“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”
50 years ago today, on October 1st, 1968, George A Romero’s seminal horror classic Night of the Living Dead became patient zero for the modern zombie genre. Made with unknown actors and on a shoestring budget, the film was a surprise hit with an impact that reverberates through pop culture to this day. I watched it in full for the first time only a few days ago and I loved it (and not just because I’m a sucker for characters bashing Daylight Saving Time).
Despite never using the word, NOTLD invented almost everything we now take for granted about zombies – their undead nature, their shuffling gaits, their virulent bites, their appetite for flesh, even their vulnerabilities to fire and headshots. It also typifies the two major strains of zombie storytelling, simultaneously following both a disparate group of survivors in a barricaded house and the large scale response conveyed through news bulletins and radio broadcasts. A half century later, almost any zombie story you can name owes some debt to elements of NOTLD, whether it takes inspiration from them, tries to subvert them, or rips them off wholesale. It’s hard to think of another single film that has had such a profound and lasting impact on the patterns and tropes of such a large corpus of inspired (and often derivative) works.
Despite taking critical flak at the time for being an empty gore-fest (in a era when cinematic gore was rare), what stands out now is the film’s thoughtfulness in comparison to many of its imitators. There’s a psychological reality to Barbra’s shock, and to Harry’s proclivity to engage in petty arguments in the face of imminent doom. With an American flag flapping at the cemetery as a signpost, NOTLD is open to all manner of political interpretations. The bickering, paranoid survivors barricaded in the house can be seen as a microcosm of Cold War America. It’s also possible to read the nauseous gore and senseless murder of the ghouls as echoing the carnage of the Vietnam war, a real life contemporary nightmare transposed to American soil. There’s certainly a social awareness in the casting of Duane Jones as Ben, a competent, level-headed, straightforward hero – not the sort of role black actors often got in American films in the late 60s.
Jones also pushed for the film’s most shocking and important sequence, which takes place the morning after the titular night. The threat of the ghouls has been ‘brought under control’ by paramilitary squads of armed, doughy white men who wander the countryside shooting anything that moves. After surviving failed plans and the reanimation of three of his compatriots, Ben rises up from the cellar to see what’s going on – and gets taken for a ghoul and murdered without a second thought. The film ends with his corpse being burned alongside the rest, and the understanding that while a disruptive event may be dangerous and frightful, the ensuing breakdown of civil society and our shared humanity is an even greater danger.