My father was a horror fan and he passed it down to me, like it was an heirloom, a keepsake. I remember him letting us watch horror movies late at night — it didn’t matter that they were rated R, he let us watch them anyway. Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, Evil Dead II, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, we watched them all, sometimes with our hands hovering just in front of our eyes.
But my favorite, by far, was Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. These films riveted me, glued me to the screen. I don’t remember exactly when I first watched them, but it had to be at a very young age. I remember Johnny taunting Barbara, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara! They’re coming for you! Look, there’s one of them now!” I remember Peter saying, in his deep baritone voice, “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
That’s all the explanation there was. Sure, Night had a bit of an explanation — a crashed satellite with weird radiation, fears about the space age — but it didn’t really matter. By Dawn, no one was asking “Why?” It was simply a matter of survival.
When Night of the Living Dead first premiered in October 1968, the MPAA Ratings System wouldn’t be in place for another month. Children flocked to the theaters to see this new horror film. Roger Ebert has a great review of the audience’s reaction:
“The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed.
It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.”
Eleven years later, Ebert would call Dawn of the Dead “one of the best horror films ever made.”
My father’s horror obsession began when he was a kid and he collected Creepy and Eerie and Vampirella — yes, the character whose costume is held together with string and hope. These were black-and-white horror magazines printed in the ‘60s by Warren Publishing and they were the spiritual successors of the ‘50s horror comics by EC Comics — Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear, horror stories told by rubber-faced horror hosts.
Needless to say, as a kid, I devoured them, too. My dad never got into superheroes from those horror comics, but I did. It was an easy slide from Eerie to Swamp Thing to Superman.
And Romero helped, too. Creepshow and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (god, that movie messed me up) and The Crazies. But, of course, it always came back to Night of the Living Dead (“Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.”) and Dawn of the Dead (“Every dead body that is not exterminated becomes one of them. It gets up and kills! The people it kills get up and kill!”) and even Day of the Dead (which has no good lines, but it does have Bub, the best zombie ever).
A while ago, I saw Land of the Dead when it came out. It was okay, but I didn’t really enjoy it as much as I did rewatching Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Perhaps it wasn’t as good or perhaps my viewings of those films were tinged with childhood nostalgia. Perhaps everything in my childhood was never as good as I thought, it just became that way because my childhood brain was still developing and latched onto it.
Still, whenever I watch those films, I feel like a kid again, sneaking out of my room and onto the living room couch, the darkness only illuminated by the light of the TV screen. But I know this feeling won’t last — it’s only the nostalgic remnants of childhood. And childhood never lasts.
After all, nobody gets out alive.