There was a lot going on in 1968. Body bags coming home from Viet Nam. A new generation defying the conventions of the old. Assassinations. Demonstrations for racial equality. Neighborhoods and campuses erupting with the flames of civil unrest.
You can see echoes of all of these things in George Romero’s low-budget but hugely influential 1968 horror, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Or some of them, or none. Zombies are said to be a ready-made metaphor, adaptable for anything happening in the culture at a particular time.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD starts out with a brother teasing his sister at a cemetery. “They’re going to get you, Barbra!”
But he isn’t laughing long. Turns out those shambling, seemingly drunken folks wandering the tombstones in the background are actually zombies, and Barbra’s brother is on the menu.
In terror, Barbra makes her way to an isolated house, where a group of strangers are making their stand against the unexplained mass resurrection of the recent, and hungry, dead.
There she finds Ben, who is resourceful and calm. He will turn out to be our hero, which is unusual for an American film of this time, since he’s played by African-American actor Duane Jones.
It’s hard not to feel race is relevant during a scene in which Ben butts heads with a white man who’s hiding his family in the basement, and thinks he should be calling the shots, not Ben. Director Romero claims, however, that Jones was cast simply because he was the best actor available.
The rest of the film plays out as a survivalist drama. Good decisions are made, as are bad ones. People cooperate, people argue.
What made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD so shocking was its unrelentingly grim tone and the fact that Romero was willing to “go there” in ways most other horror films hadn’t yet. Some of the zombies are nude. We are not spared gruesome closeup shots of flesh eating. And the creepiest, eeriest scene in the film may be the one in which a little girl becomes one of the undead, brutally attacking and killing her own mother.
And that’s not to mention the downbeat and cynical ending.
Critics were rough on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at the time, but now it’s considered a cult classic, a turning point in cinema horror that opened doors to new and more transgressive sights and sounds that spoke to darker aspects of our culture.
What’s most scary about the sad, shambling, poorly dressed zombies in Romero’s film is not just that they represent a horrifying “other.” Clearly, they represent “us,” as well.
One other interesting fact to ponder. While NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is the granddaddy of modern zombie films, having spawned numerous sequels, parodies and offshoots and been hugely influential on THE WALKING DEAD’s multi-media empire, the word “zombie” is used in the film not once.