When Form Creates Meaning: A Review of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead

By Film M.A. Thesis Student, Stephanie MacDonell

Night of the Living Dead envisions the anxieties of 1960s United States through a B-list monster movie narrative. The film takes place in an isolated house containing a microcosm of US social relations with characters of different class, kinship, race, and gender. The characters must defend themselves from the presence of zombies while also confronting their own political and social divisions.

The narrative leads to the death of the lone survivor, Ben, an African American man, by white police officers sent for a search and rescue, and to execute the zombies. Through the figural presentation onscreen, Ben is “mistaken” by the officers for a zombie and shot dead. Upon Ben’s death, the film transitions from filmic time and space to photographs. The film ends with a found footage collage of photographs that depict the disposal of Ben’s body.

Right now I’m working with Night of the Living Dead for my thesis. I’m doing an indepth analysis of the film’s use of found footage in the ending sequence for my first chapter. The thesis is going to look at found footage in narrative film arguing that the incorporation of found footage is a political act by creating a dialectical unison of past and present in order to shock or provoke the spectator by challenging the perception of the film. I’m still at the proposal writing stage for my thesis so this is a simplification of what the final project will be and my argument will most likely go through some changes as I research. Long story short, found footage is the aspect I engage with while I watch the film.

Night of the Living Dead was made on a low budget, released as a B film, and had two successful runs as a midnight movie at the Waverly in 1971. The film’s aesthetics and form reflect the economic conditions of these. I teach this film in my Cult Cinema course and always bring up the question of how the film’s form (art and/or technology) creates meaning within the film. Basically I try to start conversations about how the low budget quality influences the viewer’s perception of the film. I don’t think it’s useful to consider how well the film was made but what the film form is doing. For me, the form creates an uncanny resemblance to the graininess and imperfections of newspaper images and footage that were proliferated during the 1960s in the U.S. I would say that the film shows the “image-ness” of the image.

Night of the Living Dead definitely falls under George A. Romero’s auteur. It was the initial film in his Zombie Trilogy that includes Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). He’s considered to a definitive director of the modern wave zombie, or the post-colonial zombie, in film studies. I’ve studied his films in a lot of previous classes too. His films create an allegory to US relations in terms of civil rights, war, social relations, capitalism, and biopolitics. Romero’s body of work expresses the anxieties of the generation or time when the films were made. There’s also a lot of focus and question around the body as object and body as subject. The zombie is a figure of Otherness that represents a crisis within social and economic relations. For my thesis, I’m specifically looking at this representation in terms of race and blackness within Night of the Living Dead’s found footage sequence – for instance, the way white America views bodies and police brutality. I see the incorporation of found footage as a cultural function to link Night of the Living Dead and historical events: both past and present.

Notes From The Set with MFA Student Dylan Dyer

Written by Ayesha Nizhoni

Thesis MFA student Dylan Dyer has been busy. When she's not focusing on her own work in the Ohio University film program, she's crewing on other films, gaining valuable expertise.

Ohio Film Underground spoke with Dylan about what she's learned so far, her hopes for the future, and what it takes to not look like an idiot on a film set.

1. I understand you've been fortunate enough to work on some features and shorts during your time here at OU. Please tell us the films and the nature of your roles on the various crews.

I worked on the feature films The Turn Out (Assistant Camera), Claire in Motion (Assistant Camera), and Hap and Ashley (2nd Assistant Camera) - the first two were faculty projects, while the last one was students' Vince and Kathy's thesis film. I've also worked on an untitled UCLA thesis short (Gaffer/Assistant Camera), web series Jess Archer Versus (1st Assistant Camera), and the short Salt Wounds (Assistant Camera) - those last two were by returning OU grads from Film and/or Media School.

2. Would you say that you learned more in the classroom, or on the set?

As important as classroom education is, there are tricks you can only learn from working on a film set. You pick up good tips from the ones that run smoothly, and promise not to make the same mistakes from the ones that go poorly! There are so many moving parts to a film set, so you really need that personal hands-on experience to truly understand how a shoot works.

3. After your experiences on real, working sets, what do you think about the possibility of going into film full-time after graduating from the program?

I've always intended to go into film full-time, and I think having solid experience on feature film sets will go a long way towards helping me get on professional sets after I graduate. And many of the professionals I've worked with on these shoots have kept in touch and offered me small gigs while I'm in school, so I've definitely formed some good contacts to help me get started.

4. Do you think that the fact that the program isn't in L.A. or NYC has something to do with easier accessibility to on-set film work for MFA students?

Definitely - obviously SE Ohio doesn't have the large professional film/video network that LA or NYC does, so as a filmmaker coming to this area your local hiring options are a bit slim. But we also have a reputation of being more than capable of filling that professional gap, so people don't feel the need to bring in their own crew or hire from, say Columbus or Cleveland. OU students have out-professionaled the professionals on more than one set I've been on.

5. What was the most important thing you learned during your time working on the films you've crewed?

It's hard to pick one thing as most important, but I'd say one of the biggest lessons is how important interpersonal skills are on a film set. We tend to emphasize the technical expertise that goes into filmmaking, but how well you light a scene or mic a room matters little if your crew and cast hate you. Good communication skills, the ability to forge mutual respect and trust among the cast and crew, and inspire a sense of community is critical to being a good director or department head, and gets you hired back (and promoted!) if you're on a crew. But people often get so caught up in the technical requirements of their duties that they forget it's just as important to be a good leader and team member.

6. Since you've gained more real world experience than many MFA film students, do you have any plans for your own films?

Well, I spend more time on others' films than my own (my focus is cinematography), so I tend to put most of my experience towards my work on other projects. I am planning a thesis film, however, which I describe as 'part love story, part physics essay' - we'll see how it turns out! Beyond that I have enough ideas for short films to keep me occupied for a few years, but I'd rather leave the feature films for others to write and direct, and ask them to keep me in mind for their DP, gaffer, or AC.

7. What would you tell someone considering Ohio University for film?

As I've exemplified, there are a lot of outside opportunities offered through OU and you should volunteer for as many of them as you can - being able to say you've worked on film sets beyond student shorts can really set you apart from other MFA graduates. You also have the Division of Theater and Dance, as well as the Media School, as potential resources and collaborators, which can be extremely valuable.

8. Any words of wisdom for current MFA film students?

Well, I don't know that I'd say I necessarily have words of wisdom! But if I had to sum up what I've done, I'd recommend these tips.

Act like a professional, and treat others like professionals.

Don't pretend you know what you're doing when you don't, just ask someone and learn quickly. And remember (per the Big Lewbowski): this is not 'Nam, there are rules. Please follow the rules.

Cinematic Explorations of Family Histories and Ominous Futures

On November 5, MFA Thesis students in the film program presented films completed during their previous year. These works, screened at the Athena Cinema in front of a packed house, were labors of love, time and energy displaying both technical and artistic expertise. The films, largely dramatic in tone, ranged from personal histories, to a comedically deranged girlfriend, to warnings of ominous futures. The evening offered a strong showcase of the burgeoning talents in the Ohio University film program.

The Astral Sensorium of American Honey

Written by Jordan Parrish

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) appears to present a story about a young woman drifting across the United States with a crew of young misfits selling magazines, partying, and falling in and out of love. However, Arnold’s use of cinematography, sound, and lighting turn this story into a sensorial experience on parallel with the contemporary cine-poems directed by Terrence Malick such as Tree of Life (2011) and Knight of Cups (2015). Arnold infuses American Honey with non-narrative driven shots describable as “Lubezki-an,” featuring a camera as restless and visceral as the film’s protagonist, Star (Sasha Lane). For example, Arnold presents Star’s seemingly random encounter with a grizzly bear nearly biting her head off as a comment on the violent fight that she has with her lover, Jake (Shia Lebouf), in the previous scene. The film also shows many aside shots featuring Star returning small animals such as bees and turtles to their natural homes, expressing her desire to care for small creatures i.e. children of her own as a wife and mother. The camera’s constant, unsteady movement and close proximity to the characters (Arnold rarely uses anything longer than a medium shot distance) place the spectator just as adrift in the landscape as the protagonist, presenting mid-western America as an ocean with the characters’ movements maintaining a fluidity resembling that of sea creatures.

Star travels with these characters inside of a van acting as a virtual fish tank throughout the film, expressing Arnold’s further interest in epidermic contact between enclosed interior spaces and a brutally false external one as seen in her earlier Fish Tank (2009). When Star first sees the van drive by, its loud bass attracts her to it as if a virtual heartbeat absent from the rest of the world. American Honey spends a large portion of its screen time simply depicting the crew driving in the van blasting popular music and singing along with it, each song carefully chosen to comment on the relations between the characters. However, none of the songs hold as much weight as the title track by Lady Antebellum, the most striking scene of the film occurring in a long scene featuring the characters all singing along to it. Arnold emphasizes Star’s concluding inability to sing along anymore caused by disillusionment with her place in the world, abruptly cutting the music as Star emerges from underwater in the final scene soon after. Star can no longer see anything outside of hollowness and deception, no longer hear the music from before, or experience the supposed “sweetness” of being an “American honey” any longer. In this way, she embodies her name’s meaning in the end, her mother naming her after the fact stating that everyone is born from remnants of dead stars. American Honey ultimately suggests that American ideology surrounding femininity, as seen and heard in mediums such as film and popular music, repeats a cycle of stellar death for subjects in the real world. Star’s experience of loss in this world transforms the film’s intense natural sunlight into a concluding shot of flickering fireflies; however, the film does not end on a pessimistic note. These tiny fireflies illuminate the invisibility and precariousness of night in the same way that stars do for those lost in the world’s oblivion. Rather than a descent into nothingness or a supernova exploding, American Honey presents the death of a star as the simultaneous birth of a subject.

A Night of Screening Fun

On Saturday, October 1st, the Athena Cinema graciously hosted the Ohio University Film Division’s screening of the First Year MFA’s short films. Hundreds came out to see 13 films that ranged from a documentary on reclaiming homes in Detroit to a 16 mm narrative about a boy who eats cashews to a haunting experimental film about a young woman dealing with the guilt of loosing her little sister. It was a fun night for all and a great chance to see the work of these young artists.

O.U. FILM STUDENT NEWS & AWARDS

O.U. FILM STUDENT NEWS & AWARDS

Written by Corey Howell

Take a look at where some of our M.A. and M.F.A. Students are showing their work:

Unprincipled, written & directed by John Kerfoot

Unprincipled, written & directed by John Kerfoot

  • Second Year M.F.A. student Kingsley Nyarko took 1st place at the Global Health Case Competition for his group's proposal of a government internship program, mobile clinics and a media campaign that addresses both early detection and prevention of NCDs. As a result, he wins a two week trip to a South American country to further research his team's solutions with in-country partners. 

ALUMNA AMY TAYLOR'S WEB SERIES 'JESS ARCHER VERSUS' GOES LIVE

ALUMNA AMY TAYLOR'S WEB SERIES 'JESS ARCHER VERSUS' GOES LIVE

Written by Natalie Hulla

Last year we sat down with Ohio University Film alumna Amy Taylor (M.F.A. '12) right before she went into production for her action-packed comedy web series Jess Archer Versus. The series is a spin-off of her thesis film Jess Archer Versus the Ex. Taylor worked with several O.U. Film alumni and production students in her crew, as well as alumni and students of the O.U. Theater division. The series was shot in various places around the Athens campus in the summer of 2015. 

Check out episode one of the series, "The All-Star," at their YouTube channel here, and keep up with series updates through their Twitter @JessArcherVs. Congratulations, Amy!

ATHENS ENJOYS AIFVF 2016: PHOTOS

ATHENS ENJOYS AIFVF 2016: PHOTOS

The 2016 Athens International Film & Video Festival wrapped in April. Cinephiles, Film faculty and Ohio University students enjoyed a week-long event full of independent film and visiting guest artists, most notably Charles Burnett, Ed Lachmen and Steve DeJarnatt.

Photos by Nazgol Taghinejad Kashani and Kingsley Lims Nyarko