Night of the Living Dead was a phenomenon of the authorial period in American cinema known as New Hollywood, which took place during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is also a prime example of how during this time even a genre film that moved within a structure commonly used in exploitation movies and flicks commonly associated with drive-ins and Roger Corman production could be enriched by greater intellectual depth. Yet, part of the excellent reputation of this film lies in the fact that to this day, George A. Romero’s feature debut can be legitimately enjoyed when approached on a purely formal level, while it is just as rewarding to those who are willing to be challenged by its naturalistic observations of its times.
First, let’s look at its formal assets. Night of the Living Dead is purposefully shot in black-and-white – less expensive. Yet, this is a choice that welcomes a quicker and more real style of filmmaking, heightening the urgency of its narrative as it moves along. Everything in this film, in fact, seems to simply happen. In the most action-packed scenes, such as the chase scenes, the camera is handheld, while in other moments, a psychological tension is built up through more still and meticulous camera angles.
It doesn’t take long for Romero to get the action started. Two siblings quarrel, albeit half-jokingly, in a graveyard. Shortly thereafter, the first zombie emerges without much explanation and kills the brother. The sister, able to escape, takes shelter in a seemingly empty house, only apparently populated by a corpse. Soon after that, a black male, Ben, arrives, kills two zombies, burns one of them in front of the house and begins to block all the possible entrances to the house.
It is important to note that the heroic figure of the film is black. It is a well-known fact that it was not at all common for movies to have black characters in their lead even in 1968, much less so when they played the role that can most be defined in the movie as “heroic.” Yet, the term seems stretched. In fact, it may be argued that all the characters who wind up in the house, and whose lives we become invested in, are not very likable. Their inability to get along is frustrating. Their verbal aggression, whether passive or direct, towards one another, makes their sorry fate seem inevitable. Indeed, the lack of a central heroic figure is quite inevitable. Whether black or white, all the living are far less united than the living dead who are, on the other hand, instinctively united by their desire to munch on human flesh.
The complexity of this narrative dilemma enhances a greater potential for independent interaction with the viewer. Herein lies a naturalist paradox. Much like naturalism, which depicts its characters as unable to fight back or control genetic or emerging patterns that eventually lead to a pessimistic conclusion, so is the viewer unable to find a proper alternative to the humans to side with. In other words, while we may not like them, we don’t want them to die either. The dilemma is all the more striking when we consider that the zombies are not the somnambulistic, brainwashed types that they were before Night of the Living Dead. They were also not manipulated by some higher being for trivial purposes. They are very similar, in their outlooks, to their living counterparts. The looks shared by members of the two species are powerful for precisely this reason. There is a certain spirituality shared by them that is not unlike the looks shared by the characters fighting in duels in films by Akira Kurosawa.
Romero’s first film broke down many taboos of the horror genre. A happy ending is not guaranteed and there is no pivotal heterosexual romance to trail the storyline along and serve as an inevitable hope for the future. There is also no cowboy riding into the sunset – to use a common imagery from another genre. While the film is less obviously satirical that Dawn of the Dead, which would come nearly a decade later, Night of the Living Dead takes digs at conventions that particularly plagued studio driven films and mainstream forms of representation, and revealed an American where family members fought with one another, where violence meant pain and bloodshed and where people failed to get along with one another for a greater good. We may debate that what was scariest of all about the film then, as it is now, is that its horror effects are not as frightening as the underlying message that is to be read underneath its gory surface. – ★★★★★
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD || 1968, USA || Horror || Directed by – George A. Romero / Written by – George A. Romero, John A: Russo / Produced by – Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner / Cinematography – George A. Romero / Editing by – George A. Romero / Starring – Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman, Judith Ridley, Keith Wayne / Running time: 96 mins.