We had a breakthrough this past weekend: I finally convinced someone in my family to watch a zombie movie with me. My elder son, age twelve, joined me for the original Night of the Living Dead.
It’s hard to imagine, in 2016, seeing it with no preconceptions, and since I’m his father, the boy certainly didn’t. I’ve sung its praises all his life, and so he wasn’t so much surprised as finally able to give these tidbits a context. He’d also glimpsed some of the Rifftrax version, and it’s pretty much impossible to take it seriously after that (much as Spaceballs has ruined the chest-burster in Alien).
It definitely wasn’t like my first time seeing it. I was, if I remember correctly, a little older than him, living in a backwater Tennessee town of 350 during the seventies. We got exactly three TV channels (four if you count PBS, but we never did), and only one of those reliably. There was no cable in our town, so we used an antenna to pick up broadcasts.
We received two Memphis stations, channels 3 and 5. Again, if I remember correctly, it was channel 5, the NBC channel, that showed Night of the Living Dead one Sunday afternoon. At the time my knowledge of such things came mainly from Starlog and Famous Monsters, both of which called this a classic. So, knowing only that it was about zombies, I sat down to watch.
Two hours later, I continued to sit, speechless, wondering what the hell I’d just seen. It certainly wasn’t related to the Hammer films I watched every weekend (usually on channel 3, the CBS station). There were no moral absolutes: good not only didn’t triumph, it endured unremitting horror only to be randomly snuffed out. The ingenue and her generic boyfriend didn’t escape, they died, and then were eaten on screen. The hero did at least kill the villain, but then it turns out the villain had been right all along and the cellar was the safest place. Even a little girl died, became a zombie and ate her fucking parents.
It would be many years before I understood nihilism, or irony; but from that afternoon on, I understood horror.* Few subsequent films matched this experience, because you can only lose your horror virginity once; yet on that list I’d put The Exorcist, Session 9, [REC], and Island of Terror (the silicates still show up in my nightmares to this day).
Interestingly, years later when I got to college (University of Tennessee at Martin, also in west Tennessee), I found a little knot of people who’d also seen that same broadcast, and had a similar response. I’ve often wondered what the programmer at the station was thinking, but I’m pretty sure I know: he saw a movie from 1968, in black and white, and thought, “How bad can it be?” I doubt he set out to subversively traumatize a generation of local children.
Now, with zombies infiltrating every genre and every form of media, my son didn’t have remotely the same experience. I daresay he found it quaint, if interesting. Having a black hero no longer even seemed unusual, let alone groundbreaking. The gore was disturbing, but he’s seen worse in “T”-rated video games. He saw, in essence, what that long-ago station programmer thought he was showing. He certainly wasn’t traumatized, or had his whole view of a genre changed forever.
I shudder (un-ironically) to think what it would take to have that effect on him now, in 2016. At some level, I hope he never finds out.
*Roger Ebert won a Pulitzer for observing something similar, but he didn’t experience it.