In a world where The Walking Dead continues to consume pop culture, it’s hard to imagine a time where zombies did not exist in the way we know them today. They’re everywhere. They’re sometimes cute, like in Plants versus Zombies. Other times, they’re hilarious, like in Fido. But in 1968, they existed in a form that they will never exist as again: they were a new idea.
That year, Pittsburgh-born director George A. Romero would introduce the catalyst of the zombie craze and change the world of entertainment forever with Night of the Living Dead. But this is not to say the idea of the zombie was dreamt up overnight; the zombie had existed in Haitian folklore long before Romero’s film. Nevertheless, by mixing a few key ingredients, the fledgling filmmaker was able to invent something that was fresh, unique, and above all, terrifying.
Night of the Living Dead follows the struggle of a group of strangers who take shelter in an old Pennsylvania farmhouse as the rest of the world goes to Hell outside. The details of how the epidemic started are vague, but one thing is clear: no one is safe. The majority of the population has been infected with a virus that brings their dead bodies back to life in the form of a shambling, vicious, flesh-hungry ghoul. The world is ending before our eyes, and all we can do is watch as a group of yet-to-be infected souls try to hold out inside a simple house.
Romero has stated numerous times that his idea for the film is more or less a “rip-off” of Richard Matheson’s groundbreaking 1954 novel I am Legend, in which a lone survivor boards himself up in a house and attempts to survive while the rest of the world has turned into vampires. Using this idea for the framework of the plot, and changing up the traditional Haitian Voodoo zombie into something more violent and relentless, the zombie as we know it today was born.
Night of the Living Dead must have been an astounding and almost agonizing experience for millions of people upon its release. The film begins with Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) visiting their parents grave. While teasing his sister, the first zombie of the film, played by Bill Heinzman, appears and kills Johnny. Barbra flees and makes it to the farmhouse, where she is rescued by Ben (Duane Jones). It is here that the rest of the film plays out, and for the most part, feels very much like a typical B-movie.
But then things change unexpectedly, and the innocent viewers of 1968 were in for the shock of their lives.
Onscreen violence had been relatively tame up until this point. The zombies here are spooky without a doubt. The look slightly “off” and walk funny. It isn’t until we actually see them eating what appears to be real human flesh that the true terror begins.
Using real organs from a butcher shop, the monsters in this film tear and rip at “human flesh”, devouring people before our very eyes. Not content with pushing the limits of violence with flesh-eating, we also bear witness to a young girl, newly-zombified, butchering her own mother. Oh, and everyone dies. Everyone. Even the good guys.
Despite the fact that Romero’s movie is half a century old, it holds up very well in terms of being a genuinely frightening film. It’s true that the gore is tame compared to what you’d be able to see on standard cable programming on a weekday afternoon in any given home in modern times, but it’s the psychological aspect and the subtext of what is going on in Night of the Living Dead that makes the movie so revolutionary.
Here we have a black lead in the form of Duane Jones, which was highly uncommon for 1968. Here we have Duane Jones act as an educated, steadfast black gentleman, which was also highly uncommon for the year. And here we have Duane Jones as the only character to survive until the end – only to be gunned down without question in the last frame of the film by a group of white men. A group of white men travel to the farmhouse looking for those who have turned. When Ed sticks his head out of the window, he is shot through the brain and killed without hesitation.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Throughout the movie, Ben is the only character who is able to keep it together and do what it takes to survive. He is smart and resourceful. Most of his actions are calculated and planned. Some have speculated that after spending the dark night alone in the house where all of his companions have died, he stuck his head out the window as an act of suicide, knowing he would be killed. One could say that he has no desire to live in a world that has become so cruel and horrifying. If this interpretation is correct, the ending would have far fewer implications.
I disagree with this view. Night of the Living Dead was created at a time during high levels of civil unrest. I believe the ending contains a powerful statement on the conditions of the world during this time. Ben, thinking help has finally arrived, sticks his head out as if to say, “I’m in here, don’t shoot.” But the gunmen don’t think twice – they don’t check to see if he is a zombie or not because of the color of his skin. If he’s a zombie, great. One less of them. If he isn’t a zombie, the same sentiment applies.
Some have also argued that this is simply not the case because Jones was picked to play Ben based on his acting skills alone and not the color of his skin. This doesn’t matter at all. The ending could have been the result of an idea that Romero and fellow writer John Russo had while the filming went on. It could have also been a fateful coincidence – but I don’t really think that’s the case.
This is really heavy stuff, and this is the kind of film that would create a total uproar in today’s society as well. How horrendous is that? How is it possible that a film made in 1968 is just as relevant in Trump’s America as it was during its release? Why has racism not been vanquished? How is this possible?
Night of the Living Dead is an extremely important movie. It was back then, and it still is. I’ll wager that most of you reading this that haven’t seen the movie in a while don’t even realize the social commentary of it all. I certainly didn’t, and I’ve seen it hundreds of times. Watching with a critical eye after paying attention to the state of affairs in our country today, however, has made the point crystal clear.
As we continue on with this series in The Franchise Files, you’ll come to see that each movie in this franchise is making a definitive statement. There’s a lot more going on than what we’ve seen in previous franchises during this column, which makes this one a fascinating series to follow. At the same time, even if you don’t care for social commentary, George A. Romero just makes some damn entertaining zombie movies. Whether or not you care for his stances, I think that everyone can agree that Night of the Living Dead is a horror classic.
Romero’s series will continue in ten, count ’em, TEN years from 1968 when Dawn of the Dead premieres in 1978. See you then!