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.

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