George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) often feels like a movie whose impact on the horror genre landscape has overshadowed its actual merits on both an artistic and a thematic level. The year of its release, it was a monster hit, garnering the critical acclaim of hardcore horror fans and new-guard film critics alike. Overnight, the prototypical zombie movie was born and it quickly became the most popular subgenre of horror movies. The movie has been made into a sequel (Dawn of the Dead), spun off (The Return of the Living Dead), parodied (Shaun of the Dead) and even remade as a film in 1990. And if shows like The Walking Dead, Z Nation and Fear the Walking Dead are any indication, the public can’t get enough of zombies.
However, what about the original Night of the Living Dead? Is it truly a classic of the genre or was it simply a flash in the pan genre exercise that its successors perfected and ultimately rose above?
The central plot is simple and to the point: a group of strangers trapped in a house against a horde of zombies have to find a way to survive the night and, hopefully, escape. Though this may seem like the fundamental setup for every zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead is anything but boilerplate.
From the film’s first shot, the viewer is immediately caught off guard by one glaring characteristic of the film: it’s in black and white. Director George Romero consciously chose to shoot the film in black and white, despite the availability of color to filmmakers at the time. In many ways, this is one of the film’s strong suits. The black-and-white coloration echoes the low budget drive-in B movies of the 1950s. On the other hand, this aesthetic is also meant to misdirect the audience. While the movie has the look and feel of something gritty and schlocky, the black and white forces the audience to lower their guard, making them unprepared for the darker subtext that the movie is about to throw at them.
And what’s ingenious about Romero’s setup is that each character represents not only the various, real reactions of people in a crisis, but the broader social undercurrents of the 1960s that inspired the movie in the first place.
The protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), is an African American man, hiding out in a farmhouse where others will soon arrive. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) is a stereotypical, vulnerable, hysterical housewife of the traditional 1950s nuclear family. After her brother is killed in the opening of the movie while visiting their mother’s grave, she flees to the farmhouse for protection from the zombie hordes. At the other end of the spectrum, Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), hiding out in the basement of the farmhouse with his wife and daughter, represents the stubborn, “father knows best” patriarch. While he, his wife and daughter are hiding in the basement, he makes it clear that he’s willing to let the others perish if it means his family’s survival.
However, the most fascinating character is Ben. In addition to serving as a landmark role for African Americans in film by starring as the lead actor, the character represents the moral center of the characters as they work through the situation. While the others become selfish or catatonic, he still tries to keep everyone working together toward their mutual survival.
Giving the role of the protagonist to an African American was a risky move for a filmmaker in 1968, but Romero’s casting decision unintentionally paid off by adding thematic weight to Ben’s presence as a character. Romero originally intended for the character to be white and killed at the end of the film, but he found that Jones was the best actor for the role.
While preparing the film, Romero heard the news that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and he immediately began to understand the movie as one that was making a racial statement. While the white characters turn to their basic instincts to survive, Ben is still trying to maintain a sense of order and civility in a situation that’s quickly becoming drained of it. It was a novel approach to writing in African American characters in film, who were previously mainly used as comic relief or marginalized in supporting roles.
Beyond the racial undertones of the film, the movie is dripping with commentary on the American politics at the time, especially about the discontent over American involvement in the Vietnam War. In Night of the Living Dead, the ineptness of the government to react appropriately to the zombie hordes is viewed by many as a stinging critique of the Vietnam War era federal government’s inability to act on the needs of its people. Furthermore, many critics view the tragic ending of the film, in which Ben is shot by a passing militia who mistake him for a zombie as they look for survivors, as an attack on the senselessness and ultimate futility of America’s role in Vietnam.
It is these kinds of thematic underpinnings that make Night of the Living Dead stand out among the other horror films of its time, which were still shifting from the heavy focus on science fiction in the 1950s back to more traditional monster and serial killer fare, such as The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years later.
What’s most refreshing about the movie is how restrained it was compared to many of the movies that followed it, including its own sequels. There is minimal gore, even for its time, and it focuses more heavily on atmospheric horror than shock. If you’re expecting The Evil Dead or even Dead Alive, you’re going to be disappointed. This is a movie with a message beyond simply offering you your next Friday night popcorn flick. Even after nearly 40 years since its release, its messages of racism and political ineffectiveness are just as relevant today as they were in 1968. I can’t promise you that the sight of these zombies munching on the flesh of the living won’t leave you unsettled, but the ideas that they represent certainly will.