Criterion Throwback Review: George A. Romero’s Taboo-Breaking ‘Night of the Living Dead’

Shambling zombies, covered in blood and gore, hungering for human flesh, approaching a small group of hopeless survivors – we’ve seen it in The Walking Dead, iZombie, World War Z, Resident Evil and countless other pieces of horror media. The zombie has become an inescapable cultural figure that’s found, not just on TV or movies, but on shirts, hats, board games, phone cases, and more. But we wouldn’t have this cultural zeitgeist without George A. Romero’s 1968 horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. With almost no budget, Romero defined the horror genre and broke through societal taboos around race, class, and nihilism. Romero rejected conventional horror tropes and created something that reflected a nation in shambles during the Vietnam War, as well as the corrosive effects of capitalism on society as a whole.

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The film’s protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), is a Black man. While Ben’s race is never explicitly addressed in the film, it is hard to ignore as the rest of the cast is white. Unlike the other white characters, Ben has the most control of the situation, immediately taking the role of the group’s leader. When he arrives at the farmhouse, he begins to board up the windows and doors by tearing apart the stereotypical home of the 1960s family. He pulls apart tables, chairs, and parts of the kitchen to keep the undead out of the home; to protect those in the house he must literally tear it apart.

As Ben tears apart the domestic space, his presence also confronts the power of the white family man as he argues with the older, white patriarchal figure, Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman). The two men are constantly trying to establish which one of them has control, with Ben wanting to take action and Harry wanting to hide in the basement. Despite trying to prove his machismo, Harry still wishes to hide from the zombies rather than confront them to protect his family. In fact, he hides in the basement when he hears the screams of Barbra (Judith O’Dea), saying, “You’re telling me we got to risk our lives just because somebody might need help?” No longer is the white father figure one that can be looked to for protection and security; he is no longer the hero of every narrative. Even his wife, Helen (Marilyn Eastman) looks down on his fear, saying, “Why don’t you do something to help somebody?”

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It isn’t only the patriarchal figure that is being torn apart – the concept of the happy, American family is, too. While Harry and Helen argue, their daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon), literally tears them apart as she becomes a zombie. As Tony Williams says in his book, The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, “Hollywood’s idealistic images of childhood become tarnished forever when young Karen begins to devour the dead body of her father and stabs her mother to death.” She is not an innocent, obedient child, but one of the undead who has no respect or thought for family. Karen is a symbol for the growing countercultural movement of the 1960s, where youth rebelled against normative societal expectations, particularly in response to the horrors of the Vietnam War. Children couldn’t be molded and controlled by their parents anymore, which Karen exemplifies in the most horrific way.

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The destruction of family doesn’t end with Karen. At the end of the film, Barbara is eaten by her now-zombified brother, Johnny (Russell Streiner). We see his death at the beginning of the film, after he taunts Barbara with the iconic, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.” Well, they do come and get her. She survives the whole film, only to eventually be taken and eaten by her own brother, showing that family no longer exists to protect you; no one can protect you except for yourself. Her death feeds into the film’s nihilism: while she survived from the film’s beginning, this doesn’t protect her from the horde.

While Ben is the final survivor in the farmhouse, he doesn’t survive the film. He is indiscriminately murdered by a group of local white men, who think he’s just another zombie without closer inspection. The film’s ending leans into a type of nihilism that wasn’t commonly found in film, where no central characters are left alive. While this film was made in 1968, it’s ending still echoes our current cultural context, where black men are shot without thought.

The horror gene wouldn’t be the same without ‘Night of the Living Dead’. It gave us the concept of zombies as reanimated cannibal corpses, it gave us nihilism, it can use boundary-breaking characters. In the almost 50 years since its release,  this film has shaped the modern zombie, its many iterations, and even an entire genre. But more than just its impact on the horror genre is its relevance to our current social context. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ still reflects similar feelings to this time of violence, rampant capitalism, and nihilism. Unknowingly, Romero was able to create a film that stands as an evergreen reaction to the degradation of American society. 

Night of the Living Dead is streaming on FilmStruck and has been released on Criterion Blu-Ray & DVD. 

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