A Look at "Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated"

by Dr. Abner Mality

They say that true art can make you look at something typical in a way that you never have before. Think of Andy Warhol's giant soup cans or the extravagant "mega-art" of Christo where modern buildings and landmarks are draped with yards of colored fabric and plastic.

The most radical of artists believe that EVERYTHING is fair game for artistic transformation because, in one way or another, everything is art. The Dadaist in me tends to agree, but I don't want to go skipping wildly into a discussion of what art is. There's not enough time in the world for that.

The question we are dealing with in this particular article is: can a horror movie be twisted, warped, distorted and transformed far beyond its original appearance and yet still retain the aspects which make it an iconic masterpiece?

A dude living in rural Pennsylvania (perhaps not far from where the events of NOTLD take place!) named Mike Schneider was determined to find out. A visual artist by trade, Schneider chose George A. Romero's 1968 shocker "Night of the Living Dead" as the subject of his experiment. Schneider invited over 100 artists in all varieties of visual endeavor to take the familiar story and re-imagine it using their own style. The story itself would remain...the dialogue, actors, music and scenes would be identical. But over that untouched soundtrack would run a wild artistic "jam" where contributions from ALL of the artists would be combined, creating a jarring, psychedelic vision of the movie to challenge the senses.

The Surrealists experimented with their own version of this technique and called it "Exquisite Corpse". An artist would start with a picture on a sheet of paper and then pass the paper to the next artist, who would continue the image. BUT almost all of the original image would be folded over and covered up, leaving just a couple of lines for the next artist to start with. The paper would be passed from artist to artist, with each new one having no idea what had been done before. The result: a unique collaboration of different visions.

The irony of using the "Exquisite Corpse" technique with "Night of the Living Dead" should not escape anyone. Romero's original and untouched movie is already considered art by many film fans and historians. But the public was used to seeing it in typical movie form. Like all classic films such as "Citizen Kane", "The Searchers", "Casablanca", etc, etc, we expect to see one specific thing when watching "Night of the Living Dead". What exactly would be the result when, instead of seeing that one constant version, you get over ONE HUNDRED versions of the same story?

"Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated" is not just a fond tribute to a great film, but a real work of the avant-garde. By the time I was through watching Schneider and Co. in action, my ideas about the movie would be continuously under attack. It helped me reaffirm just how classic the original was but also made me look at film in a new way.

And that, my friends, is art. But before I take a further look at "Reanimated", I want to share my reflections on the original and immortal "Night of the Living Dead".

I saw the film for the very first time in the way it should ideally be seen...very late at night, on an oldschool independent TV channel spookshow, when I was about ten years old. I'd stay up late Friday nights to watch every horror movie I could. No nine or ten year old kid in the early 70's should watch "Night of the Living Dead" by himself late at night!

Raised on Universal horror and Godzilla movies, I found out what a REAL horror movie was when I watched "Night of the Living Dead"...and so did millions of others. To this day, the movie is one of the most fearless and ferocious films ever made, especially considering the time when it was released. Sure, bloody horror films were not unknown by the late 60's, since H.G. Lewis had been plying his gruesome trade since in the decade. But those were either over the top campy or based on traditional storytelling. "Night of the Living Dead" was stark, grim...REAL.

This was horror that took no prisoners. The attractive young couple Tom and Judy...burnt to a crisp and hideously devoured in full view by the dead. The helpless little girl Karen...not only didn't she get better, as was typical for movies of this time, but she brutally killed and ate her own mother! HER OWN MOTHER! That was a supreme shock in 1968. And finally, no escape for our hero Ben....he survives the dead, only to be shot down ruthlessly and burned like a cord of firewood by "normal" humans.

As a young kid, I sat dumbfounded and sickened by the film. You mean NOBODY got away? Where's the catch? What's the relief? With "NOTLD", there was none. Even in a world cleansed of zombies, there's only harsh, dog-eat-dog (or man-eat-man) reality. That's what made this movie the best of all Romero's efforts. None of the later ones equalled its visceral first-time impact, though there's no doubt that "Dawn" and "Day" threw tons of bright red blood at the viewer. And forget about the more recent films of the 2000's, we're too jaded to feel the same way now as we did back in '68 at the drive'in.

The thing is, "Night of the Living Dead" has become SUCH a monumental classic, with every moment of the film burned into our collective consciousness, that much of the first time impact is dissipated. The show has been ripped off, satirized and exposed so much, how couldn't it be? Flesh-eating ghouls were a novelty in 1968, but the whole zombie thing is now so overdone and overexposed on every count, that the living dead are now seen as cuddly buffoons. Check out stuff like "Zombieland" and "Shaun of the Dead" for proof....average citizens and even grannies can take out the zombies. Zombies are super popular in grade school and even eight or nine year old kids run around tiredly repeating the most over-used of zombie phrases: "Braaaiiins!"

Something is needed to give a much needed change of perspective on "Night of the Living Dead" and remind people just how ground-breaking it is. Enter Mike Schneider and "NOTLD:R".

"Reanimated" allows artists to reimagine the iconic story their own way and by doing so, allowing fans and laymen to see it in a new way. If somebody didn't think of "Night of the Living Dead" as art before, they probably will after seeing "Reanimated". The bewildering kaleidoscope of styles serves as a jolt to the senses, clearing away staid old ideas.

So what exactly does the "Reanimated" version look like? Well, one good thing is that it remains in black and white. Although I'm sure the temptation to use red was there, all the visuals stay in the stark, monochromatic black and white we've all come to associate with the film. The soundtrack remains exactly the same...every word of dialogue, zombie moan, scream of horror and musical accompaniment is there. But that is absolutely where the familiar elements end.

This is not just "Night of the Living Dead" imagined as a cartoon. It is "Night of the Living Dead" imagined as just about every form of visual art you can think of. I wouldn't recommend the film for epileptics, as it lurches from style to style with rapid and disorienting cuts. The pictures on the screen may switch from relatively realistic illustration to the almost totally abstract and back again within nanoseconds. Some of the art reduces characters to stick figures or childish drawings. Zombies can be depicted as decayed corpses or CGI animated figures or just basic combinations of shapes.

At first, a lot of this strikes the viewer as absurd. But the story remains the same, the horror of what is happening SHOULD be the same. Is it? That's up to the individual viewer. When Barbara is pulled to her doom by the zombies, a dishevelled Barbie doll is grabbed by the hands of other dolls. When the TV reporters discuss the zombie attacks, sock puppets are shown instead of human figures. We hear the news anchor somberly relate famous dialogue such as : "It has been established that persons who have recently died have been coming back to life and committing acts of murder." It seems utterly ridiculous yet does the fact that a sock puppet is speaking reduce the horror of what he is saying?

The variety of artistic styles here makes your head swim. Some of the footage is very close to the movie itself, but done in ink-and-charcoal style, making it super-grainy in appearance. If you're familiar with the old "Clutch Cargo" cartoon, we get some art similar to that, with real human lips super-imposed on stiff-looking cartoon faces. The very appearances of the characters seem to switch...Barbara is blond for most of the movie, but pops up as a brunette in a couple of spots. Tom looks like a menacing Manson-type character in one section. When Ben beats up Mr. Cooper, symbolism makes him look like a demonic black devil. One of the most clever segments converts the film into an ancient 8-bit video game, complete with boxes for the dialogue.

Your brain goes into overdrive trying to analyze what you are looking at and putting it in the known context of "Night of the Living Dead". You find yourself waiting to see what things will look like next, even as you are waiting for a part of the movie you've seen many times before. The whole experience of watching a film is twisted by the approach of Schneider and his friends. It's like a combination of walking through a modern art gallery, watching a violent action cartoon and seeing the classic movie we all know so well...all at the same time.

As jarring as it is, you soon accept the rhythm of the images and the story. At only one point did I fail to accept what the artist was showing me...when the zombies have their grisly feast on Tom and Judy, Furby toys were briefly shown munching on each other. Sorry, that just looks stupid...period.

The supplementary material for "NOTLD:R" is excellent. The movie is introduced by none other than the legendary "horror host" Count Gore DeVol. Commentary is provided by horror writer/comic book scribe Jonathan Maberry as well as Mike Schneider himself. There is a huge "artist gallery" showing the contribution of each artist who worked on the project as well as website contact info for them. And there's an accompanying booklet with an essay on the movie's enduring popularity by Peter Gutierrez. It all makes for a real handsome and comprehensive package.

So yes, I agree. If art is the process of making you look at familiar things in a new way, then "Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated" is art that is right up there with the best. Even if you're sick of zombies, you might be stimulated by this gruesome piece of visual debris.