A note on spoilers to begin: Since this is the first real post here on the blog, I’m going to go ahead and throw up a general spoiler warning. In these posts I’m going to be talking about varying aspects of movies that I’ve been watching, This may include writing about things that dome would consider spoilers, including the endings of these movies. Those who are particularly spoiler averse may want to avoid reading these posts if they are planning to watch the movie in question. In certain circumstances, such as this one, where I will be discussing events towards the end of the movie, including the ending in at least a vague way, or when a movie contains a particular plot twist that might be considered major, I will try to post a more specific spoiler warning, because I do recognize that even though I may be writing about a movie that is decades old, it’s still going to be new to some people. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get on with it, shall we?
So I recently had a chance to revisit Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds on the big screen thanks to a Hitch film marathon run by our local “art-house” theater the Belcourt Theater . While I was sitting there watching the last thirty minutes or so of the movie, especially the part where our main characters have boarded themselves into the house and are fending off an attack from thousands of mostly unseen birds that what I was seeing could easily be a precursor to George Romero’s 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead.
Here’s the way I see it: In both films you have a threat that at the first seems somewhat innocuous. Ok, maybe zombies are never really innocuous, but at the beginning of Living Dead we don’t even know that the first zombie Barbara and her brother encounter is one. When he first approaches, he could possibly be simply a deranged, perhaps drunken or drug-addled old man. And even when the threat does reveal itself to be more sinister, well, let’s face it, as slow-moving as Romero’s zombies are, if there’s only one around, it can easily be outrun. Likewise, in The Birds, when the threat is simply one bird, such as the one that first swoops from the sky and attacks Tippi Hedren’s Melanie as she’s crossing Bodega Bay, it could simply be an isolated incident, fairly easily fended (and written) off. It’s only when the attacks begin, in both movies, more en masse that the true threat becomes apparent.
Then there is the aspect of the main characters being cut off from the outside world. In Birds, this isolation is represented by the insular community that is the town of Bodega Bay. In Dead, of course, it is the cemetery and house. In both instances, there comes a point where the only communication our characters can get is one-way via television or radio, and even then they are only given glimpses of what may be the broader picture occurring in the outside world.
Also, in both movies, there is a central question that is never really answered: what is the real reason for, or origin of, the threat? Why are the birds just now attacking? Where have the zombies actually come from? And while there is speculation on these topics in each movie, we (nor for that matter, the characters) are never really given a satisfactory answer. Which is actually okay, because in neither instance does it really matter. That’s not the story the movie wants to tell, because in both movies, the main concern is not with the attackers, it’s with the characters that are being attacked. How are they going to respond to the threat once it becomes apparent? And perhaps even more pointedly, especially in Living Dead with its very timely black lead, how are they going to interact?
Of course, eventually, and this is where the comparison really became obvious to me, both movies end up becoming what is known as a base-under-siege film. In The Birds, our protagonists eventually find themselves boarded up in the Brenners’ home. In Living Dead, it’s the farmhouse that Barbara runs into. In both cases, the characters find themselves essentially trapped and trying to fend off attacks from an unknown but obviously overwhelming number of unseen opponents. As the climax rages, in both films we have scenes where all we see of the birds is their beaks as they try to peck their way through the doors and windows or the grasping hands of the zombies as they attempt to reach, grasp and claw their way towards their victims. It’s this overwhelming force, the sheer number of opponents that makes each respective “monster” truly a credible threat. As long as they keep coming, there is no way that our protagonists are going to escape.
There are, throughout the movies, even more parallels that could be pointed to, for instance in both, there are trails of gas that lead to (in both cases similarly foreshadowed) explosions. There are wild-eyed crazies who want to blame others in the party for their current predicament. And I’m sure there are even more that could be pointed out, but the most striking, of course, is the rather ambiguous ending given to each movie. because in both cases, the threat is never really neutralized. In The Birds, even though the “heroes” do make it out alive, there is still that huge mass of birds just waiting and watching as they drive off, and we know that even though these particular people may have made their escape, (perhaps they were even simply allowed to?) the threat is still out there, and in Living Dead, even though we’re told that patrols are clearing out the area and neutralizing the threat it’s obvious from the several sequels how effective that effort was.
Now I’m gonna be honest here and admit that I haven’t done any real reading on the topic, and it may very well be that Romero has acknowledged his debt to the earlier film. Or not, though it certainly seems obvious that he must have had the Hitchcock film in mind when he was writing his zombie flick, even if it was only subconsciously. And while Hitchcock certainly wasn’t the first to introduce the base under siege trope, it certainly can’t be denied that he not only brought his own flair to it, he really made it his own. But it’s that ability that shows him for the true genius that he was.
And in the end, let’s face it, no matter what parallels there may be, intentional or not, both films are true classics, and should be simply enjoyed for what they are: Simply Great Movies.
Until next time, happy viewing!
By the way, I should note, since this is the first “real” commentary post, that comments are not only welcome, they’re invited. Whether you agree or disagree with my take on a particular flick, I want to hear from you. Especially as I’m working on building the site and getting things set up here. Let me know what you like, what you dislike, etc. Just click on the “Leave a Comment” button below and do it, and pretty soon I’ll also have up links to my Facebook page and an address where you can email me directly if you so desire. For now, though, thanks for reading, and i look forward to hearing from you.