Not so long ago, good ol' Arbogast wrote a little something titled "The one you might have saved", chronicling the hows and why fors as to which character from a horror film he, uh, would have saved given the chance. It's a great idea for a post; surely we've all been moved, from time to time, by a character's death, no? Not everyone who gets killed is a vapid nameless teen or that despicable jerk who really gets what's coming to him and we all cheer when he heads off to meet his maker (I'm looking at you, Paul Reiser in Aliens, you spineless coward jerk, you). Sometimes instead of "Yay! I can't stand Paul Reiser!" we yell out "No! Not him! Not her!" and we actually grieve a little bit for a fictional character who bites the big one.
After reading Arbogast's post, I began to ask myself "Gee, I wonder who I'd sa--", but I didn't even need to complete the thought before I knew my answer, before I realized who'd be the one I'd gladly help survive and get to safety if I could: poor old Barbra from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead.
Let me say right upfront: I adore this film. It's in my Top Ten or whatever number would actually make up the list of my all-time favorite horror movies. I think it's an absolute masterpiece of genre filmmaking, and in my opinion it's on the short list of Romero's best (the others being Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow, although my soft spot for Creepshow is so soft that I have no idea whether or not it's actually a good movie, you know?). Night of the Living Dead is all shock and far gorier than you remember it being; it's all exquisite lighting and camera angles; it's all horror with a bit of rotting meat on its bones, terrifying in its simplicity. Somehow, this film is one of the very few that I can always manage to watch with the mindset of the era in which it was made, and perhaps that's why it's one of my favorites, why it never fails to work for me, why I still get scared.
I always feel the tension ratchet up a notch when Johnny ghoulishly intones the immortal line "They're coming to get you, Barbra..." Zombies slowly shuffling through a remote cemetery in the Pennsylvania countryside still gets under my skin (side note: if there's one thing needed in the damn glut of zombie films being churned out every day, it's some fucking CEMETERIES). I can't stop hoping against hope that Tom and Judy will get the gasoline in the truck and get out, that they'll come back with help and rescue everyone trapped in the farmhouse. To this day, few scenes disturb me as much as the one in the basement when Karen attacks her mother with a garden trowel.
There, in the middle of the undead maelstrom is Barbra (Judith O'Dea), someone most viewers can't stand. After all, she does spend a good portion of the film either catatonic or like this:
No one wants to watch the one who can't cope with the horrifying situation, the one who can't simply snap out of it and kick ass, the one who can't comprehend what's happening and who won't do a thing about it...the one who, in all honesty, is the most like us. Sure, we all want to think we'd be like Ben, formulating plans, setting zombies on fire and punching out honky jerks- or, we'd like to be Barbra 2.0 (from Tom Savini's 1990 NotLD remake), totin' shotguns, kicking ass, and shooting honky jerks in the forehead. Though we'd like to think it's not true, however, somewhere deep inside we all know that chances are we'd be more like Barbra '68 and we hate that. That fear of weakness, of ultimately being useless when we're needed most or of finally getting with the program when it's too late translates not to empathy for the character, but rather to hatred for the character.
Not for me, though- she's the one I'd save.
Barbra's a good girl, dutifully making the long trek out to her grandfather's grave to place a wreath every year without protest. She's a good girl who goes to church, who's always been easily spooked by her brother's teasing. It's no wonder Barbra flips out when she's suddenly- I mean very fucking suddenly- thrust into a situation beyond comprehension. In the span of, oh, an hour or so, she's attacked in the cemetery, she watches her brother get murdered, she's chased through the middle of nowhere, she finds a gooey corpse in a farmhouse, and eventually ends up holed away in said farmhouse as flesh-eating corpses try to break down the doors and get inside. Yeah, I think my wires would short-circuit, too- and I'm not exactly a good girl raised in the 1950s and/or easily spooked.
Eventually Barbra does lend a hand as the survivors try to defend themselves against the growing zombie horde's final siege. She grabs a board but it's too late, for by that point Night of the Living Dead has progressed into FUBAR-land, as all good zombie movies must. You know that point, when the plucky band of survivors finds out how very wrong they were to think that they had everything under control. Someone fucks up, a window breaks, a zombie gets into the fortress, and it's all over.
As we all know, Barbra meets her end thanks to her brother Johnny who's come back from the dead, driving gloves and all. Somehow he's found her, and my heart breaks every time he pulls Barbra out through the window to be devoured by the living dead, as the hands descend upon her and her screams and protests die away. Seriously, folks, Barbra meets a bad end. Granted, pretty much everyone in the film does- but Barbra's the first victim of the type we've come to expect in zombie movies: the person torn asunder while still alive. Generally this fate is reserved for the characters we kind of want to see die (like that nutter Captain Rhodes in Romero's Day of the Dead), not the ones we've been with from the beginning, not the good girl who's supposed to be the protagonist. It's just not fair, dammit. Still, when I watch Night of the Living Dead, I hope Barbra will elude Johnny's grasp, that her really fucked up day will go on a bit longer and she'll make it out of that farmhouse alive. I'd help her if I could.
At last weekend's Fangoria convention, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Judith O'Dea and spending some time talking with her about Barbra, about independent filmmaking, about certain shots in NotLD, about a whole bunch of stuff. One of O'Dea's favorite shots in the film, incidentally, is this one:
I hate to say it, but I'd never really noticed the nice detail of the bullet-riddled cemetery sign before. I mentioned to her my intention of writing this post and why, how Barbra's always been one of my favorite characters, how it seems impossible that this film is 40 years old. O'Dea is someone I'd always wanted to meet, and hers was the only autograph I cared to get last weekend. Hopefully, if they DO get me, too, someone will write a post about how they would have saved me if they could.
Yeah, Night of the Living Dead is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and on May 20th a special edition DVD will be released. I can't wait to get my mitts on it; I've got a shitty copy of the film already- who doesn't? It's been in the public domain forever, and you can find copies of it for a buck practically everywhere from Rite Aid to Dollar Tree. This edition will be boasting some sweet bonus features (commentary tracks, documentaries, interviews) and, one hopes, restored audio and video. Now if only there'd be some long-forgotten alternate ending where Barbra makes it out alive...