"Night of the Living Dead": The First Liberal Horror Film
The 1960s and 1970s marked an era of transformation within cinema. No longer did the studio system out in Hollywood dominate the industry as it had in the previous decades. A new era of auteur-driven cinema was burgeoning around the world, starting in Europe with François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in The French New Wave. America finally showed up to the party in the 1960s, as directors John Cassavetes, Mike Nichols, and Arthur Penn made films for a different generation of moviegoers, a generation that was at the forefront of social change.
Also adding him to this exclusive list is George Romero. At first glance, you would think Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was nothing more than a cheap horror movie looking to make a quick buck and fade from existence. But through ingenious directing and writing, Romero and co-screenwriter John Russo were able to elevate the horror genre and tell a compelling story that incorporates elements from today’s society.
First and foremost, Night of the Living Dead is a B-picture that was part of the
dime-a-dozen crowd back in the drive-in era. It has an ultra-low budget and is almost filled with no-name amateur actors. For 99% of films, those characteristics would be the death knells, but Night of the Living Dead is part of that 1% where its “faults” are part of its charm. I’m also not trying to say having a low budget and no movie stars is a bad thing.
Even with the low budget, Romero shows off technical prowess with his grainy camera. He incites genuine fear with tilted close-ups and manipulation of the sound effects. The musical score (if you can even call it a “score”) fades in and out of the movie as it intercuts with the horrifying diegetic sound effects. This technique peaks with the infamous trowel scene where the camera shakes and careens as we follow a zombie child as she murders her mother, whose screams are amplified as she is repeatedly impaled by a blunt object. It’s a terrifying scene to watch because of the technical and shock-value aspects.
It’s inspirational to see someone make an effective movie for little money. At a time
when Hollywood was spending tens of millions of dollars on giant productions, someone was able to make something just as good (if not better), for a fraction of the cost. Even though the word “zombie” is never used within the film, Romero also laid out the groundwork for the ever-popular zombie subgenre. The idea of going for the head, burning them with fire, and zombies eating brains are a few of the ideas that he either originated or popularized.
But what makes this film stand out from the rest after all these years is the social
messaging that works in conjunction with the horror elements. Throughout his career, Romero often cast African-Americans as the heroes in his movies, going against the stereotype at the time where the black character dies first. For our hero, Ben, the horror comes from two different fronts. The first is obvious as the world is being attacked by zombies. The second is a problem one wouldn’t think he'd have to face in a world-gone-mad scenario, which is that he is a black man being discriminated against by other white survivors.
Despite being the calmest and skilled survivor of the group, Ben is still regarded as
second-class by the whites who are also trapped in the house. Ben must battle for his life against the zombies and his humanity against the prejudiced survivors. Romero shows the deep prejudice that America shows for African-Americans as Ben is never fully given the respect he deserves by his group members.
Romero caps this point off with the shocking ending. An earlier line from the film
describes the zombies as “...looking like people, but acting like animals”. As the sole survivor after a night of endless death, Ben is about to leave the house and regroup with the local police. As he climbs out the window, the police shoot and kill him, thinking him a zombie. That description of the zombies earlier can be seen both literally and metaphorically as a way that white people have put down black people for centuries. The police treat Ben’s death like putting down an animal, laughing and walking away as nothing happened. It’s an infuriating way for our
hero to meet his demise.
As entertaining and as it is timeless, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead shows that society can be even scarier than zombies.