Watching ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) in the Wake of a Pandemic

In March 2020, largely the specific point in time recognized as the moment when the COVID-19 pandemic became real to Americans, there existed a collective sense of stagnant anxiety that left the country in a captive state of discomfort. There existed a suspicion that, for as innocuous as lockdown protocols seemed, there was an almost suffocating possibility lurking just beneath the surface that any walk upon the street could be one’s last chance to stroll idly by a neighbor. Such a shocked state of worry was understandable: inklings of the pandemic’s potential severity had crept into news cycles since the beginning of the year, highlighting the overflowing hospitals, sterile protective gear, and sudden death rates of countries overseas that had been hit with harsher waves prior to the virus crossing over to the United States. The natural reaction, for as much as any emotional response to a traumatic event like this could be classified as such, would be to panic; however, the government mandate was to isolate, presenting a growing sense of claustrophobia and a requirement to sit with one’s conception of their new daily routine.

No one really knew what to do at the beginning of the pandemic, because for the past century in America, the thought of one occurring was the stuff of science fiction, material to pad a narrative about human vulnerability that could end whenever the viewer decided to stop interacting with it. Indeed, many people’s initial reaction was to turn to the films that had foretold the possibility of a pandemic swiftly sweeping a nation; by the end of the first week of national quarantine mandates, the 1995 thriller Outbreak had become Netflix’s ninth most popular title, and the similarly-themed 2011 film Contagion rose to the eighth most popular slot on iTunes, surging in piracy as well. 

Personally, I never found it necessary, or even that appropriate, to turn to fiction to assuage my potential anxieties about the pandemic. The reality was too disturbing as it was, and I knew that the sensationalistic confines of a standard three-act Hollywood thriller would likely present a version of this scenario too histrionic and callous to make watching them productive to my mindset. When I finally did watch such a film—a tattered DVD of Outbreak I found at a library—I did so primarily out of morbid curiosity, and promptly felt myself having wasted two hours of my life before forgetting about the experience, having mostly confirmed my expectations about how such narratives would read from my new perspective. The rest of the film’s initial viewers seem to have done the same: while cable airings of Outbreak can be found on channels like Starz and Showtime, the film is no longer available on Netflix, and such stark differences between the film’s actual plot and the circumstances in which so many watched it have only seemed to exacerbate its tepid reception.

Almost two years later, the film’s new billing as a “timely” watch to address current woes seems to have been abandoned as well. This past October, as I searched various streaming platforms for horror movies to help curate my Halloween watches, I stumbled upon Hulu’s “Hulu-ween” section, which compiled all of the site’s embellished horror fare into a convenient tab for viewers with the same intentions as I. Most of the selections were relatively standard, among them a respectable variety of serious indies such as Let the Right One In (2013), horror-comedies like The Final Girls (2015), and expected cult classics á la The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). However, after having scrolled through the majority of the selections, one title buried within the thumbnail frames caught my eye: it was none other than Outbreak, accompanied by nothing but the ominous image of the Capuchin monkey that sets the film’s plot in motion.

To say I was startled would be an understatement—frankly, I was appalled. The quality of the film itself was not the source of my ire; I’d seen worse on the platform before. What first triggered my repulsion was the covert willingness for the site to betray its ostensible values of uplifting the fictional stories of marginalized peoples with the inclusion of the film, and so cowardly tucked away with a neatness that could ensure only the most bored would find it. A literal half of the film’s starring male cast has been accused by former coworkers of violating sexual boundaries in some respect. Make no mistake, upon the film’s initial release in 1995, the presence of cast members who would later go on to be accused of sexual harassment (or actions even more severe) was very much the draw of Outbreak, and it worked; the film earned a nearly quadruple gross profit of its $50M budget at the box office. The film was billed on its all-star cast led by aging two-time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman several years removed from his artistic prime, whose infamously intense method acting was likely meant to distract from the convoluted mediocrity of the film’s script. Yet what read as the most shameless aspect of this inclusion was the cheapness with which it contextualized a subject matter that has now led to the death of half a million Americans, not to mention statistics regarding international citizens the world over, reducing it to pure spectacle, a tool for sparking adrenaline to be disposed of shortly thereafter.

A white man in a yellow hazmat suit with tropical imagery behind him. A Black man stands to the side, wearing a dirty beige top.
Outbreak, image courtesy of Warner Bros.

However, it is this sharp oscillation that reveals the hollowness inherent in absorbing films like Outbreak and its ilk as potential warning signs of what’s to come. Really, for as much as the film’s promotional material emphasizes the presence of hazmat suits and panicked expressions, the fictional pandemic that occurs within the film serves as little more than context for the ego struggle between the story’s protagonist and his skeptical higher-up. Revealing the film’s true intentions—or perhaps its script’s inability to comprehend the gravity of the situation—this conflict climaxes not in a hesitant rush to save the lives of vulnerable patients, but in a fiery helicopter chase in the mountains during which Hoffman’s solitary character pleads for mercy over a radio. By utilizing dated computer-generated sequences of viral spread, graphic displays of blood, and militarized calamity, Outbreak constantly imbues a sense of terror within its audience, but one it has no idea how to resolve. The bleak spectacle of its body count provides little more than a montaged backdrop to one man’s quest to self-actualize as a scientific hero, merely another exercise in standard material for both Hoffman’s cerebral protagonists and ‘90s thrillers’ global catastrophes, presented with all the care of a mere thought experiment.

Despite my frustration with the sources from which I searched for Halloween watches, it was through that planning that I accidentally chose a more apt reflection on such drastic portrayals of sudden, viral death presented as pure horror. In fact, it was one of the architects of the genre itself, George A. Romero’s 1968 renowned horror staple Night of the Living Dead. While different social ills color the film’s particular illustration of paranoia—namely the onset of the Vietnam War, which is also reflected in hectic news reels, and a casual indifference to shooting civilians with rifles—in not striving for cultural relevance as a foremost motivation, it reveals itself to be a surprisingly candid admission of the American conception of mortality; a warped tangle of fear shrouded by apathy that only provides more insight when such outcomes are mirrored in our current circumstances.

Though beliefs originating in Haiti surrounding the zombified undead had provided subject matter for previous films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), the more economical reinterpretation of these archetypes presented in Night of the Living Dead differs in two distinct ways. For one, the depiction of zombies is far less explicitly racialized, because despite the Vietnam War-era language the film borrows from to create its paranoid essence, the zombies presented are more of a generalized ‘other’ than a specific demographic. Secondly, whereas zombie interpretations of the past stayed true to belief in the dead that walk among us, their depictions of zombies were much more tame, presenting the creatures as little more than sedated human beings whose faces had become unrecognizable, in stark contrast to the cannibalistic impulses that become a defining feature of the titular zombies in Night of the Living Dead. Yet, the lore the film’s script draws its primary inspiration from are not zombie tales at all, but Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, in which the apocalypse occurs as a result of the sudden spread of disease.

Night of the Living Dead’s first encounter with a zombified figure is straightforward in its near immediacy during the film’s beginning. Upon arriving in a cemetery, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) plan to visit their father’s grave, though they both seem to regard the occasion as a source of obligation rather than a means of emotional closure. Johnny, in particular, shows little regard for his father’s passing: when he holds the wreath the two plan to place upon his grave, he remarks, “‘We still remember.’ I don’t.” Johnny’s reluctance to express any reverence towards his late father is short-lived, as are any potential emotions surrounding the event. After briefly touring the graveyard, mocking Barbra’s fears of the eerie atmosphere of the location by pretending to be an undead creature himself, Johnny is quickly devoured by a real zombie, who runs a clumsy, terrified Barbra out of the cemetery and into a nearby house in shambles.

A black and white image of a man and woman in a car. The woman is seen from the side, looking away, while the man wears glasses and appears interested in what's outside the window.
Night of the Living Dead, image courtesy of Image Ten

It is in this house that she meets the remaining cast of characters, all of whom know of the potential of an impending zombie invasion and respond to such a threat in different ways. Barbra herself remains almost catatonic throughout the remainder of the film, sitting idly while her cohorts board up the house in a hurried effort. Her traumatized reaction is understandable, as the transformation she witnesses is not only devastating in how unexpected it is, but an experience that is specifically gendered as well. The male captor that scared Barbra away from the cemetery was predatory in both a figurative and literal sense, and the suddenness with which he appeared, with not just a focus on devouring her, but an inability to concentrate on anything else, was surely frightening to see in its staggering, dead-eyed lurch.

Yet Barbra’s decidedly feminine-coded defense mechanism, a retreat into pure passivity, is also one colored by race, a dichotomy depicted as she is placed in contrast to the first new inhabitant of the house, a man named Ben (Duane Jones). Notable for being one of the first Black leads to ever appear in a horror film, Ben’s reaction to the threat of encroaching zombies is much more resourceful and impatient, as he quickly searches the house for materials that could be useful in blocking its points of entry. As Romero utilized colorblind casting techniques to assemble the film’s roster, Ben’s race is not mentioned explicitly. However, he still exists as the sole Black character in Night of the Living Dead, and easily the most pragmatic character at that, whose focus on his safety and that of his cohorts contains and neutralizes the impulsive bickering of his white counterparts. His survival instincts have clearly been trained for situations mirroring the intensity and quick wit he expresses here, a trait likely informed by the radical demonstrations of the late-sixties era in which this film was released; as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the compounded apathy and neglect with which the colonialist state treats Black people has deadly consequences in disproportionate numbers

Night of the Living Dead, image courtesy of Image Ten

As Night of the Living Dead prolongs, the hordes of zombies that approach the house grow with more imposing presence, making the living characters grow much more desperate as a result. As the night dwindles, the groaning, almost vengeful image of death reincarnated slowly begins to descend upon the door of the living, their barriers of entry proving more malleable as each zombie appears. At one point, a small group of supporting characters devise a plan to stop by a gas station to fill up a truck, presumably to provide a means of escape in case of an emergency. But for as fast as the trio speeds towards the gas station, their ploy to escape the increasingly visible nature of death, even for a few minutes, is met with consequences in a rapid manner. In what is perhaps the film’s most on-the-nose sequence of visual symbolism, the truck catches fire while the passengers are in it, providing the zombies with yet another source of carnage upon which to sustain themselves as a result of the group’s momentary lapse in judgment. 

This is only one of many losses that soon meet the remaining living members of the cast, as the zombies gradually claw their way through the wooden boards and nails that Ben first thinks will seal the house members away from harm. Its residents again operate under different strategies, usually leading to their demise: in a particularly disturbing moment, one couple in the house flees to the basement to shield their young daughter, only to find that she too has turned into a zombie, exemplified by the pleasure she gains from slowly eating the flesh of those around her, and soon that of her own parents. In most other films of this ilk, the fact that this is the first instance of one of the household’s own to be turned into a zombie would serve as a predictable reflection of the corruption of innocence. But after having been preceded by the hour’s worth makeshift survivalism that characterizes the film’s weathered introduction, the girl’s capacity to maintain sustenance at the cost of her own mother and father is a contrast both repulsive and harrowing, twisting the audience’s sympathies in displaying a feeling of loss shared by the universally imperfect members of the film’s cast. It also reveals the circle of life, parents giving life to a child, reverting inward and cannibalizing itself to tragic ends, the loss of autonomous life having occurred before it could even be prevented.

A black and white image of a truck going up into flames.
Night of the Living Dead, image courtesy of Image Ten

The cast’s final encounter with death is a similarly cyclical one, as zombies pound through the door and swarm the house. One of the last house members standing, Barbra, somehow still cognizant of her surroundings, turns to face the sunken, ashy face of her now-undead brother Johnny, as he corners her with the intention to kill her too. Though he is initially callous in his dismissal of death, the swiftness and decisiveness with which he meets his inevitable zombification is still an experience that takes place far too abruptly, far too unfairly, for anyone involved to seek closure. In all of Barbra’s desperation to deny the reality of the death that surrounds her, she is met with the catalyst of her traumatized state once again before she, too, succumbs to the same force.

Her death is not the final one, however, even if it was the one conventional moral framing would’ve found the most convenient—after all, her reluctance to face death contextualized the film’s exposition, so it would be logical to conclude the film’s arc with her fall to it. That said, the next morning, as soldiers patrol the remains of the house, more dilapidated than its initial inhabitants found it, they discover Ben, who emerges from the house’s cellar under the impression that the zombies have been vanquished. In a swift, ironic blow, though, he is mistaken by the armed soldiers as one of the zombies himself. The film’s final frame displays Ben as the final causality, his body shot with such an indifference by state officials that it suggests an apathetic normalization, and subsequent disrespect, of the finite nature of human life and the disposability accepted by the oppressive state that perpetuates it, destined to replicate the circumstances of such a cycle once again when the time presents itself. 

A black and white image of four zombified men reaching out towards the screen. They are well dressed and have neutral expressions
Night of the Living Dead, image courtesy of Image Ten

Night of the Living Dead is not optimistic in its ending, but it is depressingly realistic. Though federal regulations during the pandemic relaxed many of the conditions that could exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus—unemployment, homelessness, etcetera—these accommodations were largely viewed as temporary adjustments for unprecedented times rather than genuine attempts to rectify long-lasting inequality. And, as such, they were revoked when government officials saw fit. Despite strikes, the federal eviction moratorium has ended. While the subsequent resignations en masse that many essential workers made in protest of poverty wages had prompted individual companies to raise their introductory salaries in order to regain necessary labor surpluses, there has been no federal adjustment to the minimum wage, which has remained the same for over a decade in the face of rising housing costs. Like the plot of the film, this supposed aid by the state is only setting itself up to renew the conditions that led to its initial creation, adjusting for periods of discomfort more so as an inconvenience than out of genuine concern for public well-being.

The spectacle of death within Night of the Living Dead seems to grow exponentially. As the collective, faceless mass of the dead forms to enact their revenge on those who did not care for them during their lives or respect their passing in death, those who die at their hands are selected with no mercy or consideration, even more unfairly than those who previously died. The conditions to improve public life are discarded by the state in both the film’s larger arc and the current pandemic that mirrors it, to the point that each character in the film is forced to internalize this malformed approach to grief as a short-sighted survival mechanism for themselves, which is bound to lead to their demise no matter what. Night of the Living Dead may have been released over fifty years ago, but as its own circular nature observes and predicts, so little has changed from the small-scale revival of the dead America is not able to grieve. Within this framework, it is a more prescient meditation on the current pandemic conditions that befall the world as we currently know it than its more topical counterparts could approach. Though more contemporary pandemic thrillers like the aforementioned Outbreak and Contagion contain more noticeable signifiers that relate to this particular moment in history, Night of the Living Dead reveals more about the conditions that spurned such outcomes, and should not be discounted when viewing the factors shaping the pandemic in this light. If anything, what Night of the Living Dead demonstrates is that attempts to broadly speak to a specific political zeitgeist will always be less effective than aiming to communicate less dated truths, proof of the old adage that you find what you’re looking for when you least expect it.