George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is a classic of American cinema. Although considered to be little better than gory pulp on its release, it is now recognized as a seminal piece of genre film making, as a well as politically charged depiction of race relations within the USA. It was also responsible for the first depiction of zombies of groups of zombies on film and, as such, served to define the conventions of the zombie-movie as they have been reproduced in the genre’s following iterations. Made in 1968 on a small budget, the film depicts a spontaneous attack by zombies on a farm house in New England in which various individuals are forced to hide together and attempt to survive until morning. As it progresses, fractures appear amongst the characters and they are all killed off, with the exception of the African American Ben, who appears to have survived the film up until its final scene when he is indiscriminately shot by a posse who have begun to hunt the zombies. In order to understand the film, it is therefore necessary to understand both its significance as a piece of genre cinema and also its value as a depiction of different social dynamics within the USA.
The film features an ensemble cast, but begins a brother and sister, Barbra and Johnny, visiting their father’s grave. Johnny is thrown against a tombstone by a strange man while Barbra flees and is saved by Ben, before taking refuge in a farm house which also contains a family and a teenage couple who are seeking to escape the zombie outbreak. The film follows the group of characters as they attempt to survive the night. It depicts the various tensions that emerge amongst them, as well as showing them using radio and television to maintain a degree of contact with the outside world. Although the outbreak is never explained, it is suggested at one point that the epidemic has spread at least throughout the whole of the eastern United States, and it is suggested that it have been caused by the radiation brought to earth by a space probe returning from Venus. The film ends, with all the characters dead, and with the end of the apparent restoration of order, as groups of cheering men burn the zombie corpses that they come across.
The film itself is deeply claustrophobic and works simultaneously as a character study and as an exercise in suspense. The lack of any exposition or significant origin story and the decision to never fully explain the presence of the zombies plunges the viewer directly into the action of the film, as it becomes clear that survival in the situation is the only meaningful option available. As such, the narrative time of the film is set directly alongside the “night” structure in which it exists. It is this temporal space that generates much of the film’s suspense as, after its opening scenes, it is clear that each of characters has literally no where to go and that they must simply attempt to wait out the night before help arrives in the morning.
Rather than staging a story of development or of becoming, “The Night of the Living Dead” can be seen to stage the disintegration of various characters and of their social positions and self-images. Typical characters such as a beautiful teenage couple, a WASP family and a lone African American appear, but they do not interact in expected ways. Rather Ben, the figure who one would most expect to die in a film of this kind, survives through his own resourcefulness and through the integrity of his character. Throughout the film, it is he who behaves most nobly and who is able to keep the coolest head while other characters squabble and fall out. It is this fact which makes his death at the end of the film all the more striking. Indeed, such a death at the hands of a white mob clearly recalls American racial history, as does the final shots of Ben’s body being burnt on the pyre of zombies. This death makes most sense if one considers that the film is not only concerned with a break down in social relations as the result of the zombie threat, but also with a subsequent restoration of order. The restoration is achieved through the actions of the posse. By having this posse kill Ben as their last act, Romero comments on the nature of law and order itself, especially in the USA. Just as the original development of the American economy was predicated on the utilization of slaves, so its restoration after a period of collapse is shown to be predicated on the potential continuation of black-death. It is in this sense that the film’s morning scenes both resolve its nocturnal narrative and finalize its position of social critique.
In conclusion, “Night of the Living Dead” is both genre cinema and social commentary and, in being this, it establishes the foundations for both Romero’s future zombie films and for the entire genre. It is, from one perspective, a suspenseful study in claustrophobia and an undoubtedly gory horror film. From another perspective, however, it is also a serious depiction, and indictment, of the continuing history of law and order in the United States.
- Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. By George A. Romero, George A. Romero, and John Russo. Perf. Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Marilyn Eastman, and Karl Hardman. Continental Distributing, Inc., 1968.