Recently, an excellent, thought-provoking article, “A Dinner with George” by Isaac Thorne, was featured at Crash Palace. Isaac’s nostalgic, heartfelt piece on George A. Romero and his iconic masterpiece (IMO) of Night of the Living Dead captured my thoughts and memories of yesteryear, launching me mentally into the past, reflecting somewhat on how and why horror and science fiction films impacted my life.
During my years of youth, the concoction of real-life horrors and fantasy ones on the big, white screen were indeed a strange brew that some may have suggested were unworthy of human consumption. The bitterness of reality is always a poor dish served, neither sweet nor savory.
I was born eighteen months before the end of the Korean War. Like post World War II, soldiers returning stateside proceeded as best and as quickly as they could to find hearth, home, and procreation, if they hadn’t done so before serving. After all, why would “Dear John” letters exist without pre-war girlfriends and sometimes, wives.
My youth was partially spent feasting on horror and science fiction movies of the day… while in a real way trying to find a path to minimally comprehend and survive the seemingly constant onslaught of reports of the gloomiest nature from here and abroad that we may be headed into another war ─ especially one featuring the unfettered use of nuclear weapons. As we were taught with alarming regularity, this next one would be the war that would truly end all wars and life on this blue planet as we had only begun to be taught, discover, and appreciate it.
In dimly-lit rooms of flickering fiction and most regrettably almost everywhere else in nonfiction, the atomic age of real or imagined horrors had landed on us. In frightening movies, we were fed disaster as salty and warm as a box of never-ending popcorn, and in our daily lives in school, we practiced, rehearsing our nuclear attack procedures even more often than our fire drills. A horrible, fiery death was either one atomic bomb, one gigantic, nuked insect, or a single assassin away.
Like most Americans who lived during these years, I’ll never forget the day our president was shot and killed. It had happened during a school day. After a school wide nuclear attack drill, we were called to the school’s auditorium for the dire announcement. John F. Kennedy’s assassination exacerbated the growing feelings of despair, fear and futility for us grade school kids in our tumultuous neighborhood, an Atlanta, governmental, housing project.
In addition to carrying a full lunch sack of horrors, back in the 60’s, during the national manhunt for another assassin, we’d learned from the news media that the fiend who had killed Martin Luther King, Jr. had abandoned his still warm and smoking getaway car, a Ford Mustang, on our turf, parking it on a city street beside our elementary school, Ed. S. Cook, in Atlanta, Georgia.
The deadly, racist serpent had escaped, slithering from this location beside our school playground. By the time his Mustang was located, reportedly, the crazed shooter was supposedly fleeing to a foreign country directly passed the front door of our apartment en route to Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, heading north.
Death seemed to live and thrive within our Capitol Homes neighborhood. Surely, we and Atlanta were vital targets for atomic bombs raining down on us from the USSR!
Our warring history, present conflict maybes, and future prognosis had signaled to those in the universe beyond Earth that we were not worthy of club membership in a rational, intellectual, evolved, peace-loving, universal community of beings. In 1951, the sternest Einstein-worthy-ray-of-oblivion-across-the-bow-of-Earth to date was issued within the film classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Obviously, we were not feeling Gort.
Concurrently, during the fifties and sixties as fictional fodder fallout from our past use, continued testing, and potential abuse of atomic weapons, a plethora of gigantic creature features swept big screens of drive-in and air-conditioned, walk-in theaters across the country ─ Godzilla (1954), Them (1954), and Mothra (1961) to name a few. How many times and ways must we be warned?
From the nuclear testing grounds of the western USA, to the depths of the Pacific, and from the entirety of Japan and the seas around the island, came massive monsters like we’d not seen in such numbers, appetites, or propensity. All were bent on avenging that which reckless humans had wreaked. In self-preservation mode, nature was fighting back in horrific, non-nurturing ways.
It’s shocking how much difference ten to fifteen years in age can make where and when you view a great horror film or the works of a fine horror director like Isaac Thorne writes about. I very much enjoyed reading about Isaac’s life, feelings, and experiences in conjunction with Romero’s film.
Thorne’s article also caused the above and below reflections on my life when Night of the Living Dead hit the scene. Back in 1968, we were well accustomed to black and white films and television. In short, the use of classic black and white in photography and films held on for as long as the world in those days remained in its drab shades of carnage. I’d be inclined to think for some of these people, the true colors of it all may have been too harsh in an all too real way.
In 1968, I would turn seventeen and the potentiality of going away, experiencing Vietnam, was only a year off, if I didn’t volunteer first. But where I came from you didn’t volunteer for Jack or his rabbit because “the man” shopped for warm bodies and weak minds in our impoverished area with great regularity. The poor are easily forgotten.
So, in 1968, Night of the Living Dead became the perfect metaphor for the prospects of carnage and futility of a bright future we “boy-men” were experiencing daily.
In Atlanta, among other odd jobs, I worked as a soda jerk at a drug store located across the street from one of the oldest, busiest, and largest funeral homes in Atlanta. Back then, the boys, men now, were coming home in great numbers in pieces in body bags. Some were friends from high school and later, college.
It became increasingly difficult to be entertained by make believe death and fantasy mayhem in a movie during this bleak period. In some forms of entertainment such as films, like Night of the Living Dead, it seemed they took on a more sinister meaning than simply being a brief time spent enjoying something unreal.
At times, it felt as if the dead were all around us. During these moments, the “Barbras” in living color, moms, wives, daughters, friends, and girlfriends were as hysterical, fetal, and in frightened tears as the Barbra in black and white on the big screen.
Often, those brave soldiers who did make it home alive were reduced to a state of living while walking dead. Nobody seemed to care, but the funeral homes, alcohol, drug, and methadone clinics, and much more sadly, Veteran’s Administration hospitals, were thriving businesses.
In the sixties and seventies, a heroin epidemic was also sweeping the nation. Once again, death and destruction were as formidable as the dead rising from the grave. Many veterans who had made it back succumbed to a less obvious enemy, trying to “inject” and often drink their post traumatic stress disorder and nightmares of war away.
Yes. It can be both sad and obvious to see how at times art can imitate life and death, and comprehend why it becomes a direct reflection on the reality of life through films. In respect to Night of the Living Dead, these factors appeared to be mutually exclusive in comparison and even sensory numbing in the end when the living dead and living became merely target practice for robotic men with hair triggers on their weapons with plenty of ammo at the ready.
“They’re coming to get you Barbra (or Bob)” took on a true deadly meaning when Uncle Sam’s letter to report for your physical for the draft arrived in the mail. I would think most high school boys were ill-equipped to handle such potentially deadly realities.
Like hundreds of thousands of young boys, I had a 2S draft exemption status while attending college in Macon, Georgia. Slowly and methodically, the government began ending the draft exemption for most, if not all, students, depending on your date of birth and luck of the lottery draw. We’d soon learn bingo had never been so intense.
In 1971 while in college, my lottery time had arrived. As we know, several Vietnam draft lotteries were conducted, starting in 1970. The strong rumor mill, also implied by the media, had it that if your number was two hundred or lower, say goodbye frat row and hello Vietnam. It was a somber crew of boys that day at Mercer University watching the drawing live at our Kappa Sigma lodge. The atmosphere was a direct opposite – a dire, visceral, and visual juxtaposition of when we gathered at the lodge to enjoy Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” each week huddled close to our dates.
For those fighting the war, their potential Night of the Living Dead became at least one tour, if they survived that long. Life had become as black and white as death back then.
After that lottery, I think they drafted numbers up to around one hundred. At the time, I was somewhat optimistic with a guarded sigh of relief since my lottery number was above one hundred and fifty. To this day, I regret those feelings while so many had stepped up voluntarily to answer the call or had reported as ordered once drafted. To me at least, a debate on whether any war is just or not is almost as futile as Tom living beyond the day after his Night of the Living Dead.
Not serving my country during this time is one my greatest regrets in life. , I also cowered in the basement, unwilling to step forward, helping at minimum to join with those willing to stand and fight regardless of self.
Isaac, your piece was excellent!
(Photo of Night of the Living Dead from Pittsburgh Haunted Tours. Photo of Ron Shaw from the author.)
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Ron Shaw is an Atlanta, Georgia native who currently resides in metro Atlanta with his wife and daughter. In1974, he graduated from Georgia State University with a B.A. degree in English Literature. In 1996, he retired from the Atlanta Police Department with the rank of Captain. In 2013, with “Seven Fish Tree,” he began his writing career. Since writing his initial book, he has authored other novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, and poetry. As his published works indicate, Ron enjoys writing in a wide variety of genres like romance, horror, humor, travel, young adult, coming of age, science fiction, paranormal, erotica, visionary and metaphysical, among others.