Artistic entertainment has always been used to teach us lessons about the world and ourselves. The Grimm fairy tales spin stories of fantasy, like that of Little Red Riding Hood and the ravenous Wolf, which is a larger lesson about being wary of strangers. The Greek tragedy of Icarus and Daedalus warn of the dangers of reckless ambition, as Icarus ultimately falls to his death for “flying too close to the sun.” Stories have the great power of communicating a larger point by framing them within a fantastical narrative, as the shroud of fantasy constructs the broad concepts into a more palatable form. Fantasy and horror films have been an ideal conduit for filmmakers to explore ideals and fears. Filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro have made an entire career out of this idea, using the creatures in his fable-esque films for social commentary. The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) represents excessive greed, as Del Toro once candidly pointed out, while the fish-man from last year’s The Shape of Water (2017) is subjected to the same abuse endured by minorities in American society.
Creatures like these are often used to inject subtext and deeper meaning into film. The first vampire film, Nosferatu (1922), carries anti-immigration themes in the wake of World War I, as Count Orlok brings terror to Germany from his Transylvanian home. Alternatively, films like The Lost Boys (1987) use the vampire to represent the volatile nature of abandoned youth. No creature has been as transformative as the modern zombie, as its numerous incarnations embody the societal fears of any given period. Films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Resident Evil (2002) reflect fears of viral outbreaks in the early 2000s, while AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010 – present) and the more comedic Zombieland (2009) showcase society’s growing concern with the apocalypse. Using zombies as an allegory started with their creator, director George A. Romero, pioneer of the zombie genre. His films Land of the Dead (2005) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) are unabashed critiques of capitalist society and consumer culture in which zombies represent the easily manipulated masses. Romero’s first film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), still serves as the archetypal zombie film, as the terror inflicted by the eponymous beings heavily mirrored the cultural upheaval occurring during the 1960s, whether Romero intended it to or not.
It’s incredible to realize that the idea of the modern zombie is only half a century old; Night of the Living Dead celebrates its 50th anniversary this October. Indeed, the modern zombie stands on the same pedestal as centuries-old mythical creatures like dragons and unicorns, despite its infancy. The concept of the re-animated dead, however, and even the term “zombie,” date back further, though they have little to do with Romero’s creation. The concept of a “zombie” originates in Haitian legends, as a voodoo practice where a sorcerer resurrects the dead as a mindless slave. These ideas were appropriated in films like White Zombie (1931) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), solidifying American audiences’ first understandings of the creature. These zombies bore no resemblance to those in Night of the Living Dead other than their re-animated state. Romero did not consider his creatures similar to zombies himself, later stating:
When I did the first film, I didn’t call them zombies. When I did Night of the Living Dead, I called them ghouls, flesh eaters. To me back then, zombies were just those boys in Caribbean doing the wet-work for Bela Lugosi, so I never thought of them as zombies. I thought they were just back from the dead. I ripped off the idea for the first film from a Richard Matheson novel called I Am Legend, which is now back with us after a couple of incarnations prior. I thought I Am Legend was about revolution. I said, “If you’re going to do something about revolution you should start at the beginning.” I mean, Richard starts “his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said, “We got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit.” I couldn’t use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change. Something that was forever, something that was really at the heart of it. I said, “So what if the dead stop staying dead?”
The term only became associated with Romero due to general audience consensus, after which Romero relented and finally began labeling them as such upon revisiting the genre ten years later in Dawn of the Dead. Romero’s reputation as the creator of the genre was confirmed and the characteristics of his creatures were replicated by flocks of other filmmakers. Due to a copyright oversight while editing the film, Night of the Living Dead became public domain instantly upon release, allowing anyone to integrate Romero’s zombies into their own films.
This unfortunate mishap took away the intellectual ownership that Romero rightfully deserved, but without it the zombie genre would never have flourished, or potentially even existed at all. Open availability of the zombie was not solely responsible for its influence; few other creatures have populated the cultural zeitgeist as abundantly as the zombie. There was something unique about the creatures in Night of the Living Dead that invigorated unparalleled terror in its audiences. The brutality and gore present in Night of the Living Dead certainly shocked audiences in 1968, but many viewers were considerably more unnerved by seeing the horrors on-screen reflect the inescapable terrors of the current political climate around them.
In 1968, America was in a state of relative chaos. Soldiers came home from Vietnam haunted by the atrocities they were forced to commit. The Civil Rights movement was at its height; Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated that year. Romero had just finished editing his film when it happened, and heard the news over the radio as he and producer Russ Streiner were driving to New York to find a distributor. His reaction was one of shock and heartbreak, but he couldn’t help but recognize how beneficial it would be to his film. Though he had cast his leading actor, Duane Jones, without considering the implications his race lent to the film,Romero was suddenly aware of the impact it would have.
Before Night of the Living Dead, opportunities for black actors were limited. They were relegated to supporting and background parts, and had only recently been allowed occasional starring roles, with Sidney Poitier leading the charge in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and In the Heat of the Night (1967). These roles were affixed with the race of their actors, meaning the plot often revolved around their race and the abnormality of their position in American society. While these films were progressive, they still enforced the divide between black and white and could not separate race from the equation. Night of the Living Dead disregarded conventional portrayal for black actors by never once mentioning its leading character’s race and treating Ben as an equal character among his white peers. Romero had written Ben as a white character, but didn’t change any of the script after casting Jones. Romero said they thought they were being “hip” for disregarding that aspect of the script and could not foresee how this change would influence the film.
Jones, on the other hand, was all too aware of how audiences would interpret his character in the wake of the radical social changes occurring. Romero said: “Duane was the most sensitive among us to the racial issue and how some of that stuff might resonate.” Jones refined the character of Ben from the crass truck driver he was written as to better fit his more sensitive personality and avoid portraying himself in an unfavorable light. Ben’s actions in the films show him to be resourceful and heroic; the only instances of non-zombie aggression are provoked. Ben’s character catered neither to those prejudiced against black Americans, nor those who wished to soften their image to make them more “acceptable.” Ben was a prominent black lead, uninhibited by his race and a revolutionary, realistic black everyman. This realism became all the more poignant when his character is senselessly shot dead by a posse of gun-toting white men, a terrifyingly relevant fear for the black community that still resonates today.
The ending is bitter and unjust, and comes out of nowhere. The posse are initially presented as saviors. They are escorted by the police and dispatch the remaining zombies surrounding the farmhouse, but when they kill Ben, they toss his corpse onto a pyre without remorse, along with the other zombies they were hunting. The parallel of the white posse’s treatment of Ben and the violent racism endured by black Americans was not lost on audiences. Jones himself encountered such an instance during production of Night of the Living Dead. When driving home through Pittsburgh one night after shooting, a group of teenagers followed him through the city, threateningly wielding a tire iron. In a rare interview, Jones said:
The irony of it, that I had been brandishing a tire iron at ghouls all day long, and there was someone brandishing a tire iron at me from a car, but in absolute seriousness. And that moment, the total serialization of the racial nightmare of America being worse than whatever it was that we were doing as a metaphor in that film lives with me to this moment.
The emblematic racial themes in Night of the Living Dead have stood out as the most prominent vestige of the film, despite Romero’s ignorance of it. In some ways, the unintentional commentary overshadows the themes Romero had initially set out to explore. “Our point was more the disintegration of society, the inability to communicate, disintegration of the family unit,” Romero said. These ideas, birthed from Romero’s politically-charged ideals, also bore the influence of the radical shift of the 1960s.
America had been shaken by numerous political movements, as Civil Rights and Anti-War protesters filled the streets, and the counterculture movement began to challenge long-held conservative ideals. Romero incorporated this chaos into Night of the Living Dead to show how fragile society was when it came to dealing with a large-scale crisis. Characters bicker with each other instead of banding together and ultimately fall victim to the encroaching threat because of their lack of cooperation. Romero sought to capture the turbulence of America’s political landscape in Night of the Living Dead and allowed the stark imagery of the shifting times to bleed into his film. The black and white cinematography was akin to audiences’ televisions at home. This parallel was further bolstered by the extended sequence of a realistic news broadcast in which actual newscaster Charles Craig reports on the uprising of the dead in a remarkably convincing manner.
The cinematography also drew parallels to Vietnam, as the carnage on display in the still pictures of the film’s end credits are reminiscent of similar photos taken from the war. The zombies themselves also represent the various political changes. Whether they be the growing crowds of protesters rising against the system, or the mindless masses who are slowly defeated by the progressive few, the zombies are an overall representation of the revolutionary change of the time. This is perhaps best exemplified when the Coopers’ daughter returns as a zombie and kills both her mother and father, as a literal representation of the youth destroying the sacred nuclear family. This kind of social commentary is what separates Night of the Living Dead from the unremarkable, cheap horror films it was first categorized with.
At the time, horror films and comics were popular among young children, so many low-budget horror films catered to their sensibilities. Matinee screenings were booked with films like The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and Let’s Kill Uncle (1966), which delivered the bloody expectations of the genre in a playful manner that appealed to younger audiences. Inadvertently, Night of the Living Dead was lumped in with these “kid-friendly” horror films when first shown in 1968. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert attended one such showing, and commented on the experience in his review.
The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying. I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed.
An abridged version of his review was later posted in Reader’s Digest Magazine to warn parents of the film and bring awareness to the rising violence being portrayed in movies. The film was also given unfavorable reviews by Variety and The New York Times, who focused on the shock and gore, and remarked on its amateur creators. The film wasn’t taken seriously until a1969 review for Andy Warhol’s Inter/view Magazine, where writer George Abagnalo said of the film: “It should open at an art house and run for at least a month, because it is a work of art.” Later, in an interview with Romero, Abagnalo commented further saying: “Night of the Living Dead is in the best genre of horror films, especially with the brilliant use of black and white texture and sense of doom throughout.” More nuanced reviews began popping up in French film journals like Cahiers Du Cinema and Positif after the film received international distribution. These reviews began to highlight the underlying racial themes present in the film, remarking on Ben’s character and the tragic conclusion of the film. In 1970, Night of the Living Dead was screened at the Museum of Modern Art, causing many to re-evaluate the film. The museum added the film to their permanent collection ten years later, solidifying its prestigious reputation.
When Romero and his friends deviated from their commercial-focused work with their production company, The Latent Image, to make Night of the Living Dead,they had kept their expectations low. “We never knew if we were ever going to finish this movie. It was just like a bunch of people getting together and we were going to try and make a movie. None of us knew if it was ever gonna get finished, let alone become something as well-known as it is,” Romero said. They viewed the film as a commercial venture first, despite Romero’s revolution-inspired concept. “We just wanted to make the ballsiest horror film we could make.” Night of the Living Dead became one of the most profitable independent films ever made. With an initial budget of $114,000, the film grossed over $700,000 just within the first year, and eventually earned more than 30 million dollars worldwide.
The film became a roaring success because of its unique departure from conventional expectations and its bold fearlessness. The guerrilla techniques necessitated by the film’s amateur production drew audiences further into its reality. They allowed themselves to see their own fears reflected in Romero’s vision and were able to take away more from the film than Romero had initially intended. This personal connection to the themes of the film is more responsible for the film’s success than the shock-horror elements critics initially dismissed. Night of the Living Dead lives on as a landmark film for its revolutionary depiction of black characters, introspective horror, and tenacious spirit, all of which would inspire generations of filmmakers. Frank Darabont, writer/director of The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Mist (2007), and creator of AMC’s The Walking Dead, said of the film:
Sometimes there is that bizarre confluence of happy accidents that result in lightning in a bottle, and it really lights up the darkness. It becomes something greater than the sum of its parts, and Night of the Living Dead is one of the faces on the Mount Rushmore of this idea. They made a little scary movie with the resources they had, and yet the whole is something that had global impact. It became something truly remarkable.