Friday, 6 December 2013

"Look for the name of the rescue station nearest you..."

Last week as part of the TV coverage of the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death, I watched a fine documentary (narrated by George Clooney) entitled JFK: News of a Shooting, which focused on the reporting of the assassination, the unprecedented challenges for reporters to get the unfolding story out, culminating in that famous moment when Walter Cronkite announced the American president's death on air, ("We just have a report from our correspondent Dan Rather in Dallas, that he has confirmed President Kennedy is dead"), the CBS anchorman visibly trying to maintain his composure (and fidgeting indecisively with his spectacles) while delivering the shocking news.

Watching this footage strongly reminded me of the news bulletins in Night of the Living Dead, which feature an anchorman dryly intoning the extraordinary news of bodies of the dead returning to life to prey on the living. These sequences are key component to the film's much celebrated documentary feel, director George Romero stages them with the raw unpolished look of a breaking news flash, in the background of the newsroom, news personnel can be seen manning teletype machines, taking rushed phone calls adding to the improvised feel of the broadcast.

The final bulletin delivered by a reporter tagging along with a search and destroy militia is perhaps the most incredible, a slyly subversive commentary on the violence encroaching upon American life - the clashes between police and civil rights activists, violent student protests, and the increasingly bitter (and televised) war in Vietnam. In one of the film's most memorable lines of dialogue, the slightly self-congratulatory sheriff co-ordinating the militia, offers some advice in fending off ghouls, with "Beat 'em or burn 'em, they go up pretty easy", which must have had enlightened audiences reflecting on newsreel footage of US infantry torching villages in South East Asia...

For more on Night of the Living Dead and other subversive Horror films, look out for Jon Towlson's forthcoming book Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages in Films from Frankenstein to the Present, a study of the "subversive" strain of horror films produced in Britain and America from 1931 to the present day, to be published in early 2014 by McFarland


  1. "beat 'em or burn em", along with "They're dead, they're all missed up" - surely two of the most resonant lines from any film of the 1960s! Thanks for the plug, Wes! Funnily enough, in the book, I also talk about Eggshells (as per your post below) and, like you, compare it to Zabriskie Point (and also make the observation about the girl in the back of the pick up) Talk about great minds... ;-)

  2. Yeah, I love the messed up line for that great momentary shrug by the chief. I can't remember if Romero's commentary specifically mentions this line but I think it surely wasn't scripted... As for Eggshells, it's been my greatest discovery of 2013 along with the 1968 Italian psycho-thriller A Quiet Place in the Country. I think Eggshells compares better with Zabriskie Point than Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I managed to grab a listen to Eggshells' commentary and Hopper admits that after the film died a death, he decided to do a Horror picture as a sure fire way to make a few bucks and get back on his feet. So had Eggshells broke out and made an impact, we might never have had The Texas Chainsaw Massacre...

  3. Haven't seen that Italian film - must check it out. Sounds like a home invasion movie?

  4. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Jon, given the Italians' proclivity for that kind of thing, but it's a 1968 new wave drama about a neurotic painter who swaps the trendy and suffocating Milan art scene for a quiet place in the country - an old rambling villa which holds a dark secret. Surreal, disorientating stuff, that Nic Roeg fans might appreciate. Starring Franco Nero and a disarmingly sexy Vanessa Redgrave...