I’ve seen Night of the Living Dead several times in my life, and yet watching it with an audience during my American Horror class, I noticed flaws that I couldn’t ignore. Despite director George Romero‘s insistent comments that he didn’t intend any racial themes to emerge, the movie’s release at the height of the Civil Rights Movement proves false. Furthermore, there appears to be vague touches on the emerging Women’s Lib movement, or Romero’s script just enjoys presenting women as total morons. In light of all that, the movie still holds a place as the movie to bring zombies to the forefront (although Romero is HEAVILY inspired by Carnival of Souls), as well as drawing out a fine performance from lead Duane Jones.
A group of survivors who have evaded a zombie apocalypse hole up in a farmhouse to await help. As tensions rise alongside the multiplying zombies, the group find their own hostility emerging as they argue over what to do until help arrives.
I reviewed Carnival of Souls last Halloween, and one cannot ignore the similarities (or outright plagiarism) Romero employs. Both this and Carnival of Souls deal with the undead, are filmed in black and white, have similar leading ladies, and have an aesthetic congruence. I felt Carnival of Souls was slow, but did have an intriguing twist blending commentary on life and death; the scares are deeper in Romero’s work. There’s never any doubt that these are zombies, and the horror outside is matched by the horror within the farmhouse. Ben (Jones) is the makeshift leader willing to risk his neck for the lovely, although increasingly stupid Barbra (Judith O’Dea), constantly battling the staid family man, Harry (Karl Hardman). Jones was the first African-American man to star in a major horror film, as well as being a black actor cast in a role that wasn’t specifically written for an African-American. It makes sense because nothing identifies Jones’ character other than he’s the leader. There’s no specific stereotypes employed due to his race, and he’s the one character whose backstory we never fully learn. The movie shifts in introducing our hero, starting with Barbra, and by the end when Ben is alone the audience is secure in being with him. He’s the voice of calm when needed, but he’s not afraid to punch someone to keep things under control. There’s nothing written into his character that a white actor wouldn’t do, removing the racial barriers in film up to that time, and creating an identity for the character not derived from his ethnicity.
Of course, one can’t ignore the racial implications within Night of the Living Dead. Ben is the only African-American in the entire movie. None of the zombies are black, and the posse of good old boys who take out the zombies are all white. Ben is a man apart, literally, from the entire world. The iconic ending, resulting in Ben’s demise, blasts the audience with the harsh truth of racism. It doesn’t matter that Ben is the hero; he’s gunned down in a senseless tragedy condoned by a lynch mob. Running along the ending credits is various shots of Ben’s dead body with meat hooks around him, mimicking famous photos of lynching parties. Whether Romero intended this to be an indictment against prejudice, or not, it is. Jones himself is an erudite, eloquent man with force and aggression to remain in control. He’s calm and collected, never really raising his voice to a threatening level. In several instances, he’s reacting with silence and his face is incredibly expressive. It’s a shame he never rose to leading man status because he shows promise here.
For all the intriguing discussion regarding race relations, Romero really misses the boat with women; it is theorized that Romero is unconsciously attacking the rise of women’s liberation which you see in a lot of movies from the late 60s-70s. The opening scene with Barbra and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) sets a ghoulish tone with Johnny reciting the infamous phrase, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra.” Once Johnny is dispatched, Barbra becomes a blithering idiot to the point of being unable to walk around a house. Oh, and don’t forget her tripping in the cemetery due to her high heels (ladies and their high heels). Once she gets to the house, again, she has an inability to walk, and becomes catatonic. Once Ben finds her she becomes hysterical and has to be punched! The audience I saw this with actually cheered, and while I don’t condone violence on women, Barbra is just too stupid to live! The rest of the ladies don’t fare any better. I do think Marilyn Eastman is the best actress out of the trio of ladies, but she’s relegated to being the mother and doesn’t make an effort to take out her daughter. Literally, the woman doesn’t attempt to fight the child off, and just lies on her back while her daughter digs into her with a trowel. Oh, and one cannot forget Judith Ridley as the hot girl, Judy. She talks like she’s from outer space, and dies because her jacket gets caught in the car….sweetie, is there a reason the jacket doesn’t unzip? It wouldn’t bother me so much if one of these ladies had intelligence, but none of them do. You literally want them to die because there has to be someone out there that died to save them! The women’s lib movement saw Hollywood react with vitriol toward independent women, so possibly Romero’s response is to show that women need protecting? Or that not every woman is independent? I don’t know, it all sounds like bull.
Taken as a whole, the actual implementation of the zombie crisis is fascinating and marks a strong shift in the world at large. 1968 was an incredibly violent year in US history. There were widespread race riots, and Vietnam would come to an apotheosis of carnage. One year later, the Manson family would epitomize senseless violence. In Romero’s film, there’s a radio broadcast telling people to lock themselves in their home and only trust the media (oh, a foreshadow of times to come). The zombies are cited as looking like ordinary people or horrific monsters depending on the witnesses so there’s no clear description of what to be afraid of. For all the people in the movie know, these horrific, murderous deviants look like average Americans; not too far removed from the clean-cut faces of the Manson family who would create senseless carnage for the sake of it.
As a piece of social commentary and popular culture, Night of the Living Dead created many of the tropes and identifying characteristics of the zombie movie that have carried on to this day. Duane Jones is the heart of the film, and hopefully will help you forget the weak series of ladies and other characters that show up. It’s a must-see, but prepare to see it for the dated film it is.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.