FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

May 6, 2008

The one I might have saved

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 father'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...


Rhubarb said...

For those who can't wait, it's available at the Internet Archive for nothing.

But it'll be worth the money for the DVD just for the bonuses alone.

Turnidoff Productions said...

Wow. You know a good blogger when they describe a film you've seen a million times in a whole new light... and you want to see it again! thanks!

The one shot that has terrified me from day one still has to be the long shot of the lone zombie in the graveyard in the stark daylight moving ever so slow.

Something about zombies in the daylight just wandering scares the Holy Hannah outta me.

Anonymous said...

Really, really nice piece, Stacie.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I seriously need to watch this movie in the not too distant future. I have the Elite Millennium Edition of NOTLD, which has quite a few bells and whistles, but after you mentioned it, I checked and I too have several crappy video and DVD versions of it as well. My soft spot will always be for the other Romero classic, Martin. Come to think of it…I’d probably save Martin! Or in a more recent film, Clementine from Ils, which I just watched last night.
My favorite shot from NOTLD it the car driving up the road to the cemetery. I’ve visited said cemetery and except for a few trees, everything (including the road leading up) still look the same. You can check out the pictures on my MySpace page. (I’m on your friends list)
Chuck Wilson

Unknown said...

Now I feel sad for Barbra all over again, dammit *tear*


Truly the best zombie film ever, along with DAWN OF THE DEAD.

I've always felt bad for Barbara as well.

First, her brother scares the shit out of her.

Second, she gets slapped around by Ben in the house.

Third, her brother eats the shit out of her.

Now that's what I call a bad day!

Great post. Great movie.

Unknown said...

The new DVD will have a newly restored picture. The restoration was supervised by Romero. I don't know how much they can improve on the Elite DVD that came out a few years ago, but who am I to tell them to stop?

Anonymous said...

very heartfelt and poignant. a lovely read as always

rob! said...

i think i'd save Donald Sutherland at the end of the 1978 Body Snatchers.

i realize that's what makes the movie's ending such a kick in the groin (in a good way), but i felt SO BAD when it all went down...

great post!

Anonymous said...

Stacie, what a wonderful post...I couldn't agree more about Barbara. I was a wee one when my dad came in one Saturday morn and thrust NOTLD into the VCR, saying "this one really scared me when I was little." Yeah, I can certainly see why, Dad, and thanks for screwing me up in the most wonderful way ever--my burgeoning interest in horror turned into an obsession.

At any rate, NOTLD was also my first experience with the ole protagonist bait-and-switch...up until that point, I was firmly convinced that the first people encountered in horror movies (with the exception of the flashback couple from the first Friday film, of course) were our heroes who would be there until the end. Little did I know--I was just so shocked when Barbara, who I'd just assumed would outlive all the rest, met a somewhat fitting but still crushing end in her brother's arms. NOTLD also gave us Helen, another one who ranks highly on my "one I would save" list...she did the best she could against her pig-headed husband, flesh-eating daughter, and, oh yeah, an army of the undead.

However, number 1 on my list would be a tie between 2 Friday girls...Brenda from Part 1 and Paula from Part 6...they both were perfect-mom's-youngest-sister/aunt material, and I really thought both deserved better than they ultimately got...I still get sad thinking of Brenda out at that bow-and-arrow range, having wandered out into the rain to save a child, or so she thought, or Paula getting the business end of a machete in her cabin...I'm getting all sad...again, great post!

Anonymous said...

I'd probably have to go for Frank from 28 Day Later. He's good, competent, funny, and dies in a noble way that's only just barely his fault.

By the way, I just saw [Rec] on a Spanish DVD with acceptable English subtitles. The first hour's brilliant, the last 10 minutes not so much.
Now, if I were remaking it, I'd be tempted to make it a prequel to 28 Days Later (2.8 Hours Later, maybe). It's already compatible in most ways. Just change the end of the plot a bit to spin it into social commentary rather than jarring cheesiness.


Anonymous said...

Great post. It makes me want to watch it all over again-it's been way too long. Oh well, I know what I'll be splurging on come the 20th!

This was the first movie that ever scared the hell out of me. What drove me away was the first shots of the zombies stumbling out of the darkness, towards the house. It was a looong time before I could go back and watch it again. Thanks, Dad.

jpb said...

Great post, and one of my favorite movies too. I appreciate your sentiment, although I'd probably choose to save Ben, whose death is just so incredibly unjust that it burns me with sunlike ferocity every time.

underdog said...

Re: the first still frame from the movie, I'd never realized Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton were in it. Very cool. ;-)

I've always been a Dawn of the Dead guy myself but the first Dead film still chills the snot out of me.


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a brilliant post and a great idea! Man, I could probably come up with a dozen characters I would want to save... the first one that came to mind was Alice in Friday the 13th Part 2. Hollis and Patty from My Bloody Valentine come immediately to mind also; a lot of the characters in that movie were just really nice people, which I think makes the horrific deaths more effective. And I always feel really bad about Dee Wallace in The Hills Have Eyes (it's Dee Wallace! Come on!), as well as final girl Amy at the end of He Knows You're Alone-- even though her death is implied rather than seen, it still sucks. I'm sure more will come to mind, but I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head in your post with Barbara.

Arbogast said...

and a great idea!

I'm lousy with 'em!

Evol Kween said...

Aint nothing soft about Creepshow. I love it's camp qualities to death.

Anonymous said...

Oh wow I am so glad that finally
its going to have a proper dvd
edition release. There have been
so too many dodgy and spotty
versions of it over the years. I
never bought any of those cuz I was
just a waitin' and a waitin' for this.

So glad, awww so glad. by the way
I like your chosen shots for your write up.
They make me think of Portishead, any one
of those shots you posted could have been
one of their covers. Have you gotten 3 yet?
Unreal and there's horror film soundtracky
moments galore on it. ahh sorry got off track
a bit. Anyways so glad NOTLD is coming out
for real. Hey did you ever give away those tickets
for the Fangoria weekend?


JTH_ohNiNe said...

The ones I would've saved.

whitney said...

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Anonymous said...

I heart Creepshow!

Anonymous said...

Yeah I love Night Of The Living Dead ... it's one of my favorite horror films next to The Evil Dead 2. Classics!