Monday, October 31, 2011

Horror Scenes – Night of the Living Dead

(Spoilers: Night of the Living Dead)

I’m going to conclude my horror scene series by looking at a scene from the classic 1968 Night of the Living Dead (screenplay by John A. Russo and George A. Romero). This is the movie that started the zombie movie craze – though they actually call the undead “ghouls” in the film.  It established a lot of what we think of when we think of classic zombies.

There are several great scary scenes – particularly the opening where Barbra and her brother are first attacked and she flees to the house, and the ending when the zombies overrun the house. These use many of the techniques I’ve discussed over the last few posts. But the scene I want to look at is the one where the group in the house attempts to fuel the truck.

In the scene, Ben and Tom plan to take the truck to the pump to refuel it. Harry throws Molotov cocktails from the upper floor to clear an initial path. But Tom’s girlfriend Judy decides she wants to go with him at the last second. The three hop in the truck and drive to the pump only to find the key doesn’t work. They shoot the lock off. With zombies closing in Tom pulls the pump handle too quickly and splashes gas on the truck, which is ignited by the torch Ben set down to shoot the lock.

Tom drives the truck away from the pump, but it’s engulfed in flames. He tries to jump out, but Judy’s stuck. He turns back to help her and BOOM! The truck blows up, killing them both. Ben has to fight his way on foot through the zombies to get back to the house. He reaches a blocked door, but Harry is too frightened to let him in. Ben finally manages to kick the door down, and once Harry and he get it sealed again, he punches Harry out.

This is one of the biggest set pieces in the film, and the thing I think is noteworthy is how much effort is given to setting it up. Throughout the movie we’ve had plants for this scene – that the zombies are afraid of fire, where the truck came from and that it is low on gas, that the pump is locked, and, perhaps most important, the character conflicts within the band of survivors.

Most of these plants were slipped into other scenes where we didn’t realize how they were setting us up. For example, Ben’s story about getting away in the truck early on where he’s explaining how he got to the house. But all of this was done by the filmmakers to build to this big set piece.

There’s a great scene of preparation where the band of survivors in the house make their plan. This scene lays out everything that is supposed to happen for the audience so once the set piece is underway, we know when things go right and wrong – for example when the key doesn’t work on the fuel pump lock. There’s no need to bog down the action with a lot of explanation.

The preparation also allows Tom and Judy to have an emotional heart-to-heart where we see their relationship and particularly their love for each other. There are some nice specifics, such as how he loves that she always has a smile for him. Specifics make the characters seem real, which makes us care about them. Because of this scene, their deaths have a powerful emotional impact. Scenes of preparation are a good way to establish the audience’s sympathy for the characters.

Once the scene is under way, it’s full of twists – the key not working, the truck catching fire, Tom and Judy’s death, Harry’s betrayal. One of the flaws I often see in poor scripts are set pieces with only one major twist (or none!) If you want to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, you have to constantly shift the ground under the characters.

The scene also uses many of the other horror techniques I’ve been discussing -- suspense, a ticking clock in the approaching zombies, and very disturbing gore when the zombies feast on the roasted bodies of Tom and Judy. All of this is great, but it’s the preparation that allows this scene to be truly harrowing.

Happy Halloween!

(And if you want to play some scary interactive stories, try Nightmare Cove, the free Facebook horror game I've been writing on.)

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