The first horror film I ever watched really wasn’t a horror film at all. It was a VHS copy of Creepy Classics, a 1987 video hosted by Vincent Price that featured small clips of horror classics. There I was, only three years old, watching a compilation of clips from some of the best spookies of all time. This included terrifying scenes from I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), The Blob (1958), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and most importantly for my demented development, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
It was this clip that stuck with me the longest. Not because it was anything truly remarkable or mind-blowing, but because it was the only one that felt truly real to me. I would park my tiny butt in front of our cabinet television, set my stuffed stegosaurus next to me on our orange-and-brown-shag carpet, and watch as Barbra ran through the cemetery. She was running from a man, a man who looked mean. This man was skinny, but he moved like he wanted to (and could) hurt her. This scene burned itself into my young brain. It shocked me. Why was the bad man chasing the woman? Why was that other man lying on the ground and not helping her? Why wouldn’t the mean man just leave her alone?
“Did you know that Ben had children?”
This wouldn’t be the last time the film shocked me, either. In middle school, while flipping through the stations, I stumbled upon the movie starting on one of those Saturday night cable-access horror programs. I watched it all the way through, loving every second of it, until that one member of the posse saw Ben moving inside the house. He hit him right between the eyes, turning our beloved hero into just another one for the fire. It was an abrupt end to the film, but it wasn’t the end of the story.
Twenty years later, I was able to track down the novelization of the film written by John A. Russo, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Romero. The book wasn’t released ahead of the film like most novelizations trying to pad the bottom line with cross-marketing, however. Due to the independent nature of the movie and its release, it wasn’t published until 6 years later, in 1974. This gave me pause when I picked it up, thinking that it would just be a point-by-point description of what happened in the film.
What it turned out to be, however, is a perfect accompaniment to the movie. Sure, it’s adapted from the original screenplay by one of the screenwriters, so there aren’t any big surprises or plot-changing events. There aren’t any new characters to come in and help the Coopers take care of their daughter. Ben, unfortunately, does not survive in this iteration of the story. While the novel may be lacking in new developments, it more than makes up for it with character insights we were unable to get in the film.
Did you know that Ben had children? Two of them, in fact. Boys that were staying with their grandmother. Were you aware that he was in town for work when everything went down, and that his only goal was to survive and get back to his kids? While exploring the farmhouse, he walks into a kid’s bedroom and sees a small bed soaked in blood. This brings up a gut-clenching fear within him for his children. ‘They are resourceful kids’, he thinks, ‘they will be alright. They have to be alright’. These small details were missed in the movie because we weren’t gifted with the time or space for exposition. Romero’s film is frenetic, starting in the cemetery and not letting up until we see the meat hooks plunge into Ben’s body.
This is one of the facets that make the movie so impactful. It didn’t drag us down with long moments of talking about motivations. The closest to a scene like we get in the novel is when Ben is describing how he became aware of the ghoulish epidemic. He takes apart the dining room table, telling Barbra about the gas truck, the fire, and the encircled diner.
In Romero’s film, Ben is thrust at us like a life vest. He’s something we desperately hold on to so that we don’t drown in our fear. He is blunt, opinionated, and ultimately kind of wrong about the best survival plan for the group. In the book, however, we see a softer side of the man. He genuinely cares for Barbra and wants to do whatever he can to keep her alive. He sticks up for her in the movie, but it seems like it’s more of an anti-Cooper move than one of chivalry. Russo’s novel allows us to see behind his motivations, to understand his actions in the movie better than we ever could before.
The young woman I watched escape from the cemetery so many years ago became one of my least favorite horror characters upon second watch. She was basically worthless in Romero’s film, not seeing any type of redemption until the Tom Savini-directed remake from 1990. She was traumatized by watching her brother softly bump his head on a gravestone, and either sat on the couch or wandered around the farmhouse for the rest of film, helping no one. She watched Ben board up the windows. She covered her face when the ghouls were trying to push their way into the house. The only time Barbra grabbed something to help was to try to hold a board over the window, and even then, she was immediately swept outside and devoured.
I’m not the first person to dislike her character, and I certainly won’t be the last, but my attitude has softened since reading the novel. You see, because of the unlimited budget of the imagination, Russo was able to make the ghouls much more terrifying than they were able to do in 1968. During the struggle between her brother and one of the undead in the cemetery, she watches as the beastly visitor smashes Johnnie’s head in with a rock. She then hears something wet. Something tearing. She watches as her brother is consumed.
Barbra runs for the house. The ghoul is running after her, trying to sniff her out like a predator in the woods. When she finds her way into the deserted home, she is justifiably terrified. The thought of her being eaten isn’t first on her mind, however. What she is most afraid of in that moment is that her pursuer and his friends will find their way into the house and rape her. Obviously, she has no idea what she is facing. Her first reaction, in her trauma, is to fear these ghouls as she fears men in her regular life.
This moment of humanity grounded her storyline for me and made me see her as more than a catatonic do-nothing like I did before. She changed from a screaming mockery of female strength to a manifestation of the very real fear that still permeates our culture, even 50 years later. Unfortunately, many women would come to the same conclusion Barbra did if they were presented with similar circumstances. I saw her, for the remainder of the book and during a recent re-watch of the film, as the most human character of the bunch. I connected with her for the first time, and realized that she is a powerful representation of the fear women feel almost every day.
“The novel gives us a look at what lies deep within [the characters], surrounding and magnifying their flaws. It gives us the “why” behind their actions, and proves that Romero and Russo created (perhaps by accident) a perfect character dynamic…”
What we tend to forget, as the years go by, is just how beautiful Night of the Living Dead is. It’s not the greatest film in the franchise (watching it now makes it seem silly at some points), but the characters Russo and Romero created are forever entrenched as horror icons. The setting of the movie thrusts them into survival mode, reducing them to their basest instincts. Cooper is cowardly, Ben is angry, Barbra is terrified, and Tom is indecisive. Together they make a ragtag group of extremely doomed humans. The novel gives us a look at what lies deep within them, surrounding and magnifying their flaws. It gives us the “why” behind their actions, and proves that Romero and Russo created (perhaps by accident) a perfect character dynamic that filmmakers have been trying to recreate ever since
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