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.

Life Beyond The Lines with Documentary Filmmaker Tom Hayes

Written by Ayesha Nizhoni

In the Fall of 2016, award winning documentary filmmaker and Ohio University Film professor, Tom Hayes, was the special guest of the Resistance International Film Festival in Tehran, Iran. His memorable trip to the Middle East was in support of his groundbreaking documentary, Two Blue Lines, which has screened widely, both domestically and globally, to enthusiastic audiences.

Ohio University Film Underground talked with Mr. Hayes about his film, his philosophy on the human side of documentary filmmaking, and what it means to be wholly committed to the years long process of a documentary film.

1. Why should we make documentaries? Why are documentaries important?

Humans have been documenting the details of their existence ever since they could apply pigment to cave walls. Noticing the exotic in the mundane moments of life and recording it is something virtually every culture has engaged. Documentary filmmaking is an extension of that activity. It’s a human thing. In the political realm, Thomas Jefferson annunciated what stands as an excellent reason to make docs: "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." Documentaries are part of that “vital requisite” and contribute to national and global discussions.

2. Many documentary filmmakers deal with difficult subjects without providing a solution. Do you think Two Blue Lines provides any answers even though there are more questions to be asked?

Two Blue Lines certainly points to a solution to the denial of Palestinian human and political rights. That solution is full equality for all of the people who live under Israeli rule.

3. You spent over 30 years gathering the footage for this film, but was there ever a time when your subjects viewed you as just another American outsider telling their stories?

I studied a year of colloquial Arabic at OSU prior to my first trip to the Arab world. I hadn’t pursued language study prior to embarking on a project about Cambodian refugees and I learned from that experience. When I decided to continue creating work about refugee experiences my focus turned to the Palestinian refugees, and off to school I went. Funky as my Arabic was when I got over there, it differentiated me from most Westerners my subjects had encountered. I was clearly not “just another American outsider.” I arrived knowing how to eat, interact, be polite, and listen. I owe the film and my life to the trust and assistance that my subjects extended to me. Many of the Palestinian people I have met over the last three decades think it’s important that images of the facts of their situation reach the outside world. On more than one occasion I handed exposed film to complete strangers to hide in order to keep it from being seized by the IOF. One reel, the aftermath of a shooting, sat buried in a garden for two weeks before I could get back and pick it up. There were also people who didn’t want anything to do with the risks involved in getting in front of a camera. Some Palestinian people took terrible risks to assist me in this work. Some paid terrible prices for that. Building trust was a critical part of the work in Gaza and the West Bank.

4. Was there ever difficulty separating your humanity from your role as a documentarian? In other words, was it hard to maintain objectivity in such a contentious environment?

I don’t believe there is any such thing as objectivity, a state of being “Free from personal feelings or prejudice, based on facts, unbiased.” Objectivity is as much a phantasm as “utopia.” No one is free from personal feelings and those feelings color our view of the facts of the world around us. I am also deeply skeptical about the value of even attempting to remove human feelings from the creation of a documentary. Passion is a core value at the heart of artistic expression.

5. What unique opportunities or challenges did you find during the making of Two Blue Lines?

The biggest challenge I faced in producing Two Blue Lines was the Israeli Occupation forces. The IOF has a history of obstructing people with cameras to the point of murder. See Jonathan Miller’s posthumous “Death In Gaza. My crew and I were run out of a little town called Beit Sahour by the Israeli military three times in one day while we were trying to film a meeting between Israeli peace activists and Palestinians. Apparently images of Israeli/Palestinian solidarity was viewed as a threat to national security. IOF obstruction played a large hand in the eventual form of Two Blue Lines. When we were barred from filming in Palestinian communities I’d go to Plan B and haul the crew up to a settlement, or dive back across the occupation line into “Israel proper” and hunt for interesting Israelis to film. That “Plan B” footage became the heart of Two Blue Lines.

Like every other documentarian I faced huge financial hurtles. This was particularly true in the early years of this project as 16mm film was the only viable field acquisition format at the time. On top of that you can’t get equipment insurance for work in a combat zone. This meant that I couldn’t rent that very expensive equipment but instead had to buy everything I needed.

There is another less concrete challenge related to doing documentaries about dire human situations. Bearing witness to horrible abuse of human beings is emotionally traumatic. It’s not like filming how pencils are made. If witnessing such things doesn’t try your soul you’re probably not the right person to be doing that sort of film. Empathy is important to understanding human conflicts.

6. What is your hope for the film and its place in the larger conversation about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?

Like every engaged documentarian I hope that my film will reach and provide perspective to many millions of minds. I hope Two Blue Lines stimulates Americans and others to take a hard look at the human cost of current U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast. I hope that it will motivate and energize people to invest themselves in the struggle for Palestinian freedom and dignity.

7. Any parting words for aspiring documentary filmmakers out there?

My most important advice to aspiring documentary makers is to remove the word “if” from your vocabulary. Permanently. Any description of a project that begins with that word, like “if I get funding” is a film that will not get made. “When” is the word, coupled with relentless activity, that gets documentaries and any other genre of film made. Part of that relentless activity is research, research, research. Get to know your subjects and your subject matter. Strong documentaries are built on strong subject/maker relationships.

Many documentaries take longer to produce than the lifespan of the average American marriage so it’s important to pursue topics that engage you deeply. You are going to need an abiding passion for your project to see it through to completion. Every doc I’ve made has been a metaphorical tornado that tore through my life and left me sitting in the financial rubble, film in hand, wondering, “How in hell did that happen?” Despite the mysterious weirdness of how projects take hold, I feel privileged to have had the incredibly rich, sometimes soul testing experience of those tornadoes roaring through.

Sam Stewart Navigates Life After the MFA

Written by Ayesha Nizhoni

Recent Ohio University Film MFA graduate Sam Stewart is reaping the benefits of his time at OU. When he’s not putting in a full day’s work at his NYC based internship, he’s forging ahead with plans for a future independent film. Sharing his ideas about what it means to be a creative individual in pursuit of often elusive goals, Sam offers insights into the mind of an OU film graduate newly immersed in the professional world.

OU Film Underground recently had the chance to talk to Sam about his time at OU, his current internship, and his thoughts on the realities of life after the MFA.

1. Please tell us about yourself, your background and what made you choose OU for film school.

In terms of my background, I graduated magna cum laude from the University of Rochester in 2013, where I studied film and feminist theory. I've always had a love for film and its illusory magic, but my education was almost entirely theoretical, and as an undergrad I only made a small handful of shorts, most of which were bland, unimaginative, and painfully melodramatic. I've since burned the majority of them.

The reason I chose to pursue Ohio University, as opposed to FSU or NYU where I had been waitlisted, was because my interview with Steve Ross presented OU as a welcoming environment that openly valued my ideas and experiences. I found this to be true. The faculty at OU made me feel as though I had something to offer them, as much as they had to offer me, and that sense of reciprocity -- the acceptance of filmmaking as a fluid and imperfect art form -- is what solidified my decision to attend.

2. I understand that you're currently in an internship in New York. Please tell us about the internship and how you came to be involved.

I am currently working as an intern for Jigsaw Productions in NYC, where I work on a show called "Death Row Stories," the first season of which is out on Netflix now. The show itself is about as grim as you'd imagine, but certainly interesting, and I've learned a great deal about the process of documentary based television. My role, specifically, is to assist the Assistant Editors as they ingest and catalogue new footage, create multigroups, and organize the overall media workflow for the editors. I work a great deal with Avid Media Composer, and the software skills I learned at OU are what made that possible.

I received this internship when Jeremy Zerechak, an OU alumnus who was leaving as I was entering, became Post Production Supervisor of "Death Row Stories" and contacted Steve Ross looking for interns. Steve and I had a solid relationship when it came to the quality of my work, and he asked if I would be interested. I immediately said yes and he passed my name along. Within the week, Jeremy called and offered me the position. I've never had to work less hard to get a job opportunity -- and I say this as a testament to the strength of my connections with the OU faculty, as well as my fellow students. The friendships and working relationships I've forged during my time in film school was, without a doubt, one of the most valuable aspects of my attending.

3. What's a typical day like for you at your internship?

A typical day usually involves me arriving for work a little before 10am. From there things tend to fluctuate depending on whether or not new footage has arrived, how close we are to export deadlines, and the overall stability of the Avid software. More often than not, I spend the rest of my day transcoding footage, organizing the various pieces of archival media that this documentary show uses (i.e. crime scene photos, witness testimonies, news clips, etc.), and creating audit spread sheets for the thousand or so music tracks that need corporate licensing. Basically, I do the drudge work that the assistant editors don't have time for. Pretty standard as an entry level position.

4. How do you think OU prepared you for the professional world of filmmaking?

I think OU prepared me well for the working world. Film school is almost entirely what you put into it. I don't believe it is necessarily the faculty's job to prepare you for something that can only be fully appreciated through experience. You have to work to understand what the working world is like, especially when it comes to creative work. OU helped me as best as it could to realize my own ambitions and to find my voice as a filmmaker, I don't really see how I could ask for more.

5. What do you wish someone had told you about film school and life after it?

I wish someone had told me to think long and hard about what success as a filmmaker really means to me. It has become all too apparent that I will never work in the Hollywood industry, and that I would never want to. The closer you get to the heart of the industrial film complex, the closer you get to everything that I find disgusting about the process -- committee decision making, sexist / racist propagandizing, manipulative exploitation, etc...

But maybe you want to make the next Avengers movie, and if so, think long and hard about what that will mean: the hours, the compromises, the alternative opportunities lost for one all or nothing goal...

Or, maybe you want to remain a true indie filmmaker, and you'll never make money off of your work, but it will still be yours, and even if just a handful of people see it, that's enough for you.

Or, maybe you're just a hobbyist after all, and you'd rather watch a movie than make one, or make just a few shorts here and there without any real intention to distribute or fuss.

I don't think any of these options, or their in-betweens, is better or more valuable than any of the others. But I wish I had thought more intently about what I hoped to gain as a filmmaker, or even as a creative individual.

6. What are your plans after your internship is over?

After my internship is over my plans are to take the experience I've gained and apply it to any other job I'm able to find. My goal is find more work in a post production house, or possibly as a videographer while I save up for and work on my feature film. There are a few teaching positions that I'm also interested in applying for, but my main hope is to gather a crew from a few OU friends, and in a year or so, maybe two, put a feature into production. I'm not ready to divulge much about the project, other than to say I'm estimating (based off a first draft) a budget of about $30,000 - $40,000 -- dirt cheap all things considered.

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.

MFA Thesis Student Kyle Kruse Takes on L.A.

Written by Ayesha Nizhoni

Ohio University's School of Media Arts and Studies (MDIA) offers its juniors and seniors a chance to participate in the ‘Ohio in L.A.’ program, a semester-long immersion program where a cohort of 18 students travel to Los Angeles to take classes, complete industry internships, and combine to produce a short film.

Through a new agreement, MDIA will invite a Film Division student every semester to help host the program and run the making-of-the-short-film class. Film Underground recently spoke with MFA student Kyle Kruse about his involvement with the program in LA this past summer, his experience in the Film Division, and his plans for the future.

Click here to watch a video summary about the semester in L.A. program.

Click here to watch a video summary about the semester in L.A. program.

1. Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to Ohio University and the graduate film program.

I always wanted to be a filmmaker. When I was in high school I read a Rolling Stone article where they asked Oliver Stone for one piece of advice and he said "to go out and live a life, then become a film maker", so that’s what I did. I joined the Navy, got stationed in Japan. I travelled the world and wound up in Orlando Fl to go to Film school at Fail Sail. That place sucked and was a complete ripoff so I dropped out and started bartending. I did that for a few years, it was fun, but then decided to get after it and so I enrolled in school and never looked back. Here I am now.

2. How did you get involved in OU’s ‘Semester in L.A.’?

The Semester in L.A. program was amazing and something I would definitely recommend to any student who is serious about making the move to L.A. after school. The people I met and experiences I had in that short amount of time have given me a springboard of sorts out here and I could not be happier. For example; a gentlemen I met through the program has agreed to be somewhat of a mentor to me while I am getting started out here and that had led to numerous discussions and meetings and my first paid gig which I am starting next week. A small horror franchise by the name of Insidious.

3. Has your involvement in the OU ‘Semester in L.A.’ program shaped your professional life in an appreciable way?

YES! 100%. It also further solidified my desire to one day teach. It was very rewarding guiding a group of young students down the path of making a short film.

4. How do you think the graduate film program at OU prepared you, in terms of industry readiness?

It has provided me with my current skill set and confidence by allowing me the freedom to pursue the projects that I wanted to pursue and by giving me the opportunity to make mistakes and learn through experience.

5. What do you wish more people knew about the Film program at OU?

If you want to go to grad school and actually make films of your own, you need to be at OU.

6. Is there an OU mafia that you've been able to take advantage of?
OU has a tremendous support system out here in LA. So many people out here LOVE OU grads.