Starring: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Ridley
Words – Oliver Innocent.
Night of the Living Dead (NOTLD) is a key piece of ‘60s American cinema that ushered in a new wave of horror. NOTLD and the films that appeared in its wake in the 1970s, differed from the old guard of horror in that they were hybrids.
They were at once unashamed B-exploitation-movies with lurid titles like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and studies of the socio-political climate of the time. Often independently made with no studio interference and frequently featuring an almost cinema verité style verisimilitude, this was a true cinematic revolution.
George A Romero’s NOTLD spearheaded this revolution in spectacular fashion. A kind of cinematic trojan horse, Romero’s film at first glance appeared nothing more than a standard drive-in horror picture. The film’s title screams exploitation movie as does its graveyard opening sequence, stock music score, and sub-plot about a downed space probe. It almost feels like a relic of the ‘50s creature feature trend.
However, as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent NOTLD has much more to offer than its B-movie exterior would suggest. The farmhouse where survivors are holed up during the beginning of a zombie apocalypse is a microcosm of ‘60s America, a particularly tumultuous time in American history.
Allusions to the war in Vietnam are evident in the imagery of burning bodies and piles of corpses. There is also the divide in the house between those who want to go out and fight, and those who want to stay inside and not participate. The constant television news coverage also recalls the way in which the war became a part of everyday life, beamed straight into family living rooms.
Race relations is another serious issue the story brings to the fore. Ostensibly written as a white male lead, the role of the film’s hero, ‘Ben’ went to African American actor Duane Jones. One of the first, if not the first, black male leads in horror cinema, it marked a revolutionary step forward. This is a smart, capable black character that doesn’t pander to stereotypes.
Keeping Ben grounded in reality rather than portraying him as a black caricature ensures the tension between him and stubborn middle-aged white man Harry feels more genuine and impactful. Never explicitly about race, their clashing and distrust of each other nevertheless feels like a comment on relations between black and white ‘60s America.
This is further solidified by the film’s shocking ending where, after surviving the night of terror, Ben’s fate does not lie with a horde of zombies, but with a white militia mob. Recalling the assassination of black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr (which took place in the same year, just months before the film’s release), the film ends on a sombre, disturbing note.
NOTLD is just as relevant now as it was in the ‘60s, especially amidst the Black Lives Matter protest movement. It also feels oddly prescient with the Coronavirus lockdown where people have been stuck indoors while a strange, hitherto unknown disease makes the outside world a frightening place.
Aside from its exploration of the socio-political state of America, NOTLD also modernised the horror genre with its unflinching, realistic, taboo-breaking depictions of violence. The zombies don’t just kill their victims, they devour them in gory detail. From here on in horror got more brutal, downbeat and serious.
It has also been influential in spawning a multitude of horror sub-genres. Of course, modern zombie films and series such as The Walking Dead wouldn’t exist if not for Romero’s film, but there’s also cabin in the woods horrors like The Evil Dead and Cabin Fever which expand on the horrors of the film’s rural farmhouse setting. Then there’s a slew of films that have adapted the siege element of the story like John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness where a group of students are trapped in an old church with possessed homeless people preventing their escape.
Holding a mirror up to a nation divided on issues of race and war, Romero’s small, low budget horror film has proved to be an enduring classic of American cinema, as well as the ultimate, apocalyptic exploration of the death of the American Dream. Trapped in the farmhouse with no escape, the characters lose their freedom, their hope, their civilised exteriors, and their lives.
See our retrospective feature on Dawn of the Dead (1978) >here<.
See our retrospective feature on Day of the Dead (1985) >here<.