By Courtney Suciu
When George Romero’s now-iconic zombie flick Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, it was during one of the most divisive years in American history. Racial tensions were at a dangerous crescendo. The nation’s mounting involvement with (and increasingly-apparent secrecy about) the war in Vietnam fueled mistrust toward the government and media. A thriving counterculture, including the second-wave feminist movement, threatened traditional social structure and values.
It was a scary, uncertain time in the country, even before the “living dead” began feasting on human flesh.
When this grainy low-budget horror film starring a cast of unknowns debuted that October, most critics were, well, horrified. The Night of the Living Dead contained unprecedented scenes of violence and a shocking conclusion that was exactly the opposite of the typical Hollywood ending.
Yet, Night of the Living Dead endures as an acclaimed classic. It inspired a whole new zombie-obsessed horror subgenre as well as a bounty of ongoing scholarly research and analysis. What can Night of the Living Dead reveal to us about that tumultuous time of its release? How can a horror film help us understand real life horrors of the past – and the present?
Some critics of Night of the Living Dead took issue with its production values. Vincent Canby of The New York Times complained “The dialogue and background music sound hollow, as if they had been recorded in an empty swimming pool, and the wobbly camera seems to have a fetishist’s interest in hands, clutched, wrung, scratched, severed and finally – in the ultimate assumption – eaten like pizza.”1
But others seemed to revel in critiquing the film’s moral decrepitude.
“An orgy of sadism,”2 is how Variety magazine described it in an October 1968 review.
“Until the Supreme Court establishes clearcut guidelines for the pornography of violence, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ will serve nicely as an outer limit definition by example,” this write-up began, going on to elaborate how while “the pic’s basic premise is repellent…[i]t is in execution that the film distastefully excels. No brutalizing stone is left unturned.”
“In a mere 90 minutes, this horror film (pun intended) casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based filmmakers…” the reviewer charged.
But in a twist of irony, “social responsibility” is exactly what many fans and scholars have argued Night of the Living Dead is about.
On the surface, the story centers on a group of stranded strangers struggling for survival after radiation from a returned NASA space probe reanimates the recently dead and gives them an insatiable hunger for human flesh. However, upon closer examination, what happens in the film’s isolated location can be understood as a microcosm of what was happening in American society at large, and an allegory for what might happen if we refuse to live up to our social responsibilities.
A recent USA Today article featuring “10 Great Horror Flicks with a Social Conscience”3 tells us what the movie is “really about” in very basic terms (also, SPOILER ALERT):
Conflict of the times, plus racism. “Living Dead” came on the heels of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as involvement in the Vietnam War, so tensions were high. The African-American hero dies not by zombie bite, but by a redneck’s bullet.
In her article “History and Horror: Living the Past Through the Living Dead,”4 Alexandra Heller-Nicholas delved deeper into some of these themes. She drew parallels between various characters and various attitudes toward the social changes which were unfolding in 1968.
Two white men who figure prominently in the film “represent old and new thought,” she argued. As the younger man assists the Black protagonist, “this mirrors the vocal white youth movements in the United States that not only joined in protests for civil rights for African Americans, but also fought for women’s rights and against the Vietnam War.”
In contrast, she wrote, the older man sees the protagonist as “a threat to his comfortable, white, middle class status quo,” and he says as much: “‘I’m not going to take that kind of chance when we’ve got a safe place. We luck into a safe place, and you tell us we’ve got to risk our lives because somebody else might need help?’”
Meanwhile, the older man’s “once-assumed male authority” is challenged by his wife who “mocks [his] arrogance and exposes his futile self-righteousness that (in the face of both the zombie attack and the broader cultural shifts of the time) is redundant.” This exchange exposes “a rift,” the author argued, “in the traditional nuclear family.”
Heller-Nicholas compared the final scenes of the film, black-and-white still-shots showing the protagonist’s dead body “removed unceremoniously with meat hooks and piled upon a bonfire to burn with the zombies,” to historical images of lynching. Honestly, it’s impossible not to think of the Ku Klux Klan when watching the ending through this lens, especially when a male voice calls for someone to “light the torches” – making it easily the most disturbing part of the film.
In The Village Voice5, Elliot Stein also wrote about the death of the protagonist at the hands of a “redneck posse,” while elaborating on how the graphic violence reflected the gruesome bloodshed of war, and the destruction of traditional structures of authority.
“Romero’s use of natural locations and grainy black and white gave his gorefest the look and feel of a doc,” he observed. “This was Middle America at war, and the zombie carnage seemed a grotesque echo of the conflict then raging in Vietnam.”
Additionally, for Stein the scene of a young girl who “nibbles ravenously on her father’s severed arm” signals that “disillusionment with government and patriarchal nuclear family is total.”
In her dissertation, Re-presenting the Zombie: Genre, Gender, and Social Protest from Romero's Night of the Living Dead to AMC's The Walking Dead6, scholar Elizabeth Aiossa goes even deeper into examining such issues as depicted in the zombie genre. In doing so, she makes a case about the humanity of the monsters in zombie stories, and humanity’s complicity in the havoc they wreak.
The zombies appear in Night of the Living Dead, Aiossa pointed out, as the result of “human meddling in science and nature.” These corpses reanimate when the contaminated Venus space probe returns to earth and although it happens “accidentally, as an unintended consequence of modern innovation and fiddling with nature,” she wrote, “this fact does not absolve the living humans of their culpability.”
“Since these monsters are born from our bodies and our actions, we must shoulder full responsibility for their parenthood,” she continued:
Characters in the film’s diegesis may interpret the zombie outbreak in terms of morality, as supernatural or godly punishment, but the viewer is afforded another perspective – an invitation to confront the fact that the zombie outbreak is wholly our doing and our problem…and that humans are the only masters (and victims) of their collective fate.
So, as the instigators of the apocalypse that unfolds in the film, the living humans must also find a way to live and work with one another in order to survive. “It is our [the living humans’] responsibility to commune together,” Aiossa wrote, “to socially transform together, in attempt to resolve this immense domestic threat.”
This is the real horror story of Night of the Living Dead – how this micro community fails to commune and socially transform together when “society and its institutions – its law and order – are rendered incompetent, if not completely impotent.”
According to Aiossa, “the modern zombie film has the potential to teach viewers how current stereotypes are built upon faulty social constructs.” It’s evident through this kind of analysis of the film that Night of the Living Dead provides provocative criticism of stereotypes and social constructs that were current in 1968, but does the film endure in a way that is relative to the political and social climate of 2018?
How interesting it might be to consider the film in the context of today’s headlines regarding ongoing racial tensions, women’s movement and war, as well as contemporary issues related to global warming, immigration and nationalism.
For further research
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Kuhns, R. (Director), & Kuhns, R., & Cassidy, E. (Producers). (2013). Birth of the Living Dead [Video file]. First Run Features. Documentary traces how Romero gathered an unlikely team of Pittsburghers – policemen, iron workers, teachers, ad-men, housewives, and a roller-rink owner – to shoot a revolutionary, guerrilla-style film that went on to become a cinematic landmark, offering a profound insight into how our society worked in a singular time in American history.
Williams, T. (Ed.). (2011). George A. Romero: Interviews.
Paffenroth, K. (2006). Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth.
Williams, T. (2015). The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead.
Mallard, M. J. (2010). Blood on White Picket Fences: The American Dream in George A. Romero's Living Dead Nightmare (Order No. 1483999).
Raengo, A. (2006). The Visibility of Race: Epidermality and Black Vernacular in the Popular and Visual Culture of Civil Rights America (Order No. 3234175).
Subissati, A. (2008). Sociology of the Living Dead (Order No. MR47644).
Wagenheim, C. P. (2010). From “Night” to “Dawn”: The Cultural Criticism of George A. Romero (Order No. 1483466).
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu