On this day, exactly one year ago, world renowned film critic Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. He left behind a wife and a lifetime of writing.
Forty-four years earlier, on January 5th, 1967 (one year before it was widely released) Roger, then 26 and having just begun his writing career as a film critic, saw Night of the Living Dead. He commented that although he admired the movie, he decided to write a review of the audience reaction rather than one of the movie itself.
This is an enlightening excerpt from the article that he wrote a week after seeing the film at his local Saturday afternoon kiddie matinee (an article which is very telling of the times).
“There were maybe two dozen people in the audience who were over 16 years old. The rest were kids, the kind you expect at a Saturday afternoon kiddie matinee. This was in a typical neighborhood theater, and the kids started filing in 15 minutes early to get good seats up front. The name of the movie was The Night of the Living Dead.
I went to see it because it’s been a long time since I saw my last horror movie. I vaguely remember some stuff from the 1950s, like Creature from the Black Lagoon or Attack of the Crab Monsters. They were usually lousy, but it was fun to see them.
But that was 10 years ago. Since then, there’s been a lot of talk about violence in the movies, and it seemed about time to see another horror film. The audience for horror movies is mostly drawn from children and adolescents. They usually play in drive-in or neighborhood theaters, and by tradition they’re the most frankly violent kind of films. Night of the Living Dead seemed like a reasonable choice; it was selected by the National Association of Theater Owners as “exploitation picture of the month.”
Well, the kids came early, as I said. There were a few parents, but mostly just the kids, dumped in front of the theater for the Saturday matinee (admission 40 cents). A lot of kids were racing up the aisles on urgent missions, and other kids were climbing over the backs of seats, and you’d see a gang of kids passing a box of popcorn back and forth. Occasionally some kid would get whacked by his big sister because he wouldn’t shut up.
There was a cheer when the lights went down. The opening scene was set in a cemetery (lots of delighted shrieks from the kids), where a teen-age couple are placing a wreath on a grave. Suddenly a ghoul appears and attacks the boy and the girl flees to a nearby farmhouse. The ghoul looked suitably decayed, with all sorts of bloody scars on his face, and he walked in the official ghoul shuffle. More screams from the kids. Screaming is part of the fun, you’ll remember.
Ebert goes on to describe the plot of the movie, and finishes with…
… (Ben) is shot through the forehead by the deputies. “That’s one more for the bonfire,” the sheriff says. End of movie.
He continues his observations…
The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed.
It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.
I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.
Censorship isn’t the answer to something like this. Censorship is never the answer. For that matter, Night of the Living Dead was passed for general audiences by the Chicago Police Censor Board. Since it had no nudity in it, it was all right for kids, I guess. This is another example, and there have been a lot of them, of the incompetence and stupidity of the censorship system that Chicago stubbornly maintains under political patronage.
Censorship is not the answer. But I would be ashamed to make a civil libertarian argument defending the “right” of those little girls and boys to see a film which left a lot of them stunned with terror. In a case like this, I’d want to know what the parents were thinking of when they dumped the kids in front of the theater to see a film titled “Night of the Living Dead.”
The new Code of Self Regulation, recently adopted by the Motion Picture Assn. of American, would presumably restrict a film like this one to mature audiences. But Night of the Living Dead was produced before the MPAA code went into effect, so exhibitors technically weren’t required to keep the kids out.
I supposed the idea was to make a fast buck before movies like this are off-limits to children. Maybe that’s why Night of the Living Dead was scheduled for the lucrative holiday season, when the kids are on vacation. Maybe that’s it, but I don’t know how I could explain it to the kids who left the theater with tears in their eyes.”