Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

09 Dec 2011

(Movie - 1968) Night of the Living Dead directed by: George Romero

(Reaction) Horror With a Conscience by: Jose Angelo Singson

George Romero had just about pushed every boundary possible with Night of the Living Dead, perhaps his most lasting contribution to the horror film genre, and perhaps to films in general. The film, despite having such a trashy drive-in-theater-ish title belies a subtle genius and a series of very pointed social commentaries of the state of affairs at the time of its release.

The film is also known for having had a number of firsts: it was the first of its kind to feature an African American hero, a very bold move and one of many bold and brilliant social observations of 1960's American society that Romero would be making in this film. The film was also the first to feature shockingly graphic, not mention realistic depictions of cannibalism on screen and perhaps the first true hard-core survival horror film to achieve cult status.

Night of the Living Dead, despite the relative simplicity of its execution, is able to effectively tackle many deep, complex social themes, primarily that of stereotyping. Then again nearly all social commentaries must play up stereotypes in order to efficiently present their case. In Night of the Living Dead Romero makes use of fairly one-sided, black-and-white (both figuratively and literally) characters who embody the different socio-ethnological mind-frames of the US in 1960's but he also manages to keep these characters as believably human as anyone we know. What's really scary though is this: the characters in the movie are so believably played out and their social sentiments so clearly stated even if they (the film characters) are mere generalized concepts of racial views of the time.

A factor that further heightened the controversial-ness of their choice of leading man was the civil rights movement of the 1960's. The film was released on the very same year that Martin Luther King was assassinated. The hullabaloo surrounding race issues had barely begun to lose steam and the film must have done its fair share of shaking up for its underlining theme of ethnic dynamics. This came as a particular surprise because frankly no one suspected this degree of intelligence and boldness to come from a film with a title that reads like it was desgined to lure horny teenagers plotting to get lucky. This guerilla method of presenting his inner sentiments via his films would later become one of Romero's trademarks as well as a reflection of his exceptional skill as a filmmaker.

Controversies and political statements aside, the film itself is a fine example of a truly original, not to mention one of the most effectively frightening, films I've ever had the pleasure of watching. It plays up on old fears like claustrophobic conditions with a healthy dose of cabin fever, and then of course there's the darkness and the eponymous Living Dead outside their defensive perimeter slowly, patiently, efficiently and silently breaking in to feast on their warm flesh.

The mere concept of once familiar faces of loved ones, friends and neighbors turning into hideous biological automatons hell-bent on having us for a snack is definitely the stuff of nightmares and Romero does not go cheap on the horror scenes. The air of the film is taut with tension from the characters trapped within the abandoned farmhouse and from the ever-present danger that the zombies present making the film a truly unrelenting tour-de-force of fear. What really makes this this movie a real gem is how well it balances shock-entertainment with crucial critiques and morals. Virtually every scene and every nuance of dialogue is loaded with double meaning: rich, visceral horror on a superficial level and a dark, cynical look at human nature and the dynamics of race interations on a deeper level.

The plotline would become a staple and template of many a successful horror film to come: a group of stangers holed up and boarded in a house for a night as the undead gather in increasing numbers outside, waiting for the opportunity to break in and eat them.

Seemingly peaceful outside, inside the house however is a roiling pot of turmoil. Opinions are polarized: Ben, the protagonist, believes that fortifying the house's entry points and waiting for help to arrive is the best course of action. Harry, the hardnosed family man, believes that holing up in the cellar is the safest route; despite the cellar being a virtual killzone with no way out should the zombies manage to break in. A motley crew of characters complete the cast: the catatonic trauma victim Barbara (Judith O'Dea), Harry's wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), their injured daughter and first in-house zombie, Karen (Kyra Schon), and the impulsive teenage couple Tom, (Keith Wayne), his girlfriend Judy (Judith Ridley).

The character's opinions are more or less divided between the two views: stay on the first floor and hope for rescue and brave the dangers of being overwhelmed or seal themselves in the basement with no backup for escape and no means to alert the outside world to let them know that they're alive.

Harry is the most vocally critical of Ben's plan. Perhaps his staunch refusal to listen to Ben's logic might be because of bigotry, but there really isn't a lot of proof there. I believe it was more cowardice that motivated him. Admittedly, one may think that any actor, black or white, could have played the part of Ben and done a fine job. I believe though, and the interviews may attest to this but I think that Romero was truly gunning for a very loud, very brash social statement with his choice of lead actor.

Think about how it must have reached a primarily Caucasian audience in 1968 when Ben all but beats Harry up then defiantly pronounces, You're boss down there, and I'm boss up here! Bold as that statement is though, Romero still approaches the racial tension with caution, but the underlying ideas behind the statements only makes the film more daring. Ben's refusal to back down must have had made quite a stir during those days to folks that expected most African-Americans to play submissive roles, again especially considering that the director himself was Caucasian.

The two men continue to argue and push for the wisdom of their positions while the undead increase in numbers and their attempts to enter the house happen with greater frequency and ferocity. This builds an immense amount of tension and the underlying theme is clear: these two are a parallel to the race relations of the US back in the early 1960's when racial intolerances were at its worse.

Like the two bickering men, racial tensions were about to come to a sudden violent and ugly head. Both sides began to grow their hate and pain and produce both visible and invisible barriers that proved ridiculously difficult to overcome. When they finally realize that the key to survival is cooperation, it is too late. The plans originally drafted up end in dismal failure either because of panic or because no one has been thinking clearly and the situation has grown considerably worse.

The character's collective fate is the director's warning to the American audience of what may happen if racial intolerances are left unchecked. In fact, in nearly all of his Dead movies, the humans literally have little to fear from the living dead and it is always, ALWAYS the living that end up killing themselves. Romero's point? We are own worst enemy. We are always destroying ourselves and ultimately, the zombies are the only ones benefiting from our own murderous tendencies.

Night if the Living Dead though is more than just a cautionary tale warning us against social and racial prejudice. It is also a commentary on the most pressing social issues of the era like male dominance, the communist scare, the hippie movement, etc. If you think about it there are several other parallelisms that may be seen throughout the film and I'm not just talking about the cast.

The farmhouse that they've boarded up and fortified for example. Notice how quickly the zombies were able to infiltrate it despite their best efforts? Once the main cast had managed to die in unfortunate mishaps and divide their fighting force into two groups, the zombies were all but assured of a warm meal. This can be seen as the director's comment about the mainstream reaction to the Cuban Missle Crisis. I mean, how helpful would a home-made bomb shelter be should nuclear armaggedon have happened? We even see Romero's statement about the decline of values that was plaguing the youth of the 1960's in the form of the teenage couple in the house. Their inability to follow the plan resulted in all out chaos and the loss of their escape vehicle. Perhaps this was his take on what he saw to be the slow but certain backsliding of the youth of the day, especially with all the experimention on drugs, philosophical movements and sex.

The last scenes in the movie are to me some of the most jarring, visually speaking. It features an angry, gun-toting zombie clean-up squad of mostly Caucasian males and this scene changes from moving pictures to a set of literal slow fade changes of actual photographs like a powerpoint presentation. The last scenes return to Romero's main focus: playing upon racial stereotypes and the danger of intolerance. The last shot/photograph very visually similar to the murders and lynch-mobbing that were committed against African-Americans in the US who took a stand against oppression and is a frightening reminder of the products of bigotry and a lack of understanding. Honestly the pictures, though mere stills of the movie, really look and feel like they were could have been taken from any newspaper from the Civil Rights era.

Surprisingly, the most pointed social comment for today's audience was actually made by the zombies themselves. If you strip away at the scary veneer of rot and blood, the zombie is a mindless flesh automaton driven primarily by the urge to consume. Again, strip away the blood and the rot, that line could pretty much be describe ANYONE in this modern consumerist society we live in. The zombie's mindless eating frenzy might well be Romero's call for caution to his 1960's audience as the terms instant and disposable began to be featured more and more in everyday products.

I feel that a caveat must be given concerning the copious violence in the movie. If George Romero was making a social commentary did he really need to use such strong, undoubtedly offensive imagery of zombies ripping chunks of flesh from charred remains and squabbling over spilled innards?

The short and simple answer is yes. Violence is only one of the films many metaphors for social decline, and it is a terribly effective one. The zombies that fight one another for scraps of human flesh are, in a manner of speaking, reflections of ourselves; that we literally have the capacity to be insatiable monsters. A reflection and a reminder that daily there are people that rip each other apart with hate and intolerance.

The violence, very simply put is a necessary storytelling tool and an effective visual reminder of what we are all capable of becoming, or rather devolve into, if not urged to think beyond our own needs. I've never been outraged at the violence or gore shown in the film. Frightened perhaps, but never offended. Instead, I see what it was meant to symbolize and I am surprised by the fact that a low-budget horror movie could make such a profound comment about social decline and the state of a nation (the US) back in the turbulent 1960's and such a brilliant one at that.


As a child I remember being scared stiff by this movie and I remember waking up from many a recurring nightmare featuring zombie hordes. To me Night of the Living Dead has always been simply a truly original, truly effective horror movie that has frightened and will continue to frighten audiences as long as it is viewed.

Later on as I watch the film again and learn more about the background and the conditions that it was shot on you come to realize that the film is so much deeper and so much more sensitive than a Halloween movie marathon staple. It is a trailblazer in film-making, pioneering many bold moves that would be used throughout film history and a tidy, well thought-out critique of the turbulent decade that was the 1960's.

George Romero is a truly gifted film maker. He did not merely set out to make a monster movie - but he also had the unique ability to urge the viewer to re-evaluate himself/herself and ponder the monster his society can make out of him or, in some cases, the monster he has allowed himself to become through willful intolerance. Literally he is able to make the viewer squirm in his/her seat not merely through the gore and the violence but by making him/her face uncomfortable realizations about how they take part in the greater social organism.

And so what we have now is a film that has transcended the horror film genre of its day to become one of the greatest shock-horror films ever made and one of the most pointed and poignant commentaries about society as a whole. Impressive, considering its budget and its execution.

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