If given a list of the films of 1968 and asked to choose the one whose impact was still being seen in the pop culture landscape 50 years later, nearly all of us would give the same answer:
“The Love Bug,” that timeless Disney classic starring a VW named Herbie that charmed audiences and was one of the year’s two box office hits that starred a car … the other being the Mustang in “Bullitt.”
OK, maybe not. Maybe you’re the sort of contrarian that would send Herbie to the curb in favor of the less-obvious choice … “2001: A Space Odyssey.” As if the concept of computers usurping humanity as part of our eventual evolution actually had a chance of happening.
Allow me, though, to throw another corpse on the fire — a film that singlehandedly changed the nature of a stock movie character, and has influenced decades of “entertainment” across artistic genres.
“Night Of The Living Dead.”
The fingerprints of George A. Romero’s now seminal horror flick can be seen in television (“The Walking Dead,” which features graphic novel zombies far removed from the bewitched souls found on tropical islands, begins its ninth season on Sunday); music (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, which not only paid homage to the zombie walk, but spawned contemporary dance moves); and, of course, in countless films that incorporate the notion of the alt-living out to destroy the minds of unsuspecting victims.
Consider “The Stepford Wives,” the 1972 novel and 1975 film that envisioned a world where women were stripped of their individuality and systematically replaced by robotic replicas who were, for all intents and purposes, zombies dressed in mod fashions.
Or the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” which doubled-down on the walking dead motif by adding a psychological level of terror as “snatched” humans become willing participants in an alien takeover.
“People are being duplicated,” warns the crazed-but-correct Elizabeth. “And once it happens to you, you’re part of this ... thing.”
From the Borg of the “Star Trek” universe to the closed community of last year’s Oscar-winning “Get Out!” the notion of a collective mind slowly, methodically, infiltrating society strikes to the heart of our deepest fears.
As conspicuous consumers of entertainment, though, that we also enjoy and embrace the lost-soul metaphor (instruction manuals on how to survive a zombie apocalypse remain a bustling cottage industry) says something about our ability to laugh in the face of this metaphorical danger.
When “Night of the Living Dead” hit movie screens, the parallels were easy pickings for those wanting to draw them.
The movie was described as a meditation on the Cold War with Russia. It was seen as Romero’s commentary on the Vietnam War. Its doomed African-American hero (a rarity in that age of filmmaking) was said to represent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and/or Malcolm X.
Most chillingly in the context of today’s America, the army of zombies has come to be seen as a metaphor for the concept of the “silent majority” coming to life to close in around us, threatening our freedoms as well as our lives as they add to their ranks.
“Eyewitness accounts,” reports the film’s radio announcer, “described the assassins as ordinary-looking people, misshapen monsters, people who look like they’re in a trance, and creatures that look like people but behave like animals.”
Nope, nope, nothing to see here. Move along, everybody, move along.
Romero, for his part, encouraged any and all interpretations of what now is accepted as a masterwork of cultural and political satire.
“It was 1968, man,” he once told an interviewer. “Everybody had a message.”
So, while the undead solve crimes on “iZombie” and zombie walks are planned and the Randall Theatre Company prepares its Halloween-month offering of “Evil Dead: The Musical,” the imprints of Romero’s work can be seen across the spectrum.
Perhaps the most frightening stepchild of the advent of zombie-existence can be found in the “Purge” universe — a series of movies, and now a TV series, that depict not hordes of the dead threatening us over the course of a day, but a contemporary society ruled by a totalitarian political party where all crime (including murder) is legal for a single evening. Unleashing the mindless killing machine within everyday citizens turns them into willing zombies.
The DNA of all these offshoots contains a gene or two of what Romero made mainstream: The thin line that separates a civil society from taking its rawest impulses to the extreme.
“We come here from a dying world,” says a transformed psychologist in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” “We adapt and we survive. The function of life is survival.”
At the end of “Night of the Living Dead,” we see that it’s not the zombies but the authorities that have turned into the relentless, methodical force that takes life struggling to survive in a world where the seemingly hopeless goal is to avoid becoming assimilated.
Fifty years later, some would say things haven’t changed all that much.
It’s 2018, man. Everybody has a message.
But, you see, it’s not me, it’s not Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin in your head, in your head-head-head at email@example.com.