some obstructions to block our view. Obstructed foregrounds are less key for zombie films than, say slasher films, but Romero uses them well during the opening credits to toy with our emotions and establish that vital aspect of horror movies: the sense that something is wrong.
The sound of the car pulling onto an asphalt road jolts us a bit. It’s not a thrill technique; it just makes us aware that the car is arriving at its destination. In another film, this trigger might be used to establish a feeling of hope, say, if the characters are on the run and looking for civilization. Here, we’re just curious to see where the car is going.
Sweet heavens above, they’re going to a graveyard. Why the hell would they do that? Don’t they know they’re in a movie called “Night of the Living Dead”? Indeed, one of the joys of horror films is that our familiarity genre gives the director a lot of narrative leeway. Romero doesn’t need to do much to let us know that something bad is going to happen soon. We haven’t met the characters yet, and we’re already assuming the worst for them.
That American flag is sure conspicuous. It’s worth noting that “Night of the Living Dead” became popular largely because it was widely viewed as an allegory of government oppression during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Is that flag symbolic of the death of America?
Nah, I don’t think so. My best bet is that Romeo thought it’d look cool in the shot.
No genre relishes in convention more than horror. We can assume two things from this scene so far. Given Johnny’s cynicism and smarminess about about visiting their father’s grave puts a big marker on him as a potential victim. We’re less sure about Barbara. Horror films tend to have a lead female who survives a while.
Johnny pulls out the wreath that they’ll lay at his father’s grave. You can’t see it here, but it looks like a cross. Frankly, it looks more like a gravestone than a typical wreath. It doesn’t bode well for Johnny to be holding it.
Just now, Johnny notices the radio. The signal is poor, and the newsman is gargling some urgent, breaking news. Have you heard of Chekov’s Gun? It’s a trope coined after the legendary writer Anton Chekov, who once wrote “”If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” This shot isn’t a proper example of that, but it’s close. Something major is happening. We just can’t quite understand it. Could it be… the living dead?
Naturally, Johnny turns off the radio right as the signal begins to improve. Seriously, the guy is just asking to get bitten by the undead.And, now disconnected from the rest of the world, out two characters head off into the cemetery. You think anything bad is going to happen in there?