Recession Cinema: Night of the Living Dead

Every holiday movie we want to watch always arrives annoyingly early, like a punctual party guest. We’re still picking at Thanksgiving leftovers during the annual broadcast of A Charlie Brown ChristmasHalloween is on AMC this morning at 9:30, when no one’s actually home alone to be scared. And cable channels like TNT and USA, once host to gloriously trashy, deeply ironic anthologies like Monstervision and Up All Night, aren’t airing marathons of Maniac Cop or every Friday the 13th. No, for tonight they’ve scheduled, respectively, The Da Vinci Code and an episode of The Starter Wife.

There’s something judgmental about this sort of holiday programming: if it’s Christmas, you should be curled up with loved ones in front of a roaring fireplace; if it’s Halloween, you should be dressed up as a pirate or a slutty werewolf or as Sarah Palin, getting hammered on pumpkintinis; and if you’re home on the couch watching TV, you must be a friendless, family-less loser in deep denial that a holiday is even taking place. You want to watch The Starter Wife and pretend it’s any other Friday night.

To be fair: for the past few weeks, cable TV has been wall-to-wall horror, almost all of it mediocre, un-fun, and in no way terrifying. Maybe by now we’re supposed to be as sick of chills up our spine and knots in our stomach and the edges of our seats as we already are of the presidential election. This, of course, is the problem with distending holidays into interminable shopping seasons: when the actual calendar date rolls around it’s not a celebration but a finishing line, a relief.

But like low-information undecideds who don’t get interested in voting until the day of, we only get weepy about Linus and Charlie Brown and that crappy, lovely little tree on Christmas Eve and we want the shit scared out of us only on All Hallow’s Eve. Your best bet this year would have been to DVR the original 1974 version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre when it played on the IFC channel on Tuesday. That’s a movie so bleak and rough and flawlessly fucked up we will not write a single word more about it for fear of making ourselves vomit on our computer keyboard.

Otherwise, be sure to catch 1968’s Night of the Living Dead tonight at 2 a.m., on WLIW 21. Before turning it on, please follow the example of anyone besieged by zombies: draw every drape; lock every window; bolt every door.

About George Romero’s later work—see: Dawn of the DeadDay of the Dead, don’t see: Land of the Dead— we go back and forth: are his radical progressive politics too campy, his scares too heavy-handed, his gore too silly and gross? But here, in his very first, very low-budget film, every dial is set to just the right, revelatory frequency: as a result, the black and white film is as sad and stark as news reel footage of riot police attacking civil rights marchers. Outside a boarded-up farmhouse, the ghouls, in a mood of apocalyptic tedium, shuffle slowly forward, stopping only when they hit a wall or reach a meal. Inside, the survivors, maybe the only ones, fret, and freak out, and do their very best to make sure everybody else gets killed. They’d probably resort to cannibalism if they lasted long enough. This, of course, is the scariest, least forgiving thing about George Romero: you’re never clear who’s better off, the living or the dead. Recession Cinema: Night of the Living Dead