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The True Believers

Reading Eric Rawlins’ thoughtful responses to our Ultimate Night of the Living Dead fan quiz interview got me thinking about the strange – but to me totally familiar — way that horror fans have of thinking what you could call strategically about the movies they care about. I get the idea that – like me – Eric has thought about the events of Night of the Living Dead from every angle, puzzling about character motivation, wondering how things might have turned out differently, etc.

This kind of strategic pondering started many years ago for me – as memory serves, several months after I’d first seen the film and was able to think about it for extended periods without simply freezing up mentally.

There was, it turned out, a lot to think about. What if the protagonists had all gotten together earlier, gone up to the roof, and methodically popped off the zombies with the .22 from the closet? What if Harry Cooper had made more strategic use of his Molotov cocktails, setting more zombies on fire? What if Ben, at the last minute, had elected to simply sprint away from the house? Perhaps the zombies, being slow and all, wouldn’t have been able to keep up with him?

And so forth. It’s not like I don’t find myself pondering on such matters today, too — more than three decades later. There’s a part of me that’s always going to be trapped in that white farmhouse, and my habit of puzzling about the logistics of this or that scene is just just another piece of evidence of the degree to which the film has taken up residence in my mind. (While Night is the film that more than any other did this for me, it goes without saying that other people have other films that play the same role. So if you’re sick of hearing me mention this film, whenever I do do just substitute the one that applies for you.)

As I was thinking about all this yesterday, up popped Matt’s post about going to see a showing of Dawn of the Dead over in Brooklyn, and being disappointed with the overlarge amount of knowing laughs from the audience; laughs that suggested he was sitting among viewers who had not achieved (or suffered – take your pick) the transformation of that film into something more than just a film but were seeing it simply as a piece of ’70s camp to which they could apply their postmodern sensibilities.

Dawn of the Dead doesn’t have that level super-high level of reality for me that Night does. But I know it does for quite a few people out there. For them it doesn’t matter that the ghouls really have too much green makeup on a lot of the time, doesn’t matter that – as Tom Savini has pointed out on many an occasion — the blood in the film really doesn’t look all that much like real blood. The film is… real, and that’s the end of the story.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to hold showings of horror films now and then in which the only people admitted are those who have this kind of under-the-reality-checking-radar relationship with the film in question. Imagine a whole theater full of people who share that weird, perhaps childish, but also fantastically exciting sense of belief in the stuff that’s going on up there.

The snickerers can come to the later showing.

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