Directed by George A. Romero
Night of the Living Dead is an admirable little independent film with a devastating effect on young audiences. It’s George A. Romero’s first film, and it is what created the modern zombie, all slow moving and human-devouring. The film, shot on a small budget with a cast that doubled as the crew, takes place over the course of one night in mostly a single location, a remote home in an otherwise pastoral landscape.
This film is loaded with imagery, ideas and the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s. Romero has explained the almost subconscious rendering of the zombies by referencing the violent revolutions taking place in America, as well as the corrupt war being fought in Vietnam, and suggested that while people were dying, it wasn’t immediately clear that they are dying for anything. He then came up with the idea of the dead coming back to life, in a sense continuing the revolution.
There are many ways to read into all of this, through multiple political lenses, but the common denominator is fear. This is a sensational story with unsensational main characters. They are meant to be like you or me, put in a terrifying situation with no real sense of what to do to survive. The purpose is for all of this to feel real, not some easily-mocked science-fiction horror movie from the Cold War era but something immediate, visceral and haunting.
Part of the reason this would’ve felt so real at the time of its release was because of the disregard for narrative storytelling rules. Characters will die, all of ’em in fact, for no apparent reason. We’re used to the idea that good people survive and bad people get what they deserve, but in Night of the Living Dead characters just stumble into violent, sudden deaths. One woman is killed by the zombie corpse of her brother, and two other young lovers are killed in a car explosion when one refuses to get out because she doesn’t want to leave behind her sweater.
All of these things are expected in zombie movies today. We know to expect death at any moment, and many horror films in general play with the idea that anyone could die for any reason whatsoever. Most still abide by some rule about who should be the last to die, but Night of the Living Dead was one of the first, if not the first, films to throw the old rulebook out the window.
One of the other noteworthy aspects of the film is that the main character, Ben (Duane Jones) is black, and the color of skin is never a topic of conversation. For 1968 that’s downright amazing, especially when you consider that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? had only come out a year before. In this case it goes uncommented upon simply because the character was originally meant to be white, but Romero liked Jones and cast him instead, only doing minor rewrites for the character.
The lack of focus on Ben’s skin color, when every other character is white, is bold in its simplicity. It’s similarly bold when he slaps a woman (the previous year’s In the Heat of the Night had a controversial scene in which Sidney Poitier slaps a white man) and then shoots another man who isn’t yet dead. Ben is allowed his own agency in a time when many such movie characters weren’t.
The film will end on a bleak note, as many horror films now do, but because Ben is the last to go, because he’s black and because of the way he’s killed, it feels damning and revolutionary. Certain news footage and coverage of the zombie outbreak within the film recalls the same type of reporting on the Vietnam War and violence related to civil rights protests. Ben will be gunned down by middle-aged white men who seem like they’re probably conservative when it comes to minority groups, and the ending feels incredibly political and appropriately dour for the time in which it was made.
Because of how influential Night of the Living Dead is, it is something of a timeless film, and yet it is incredibly tied to the era in which it was made.
Up Next: The Firemen’s Ball (1967), The Exterminating Angel (1962), Ed Wood (1994)