George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is one of the most successful independent movies ever made. It had a budget of just $144,000 and grossed approximately $30 million (more than 263 times the budget)! In today’s money, that would be a budget of $798,000 earning a gross of $210 million. NOTLD is also one of the final films to be released prior to the US parental rating system, which was instituted in November 1968 while the film premiered in October 1968. The 1960’s represent a major turning point in horror cinema, because this is when the horror genre transitioned from the classical period into the modern era of horror (most significantly because of 1960’s Psycho). The marketing of NOTLD (including its title and the over-dramatic trailer and poster) made it seem like it was a B-rated science fiction/horror picture, a popular sub-genre at the time for kids and teenagers of the Cold War era. However, this film was far more mature than any of the B-rated monster movies that came before it. In tackling pressing issues of the United States (the changing American family, television broadcasts, loss of trust in the American government, racial unrest, racism, and the civil rights movement, etc), NOTLD is a very subversive and mature film. Also, the level of gore and disturbing imagery (a young girl killing and eating her parents, for example) was shocking to its audiences. Romero claims that unsuspecting children audience members were seen crying throughout the film.
NOTLD boasts multiple “firsts”: it’s the first film made in Pittsburgh, one of the first to graphically depict violent murders on screen, one of the first to have a black main character, and one of the first films added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.
Duane Jones, who played Ben, managed to change a lot in the script. Ben was originally meant to be an uneducated truck driver (no race specified), however, Jones, an academic himself (he taught theatre at SUNY Westbury!), felt that it would be important to represent a black character as educated. Romero agreed, and he and Jones figured out the character of Ben together. However, one aspect of the character that Romero (and the other all-white team of writers) refused to change was Ben’s anger. Jones argued that it would be playing into stereotypes to represent Ben as an angry black man, but Romero and the team felt it would be “hip” to keep Ben like that, a decision Romero later regretted.
This film is vitally important in the creation of the modern zombie. NOTLD created a number of zombie tropes: their cannibalism, their slow walk, and the need to aim for their head in order to kill them. Despite all this, the word “zombie” is never used. Instead, the monsters are called “ghouls.” The film also never clearly states a reason for why the outbreak occurred. Instead, there is only the supposition that it was the result of radiation from a detonated satellite returning from Venus.
Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) are visiting the gravestone of their grandfather when a zombie attacks her. Johnny tries to fit it off, but is killed. Barbra escapes to a local home, where she discovers a corpse on the second floor. Ben arrives to the house and tries to help calm her down, but she ultimately becomes catatonic and paralyzed by fear. Ben boards up the windows and tries to push the approaching zombies back after discovering that they are afraid of light. After shooting at a number of zombies with a shotgun he found in a closet, Ben discovers also that zombies can be killed only through a shot to the head. The sounds of the gun causes the group of people hiding in the basement, Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), their sick daughter, Karen (Kyra Schon), and Judy (Judith Ridley) and Tom (Keith Wayne), to appear. Harry Cooper tries to take control away from Ben and orders everyone into the cellar. Ben refuses. They find a television and watch news broadcasts covering the epidemic. They make an attempt to drive to a government safe zone, but Tom and Judy die in an explosion resulting from Tom’s poor ability to put gas into the car. Ben returns to the house and shoots Harry when he continues to threaten Ben and question his leadership. Harry falls into the cellar, where his sick daughter rests. She has died and turned into a zombie. She eats her father’s corpse. Helen goes downstairs to find the bloody scene. Karen kills her mother with a shovel and eats her body as well. Ben is the only remaining survivor. He shoots the Coopers in the head and hides in the basement for the rest of the night. The next morning, a rescue team finds the house. Ben cautiously approaches the window, holding a gun. The rescue team mistakes his shadow for a zombie and shoots him in the head.
Notes & Quotes
- The representation of race in 1960’s America present in this little independent zombie film is surprising. Of course, Romero claims that he wrote Ben without thinking of race and casted Duane Jones simply because he had the best audition. The ability for viewers to read race in this film, according to Romero, was not planned. The moments where the racial tension present in 1960’s America is palpable especially in Ben’s scenes with Barbra, as well as the film’s final, devastating moment. When Ben first enters the film, he and Barbra share a moment of eye contact, highlighting Barbra’s possible fear in holing up in the home alone with a black man. Although race is not in the text, all of Ben’s actions take on a strange, racial undertone. Also, Duane Jones’s performance is very underplayed compared to the rest of the ensemble. While they panic and shout, Ben remains impassive and reassuring throughout the film. He is in a completely different emotional register from his white counterparts. Critic Mark Deming states that “the grim fate of Duane Jones, the sole heroic figure and only African-American, had added resonance with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X fresh in the minds of most Americans.” In his review for The Village Voice, Elliot Stein added that “In this first-ever subversive horror movie, the resourceful black hero survives the zombies only to be killed by a redneck posse.” I think the movie (unfortunately) remains potent in this scene because of the recent instances of racially motivated police brutality as well as the murder of Trayvon Martin.
- The representation of the American family is another important aspect of this film. Harry angrily tries to regain his control of the suburban household, but he and his wife are ultimately devoured by their daughter.
- From radio broadcasts to the television broadcast, NOTLD really highlights the importance of broadcasting systems during times of emergency. It is through these scenes that viewers get a sense of the fact that this took place during the Cold War. It is especially unnerving when the government and the scientists they hire to look into the epidemic can’t give conclusive answers and they change their instructions to the public. Just as they tell the public to stay inside and go home, we see these politicians and scientists quickly get into a car and drive away. The image of the six people holed up watching the television for information was reminiscent of FDR’s fireside chats, or just simple television viewing time with the family. The film ends with images that look like they were stills from a public newscast. This prevalence of the television is repeated throughout many other zombie films and television shows.
- Finally, I want to discuss the presence of an early version of survivalism present in this film. In her 2010 article “The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950’s American Suburbanization as Civil Defense,” Kathleen Tobin describes the major role that “policymakers’ fear of atomic attack” caused in massive population movements from urban to suburban areas of America. As a civil defense measure, the American population was encouraged by the government (and other experts) to move out of the cities which were viewed as vulnerable sites of potential nuclear attacks. Because of this, affluent individuals and families moved out of the cities, leaving the lower and working class people behind. In Night of the Living Dead, Harry and his family are “supposed” to be safe in the suburban home, whereas all of the other characters holed up together seem to be outsiders who were not meant to be there. Harry, in fact, reacts with anger at the other people in house, and threatens to board his family and himself up in the basement, leaving the rest to die. Harry also uses his family as a sort of cultural currency, believing that he has more of a right to protect himself and survive the zombie outbreak because he has a wife and child. Harry (who dons a business suit for the entire film) seems to have bought into the American dream- he’s a suburban husband and father who wears a suit to work and seems pretty affluent- however, he finds himself in the same situation as those who are not part of his class and who have not (yet) accomplished the American dream. This sort of thinking is reminiscent of the current (Silicon Valley) survivalist mode of thought, which posits that the city populations will flee to the surrounding suburban areas. Survivalists believe that they must prepare themselves to protect their families, homes, and supplies from these people, even if that means killing or injuring them. In their minds, this takes the form of a sort of class war.