Can you believe we’re more than halfway through the year? Time once moved with the speed of a kitchen renovation; now, everything is an aching reminder that life has sped up to a ridiculous degree. I used to think this was a cost of getting older, but young people are aware of it, too. When I was a kid my father used to make what I thought was a spacey reference. “Once you hit the Fourth of July, the next stop is Christmas.” I thought he was crazy. In 2021 – as regards so many things – I see how right he was.
It seems everything conspires to remind us of the sand slipping through the glass. Have you been to the supermarket lately? Easter decorations appear in January, summer gear in March, Thanksgiving displays in August. At the checkout the other day I noticed a Halloween DVD next to the gossip rags. And wouldn’t you know it, I came upon something special.
I’ll defend this to the finish: Night of the Living Dead (directed and photographed by George Romero in 1968) is the scariest, most unsettling film ever made. It’s also the worst looking film of all time! Though it sounds harsh, a wonderful compliment is wrapped up in that remark.
Night of the Living Dead is raw in a way that only the 16mm black and white negative of the late ’60’s could be. It’s filled with crude camerawork and harsh lighting that’s often mismatched and inconsistent. Then there are the compositions that reach for something arty but come across as clumsy and self-conscious. Continuity mistakes abound and the rules of screen direction are dutifully ignored. It’s amateurish in an unintended way, and its best lessons teach what not to do. Yet, fifty three-years later, these are the reasons why it remains so compelling.
I first saw it at a midnight screening during the 1970’s. I thought it was cheap and gory and dismissed it as another notch on the lens barrel. Watching it recently, I recognized it as a masterpiece. Everything technically wrong with this film now made it chilling and disturbing. No one but Gordon Willis, ASC could have created the look of The Godfather. The same must be said for George Romero here. Whatever his qualifications at the time, the mood and textures he created for this story are on par with the best movies you can name.
And when everything’s said and done, aren’t we all just trying to serve the narrative? Too often we’re fooled into equating surface perfection with inner value (that counts for people too!). If you’re ever seeking clarity in the way you approach cinematography, you’d do well to keep Night of the Living Dead first in mind.