Few films have impacted the horror genre like Night of the Living Dead (1968). As George A Romero’s debut, this b-movie would end up becoming a cult classic that would inspire and create a whole new genre of film. It’s no secret that Romero gained his nickname ‘the King of the Zombies’ for Living Dead film series. And whilst others have looked at the themes of consumerism, class and brutality – none seem to rival the significance of Night of the Living Dead.
Although a classic today, back at its premiere in 1968 the film was greeted with great controversy. Viewers and critics weren’t ready for its gore and pessimistic viewpoint for its main characters. Children who attended the film slowly became terrified as the ‘ghouls’ became a greater presence that provided no way out for our heroes. The imagery of Night of the Living Dead is as terrifying back then as it is now. The black-and-white film creates this feeling of a wartime newsreel that gives a sense of validity to what we’re seeing and when we later see a child re-animated and eating the flesh of her parents in a dark cellar, it’s no surprise children were given nightmares. This is back when an audience took things they saw as the truth, and that good will always prevail in these stories. One of the leads Barbra (Judith O’Dea) seems to demonstrate that the kind and compassionate could overcome anything. At the beginning of the film, her rude and unsympathetic brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) meets his deserved end but Barbra escapes. Modern audiences visiting this film may expect the final girl trait to offer Barbra protection but she is consumed by ‘flesh-eaters’ just the same as everyone else.
This sense of impending doom has caused multiple interpretations for a film that was released at a politically active time in the United States. Some may find it as a critique of 1960s society and the nuclear family – with a young couple and a married middle-age partnership butting heads – whilst others have compared it to the Vietnam War with its guerrilla style of filmmaking and search and destroy tactics. But the most accepted reading seems to be based off the character of Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American man who leads the way in this group of different characters in survival. Whilst others are spouting ill advice and showing their selfishness, Ben offers solutions that seem to work and is most aware of the ghouls true threat. He is the only one to actually survive the horde of monsters, only to then be mistaken for one and shot by a redneck patrol of the area.
Although Romero has denied its comparisons to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, it’s clear to see the treatment of Ben easily compared to the Civil Rights Movement. Even Jones’s casting alone was controversial to some backwards states, who were surprised to see him being the hero and main character of this story. But Romero firmly said he gave the best audition and he was given the role, like how all auditions should go down. Jones elevated the character of Ben from an uneducated truck driver to what he was in the script by taking his dialogue and altering it for how he felt it suited the character. It in turn gave us one of the greatest horror heroes of all time.
Whilst there’s plenty of tropes that horror films have taken from Romero’s work, the word zombie was never actually used in his debut. Unaware of the comparisons from Haitian folklore and the term ‘zombies’, the script originally began as alien flesh eaters and was inspired by the novel I Am Legend (1954). Differing those characters of vampires, he in turn created a new species of zombies and one that is as common today as is any movie monster.
Header Image Courtesy of Janus Films.