ARTICLE: ‘Social Commentary in Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’ by Joseph Rubas
George A. Romero’s 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead might be the perfect film, right up there next to Gone with the Wind and Casablanca. Not only was it flawlessly executed (the lighting, the acting, the atmosphere, the building sense of terror and dread), but it also set the low-budget standard. It was the first of the modern indie horror offerings.
But wait, there’s more!
It also single-handedly created the zombie (whatever they are in this context) as we know it today: A cannibalistic corpse risen from the grave and sent forth (by whatever means) into the world in search of living prey (which is quite different than the original definition: ). Today the zombie is, let’s face it, a cultural icon (especially with the mainstreaming of shows like The Walking Dead, itself based on a comic book). Movies, novels, video games, comics, and television series’… all built upon the ghouls Romero set shambling across theater screens the nation over.
This is your quintessential horror flick, and by “horror flick” I mean horror flick in the classic sense: Yes, it was considered gory when it premiered in 1968, but it relied more on fear than carnage. In fact, what we didn’t see was more terrifying than what we did. Two zombies staggering across a lawn is frightening enough, but to think of the dark woods behind them teeming with dozens more is the stuff of nightmares.
But as good, as monumental, a horror film as it is, it’s only that: a horror film.
I don’t mean that it’s not a work of art, it is; I’m just saying that it’s a scary movie with no pretenses. It was made to elicit feelings of fear, not as some suave social commentary.
Oooh. I shouldn’t have gone there, should I?
I probably just lost half my readers: Saying there’s no social commentary in Night of the Living Dead is blasphemy in some circles. It’s the kind of thing that can lead to long, heated discussions, fisticuffs, or scornful snickers. For so long, knowledgeable horror fans have taken Night’s apparently inherent criticisms of 1960s America for granted. I can understand how people have mistakenly seen social commentary in Night (it was the sixties, after all, and everyone had a message), but even the most cursory research proves that Night didn’t treat any societal themes.
For example racism: Yes, the main character, Ben, is black, and sure, it was a revolutionary move in 1968, but his casting wasn’t related to the color of his skin. The part was originally written for a white man. Duane Jones, who played Ben, just happened to be the best actor Romero knew, so the role was recast. The story itself wasn’t changed, which means that the end for black Ben was the same as it would have been for white Ben, which is important.
Why? Because after being the only one of the group to survive the night of the living dead, Ben is shot dead by a posse rounded up to hunt the zombies. The posse was composed entirely of white men, and, as the credits roll, we are treated to a series of unsettling stills of Ben being dragged to a burning pyre by meat hooks. Reminiscent of Southern lynchings, yes, but Ben’s death was a tragic accident, not murder. In fact, he kind of brought it on himself. In case you haven’t seen the film, let me set the scene:
Dawn is breaking. Ben, who escaped to the basement after the living dead forced their way into the house and devoured his friends, is sitting against a wall, his head hung in despair. Outside, we see a convoy of vehicles: police officers, armed civilians. A chopper flies over a field dotted with zombies, which are shortly hunted down by cops with barking dogs and destroyed.
Inside the cellar, Ben hears the commotion and rouses. Cautiously (when he originally passed out the house above the cellar was filled with zombies), Ben climbs the stairs and opens the door. The living room is in shambles, but empty. Rising his rifle before him, he creeps toward the front door: Outside, the sheriff, leader of the posse, sees Ben, a dark form shuffling across a distant span. “There’s one in that house there!” he tells his second-in-command, who puts a bullet right between our hero’s eyes.
Now, if I were Ben, I would have run out the door screaming and waving my arms. He didn’t, though. He shuffled. Like a zombie. Honest, though deadly, mistake on the part of the posse. It’s easy to see how Romero could have used this incident to remark upon the racial state of the nation, but that wasn’t his intent. Neither were the themes of war, consumerism, or dissatisfaction with the government.
Why are people so adamant that Night is socially conscious? Well… first is the fact that Romero hasn’t lifted a hand to stop speculation. If the movie is socially aware, then it’s more profound than it would be if it wasn’t, or so he believes, so he lets people continue believing in something that isn’t there.
But more, the sixties was a traumatizing time for America: Vietnam on the evening news, race riots in the streets, snipers in high places… we saw shades of reality in Night because reality was a horror movie itself. Romero didn’t have to load Night with hidden messages; we saw them on our own, because we were immersed in hell, and we projected that onto the screen. Night of the Living Dead is a classic, no doubt about it, but it was never meant to be more than a good, scary movie. It doesn’t preach, something that most fans won’t hear. That, however, doesn’t change the facts: George A. Romero directed a scary movie, not a scathing critique.
Either way, though, Night is a truly terrifying film, and it’s a film that changed the world, social commentary or not.