When I was a kid, MTV had a show called Liquid Television. It was a strange program that fascinated me more than I actually enjoyed it, and I think that was its intention. I had no idea what to make of it. Now I can recognize it as a series of animated shorts. Easy. Back then it felt like wading through a dream. A dream that could be scary, funny, and nonsensical in equal turns, shifting from one to the other in the blink of an eye.
There were a few recurring segments, one of which was Stick Figure Theater. This was my favorite, perhaps because it was the only thing on television I’d ever seen that was near my level of artistic ability. The animator — whoever this person was — took existing audio and had little stick figures act it out in a flip-book style. I can’t recall if all of the audio came from films. Some of it might have come from old TV shows or other sources.
But I can recall that one of the films from which the audio was taken was Night of the Living Dead.
I’ve written before about how it took me a long time — well into my adult life — to understand what horror was, let alone appreciate it. I go into detail in my book on Resident Evil. As a child, stick figures having their limbs ripped off while they tried to defend themselves against zombies was an intrusion. Horror was reaching out for me where it shouldn’t have been. It was breaking the rules.
I was free to ignore the horror aisle at Hometown Video. If I strayed in there, it would be my own fault; the gory cover art stayed right where it was. I was free to suggest other things to watch if a friend suggested a horror film. If a scary movie came on TV, I could change the channel before anything upsetting happened. It was easy to avoid them because they all had evocative titles. Friday the 13th. A Nightmare on Elm Street. Hellraiser.
And Night of the Living Dead.
That title alone is a work of art. It’s profoundly effective phrasing. Two diametrically opposed terms — “living” and “dead” — are recontextualized to be so closely linked that one now describes the other. The separation between the Living and the Dead no longer exists.
“Night of…” is similarly informative. The Living Dead will dominate this night. If we can defeat them, avoid them, defend against them — make it through the Night — we will be okay. It’s not Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead; we just need to get through the darkness. This will be the tension that drives the film.
The astounding thing to me is that all of this is actually true. That’s what takes the title from greatness up through brilliance. As a phrase, “Night of the Living Dead” doesn’t just give your imagination a lot to work with; all of it is accurate. It’s a title, a tagline, a summary, and a content warning.
I’d say the title is doing a lot of heavy lifting, but it’s doing it so elegantly that you don’t even notice it. It’s perfect.
And I knew I did not want to watch it. Seeing stick figures act it out — whatever it was — would clearly be less scary than the real thing, and I still didn’t want that. For years, this is what Night of the Living Dead was to me. It was a movie that wanted to reach me so badly that it would do so through bleeding, suffering stick figures, if that’s what it took.
As with all horror, I’d barricaded myself against it. But unlike most horror, Night of the Living Dead was relentless. It pounded against my defenses. It might take years to get through, but time was on its side…not mine.
Eventually I opened the door. (I had to come out sometime.) In many ways, it was nowhere near as scary as I’d expected it to be. Its impact had rotted away. I’d seen its tricks repositioned in non-threatening contexts for years. Stick Figure Theater was my first example of that, but then The Simpsons, South Park, even Father Ted had all taken this film’s horror and repackaged it as comedy.
In other ways, it was every bit as scary as I’d expected it to be, because even decades of familiarity, parody, and commentary have done nothing to dull its sharpest edges.
The zombies weren’t really what Night of the Living Dead was about, after all. It was a film about desperate people in a hopeless situation. It was about the decisions they make. It was about their mistakes, their moments of selfishness, how they treat each other when their own lives are on the line. It’s about people who cannot hope to overcome the real enemy and so they turn on each other.
Handled well, that kind of horror does not age. Night of the Living Dead handles it extraordinarily well. That’s why it endures, and that’s why it still has the capacity to frighten. The title warned us about the zombies, and so we could go into the film prepared for them. We can’t prepare for the inherent awfulness of our fellow man.
George A. Romero made a total of six films in the Dead series before he passed away. He also began a book that was finished (and largely written by) Daniel Kraus, which came out earlier this year. Throughout each of these, he explored mankind’s bottomless capacity for cruelty. He did so in different ways and to different degrees, but what fascinated him wasn’t the fact that corpses could rise from their graves; it was the fact that, as they rise, mankind would turn their guns on each other instead.
Say what you will about the zombies; at least they work together…
Night of the Living Dead is a nearly perfect film. It’s not my favorite of the trilogy, but it’s certainly the best. It’s almost unbearably effective, escalating the tension both masterfully and effortlessly. It feels in many ways like a movie that made itself, using Romero as a conduit. That isn’t the case, obviously — we have at least two other zombie films that prove Romero as a great artist working in the medium of zombies — but Night of the Living Dead feels natural. It feels like a discovery more than a creation. It’s a work of horrifying beauty made all the more frightening because it feels so organic.
It’s a tragedy of interpersonal tension that could neither have proceeded nor ended in any other way. All six of his zombie films could be described the same way, but I think Night of the Living Dead is the most convincing.
The tension begins as we meet what audiences must have assumed would be our two heroes: Johnny and Barbra, two siblings who arrive at a cemetery after a three-hour drive — Johnny won’t let us or Barbra forget how inconvenient this drive is — to leave a floral arrangement on their father’s grave.
In addition to the length of the trip — six hours in total, he’s sure to emphasize — Johnny complains that they’re making the trip instead of their mother. He complains that they won’t be home until after midnight. He tells Barbra that he doesn’t even remember what his father looked like. He tries to hurry his sister through her mourning. On top of all of this — poor, suffering Johnny! — he asks Barbra for some candy and learns that there is no candy left.
If I’m making Johnny sound insufferable, I apologize; he isn’t. We get it. I like Johnny. I don’t think he’s an incredible guy, but in just a few extremely efficient lines we understand his frustration. We understand its reasons, its degree, and its limits.
I mention its limits because — and this is important — Johnny doesn’t exist to be a sourpuss. He’s a person. We meet him during an irritating but routine family errand. He, as much as anyone, deserves to blow off a little steam. And, once he does, he comes just a bit more to life.
He makes a cynical observation about the arrangement they’re leaving on the man’s grave, saying somebody could come by later, pull the dead flowers off, clean up the cross, and sell it again. “I wonder how many times we bought the same one,” he says, and it’s funny. It’s probably funnier than he expected it to be, because his mood changes completely.
He reminisces about playing pranks on Barbra in this very cemetery when they were younger. Barbra isn’t having as much fun with those memories as he is, but I don’t think he’s being a dick; he’s being a brother. He’s picking on his sister. He’ll take a little too far. We all do, sometimes. But he’s a person. We get it.
This is our introduction to one of the most famous and influential horror films ever made: two siblings quietly bickering in the waning daylight. It’s a brief stop on a long Sunday drive. Two actors. One prop. Outfits that could have been brought from home.
Romero’s choice to start the film here, within this context, is likely one of necessity. I can’t say for sure. Perhaps this is where he’d have introduced the zombie outbreak no matter how many millions of dollars studios were throwing at him.
But I do know that, under the limitations of his actual budget, starting with the Coopers wouldn’t have worked. We learn that they had their car swarmed and turned over by zombies during an attack that ended with their daughter being seriously injured.
Romero and his team would have to purchase a car just to wreck it. They’d have to hire stuntmen. They’d have to be able to count on a high quality of acting and practical effects to sell the injury. They’d either need to find extras who were strong enough to flip a car or design a mechanism that could convincingly do it for them.
Starting with Ben would have been even more expensive. He later tells his story, and it involves seeing a gasoline truck driving wildly down the road with 10 – 15 zombies hanging off of it, beating on it, trying to get at the driver. The truck bursts into flames, rams through a guardrail, and Ben turns away, overpowered by the inhuman screams of the man behind the wheel. He thinks to duck into a nearby diner for safety only to find it already surrounded, 60 more zombies in search of a meal.
Romero didn’t have the budget for that. He had the budget for some dirty people to stand around in bathrobes. I’m enormously grateful for that, because starting in the cemetery — the quiet, calm, ordinary cemetery, during an afternoon that neither of the two characters would even have reason to remember otherwise — was the right idea.
It was the correct decision for introducing to the world his vision of a zombie apocalypse.
There’s a figure shuffling in the distance. It’s our first true sign that something is amiss, but it’s hardly one that would register on its own. (Their car radio went dead for a long stretch of the trip due to technical difficulties at the station, but that wouldn’t register, either.) Johnny teases Barbra that the man in the distance — though not all that distant — isn’t some drunk or some poor mourner but is a monster. And is one of many.
“They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” he says.
She doesn’t appreciate it. In fact, she’s embarrassed. When she tells this story later, she’ll say that she intended to apologize to the man. Of course she would. She’s a person, too. We get it. The man is approaching. He must have heard what Johnny said. It’s only right to apologize.
And he seizes her. He grabs her so tightly that it hurts. She struggles to get away but can’t do it. Her flailing just barely keeps him from digging his teeth into her. Johnny rushes to her aid. He’s not a bad guy. He’s a brother. He’s a person. He fights for Barbra. He can’t overpower the man, either, but he can help her get away.
In the scuffle, he’s knocked cold on a tombstone. He might be dead. If he’s not, he will be. And after he is, he’ll rise again.
Weirdly, Johnny is uncredited in the film, but he was played by Russell Streiner, who also produced the film. Behind Duane Jones as Ben, I think he gives the best performance. He’s a convincing brother. We get to know him for all of one scene, but we see every side of him. We understand who he was in life just in time for that life to end.
The man comes to get Barbra next. Barbra, understandably terrified, flees. She takes refuge in a nearby farmhouse, which seems deserted. She spends the rest of the film here, much of it catatonic.
Of our two heroes, one is dead and the other is numb. Moments ago they were full of life and emotion. Then no life. Then no emotion.
We learn everything from this first scene. We learn how hopeless this is. Both characters struck down by one enemy. As more enemies gather and swarm and surround, we already know how it must end. There will be a moment of carelessness. Perhaps with good intentions, as to apologize. Perhaps because our focus was elsewhere, as with a tussle that leaves us prone to accident. But, in the broadest strokes, we know. Already, we know.
The farmhouse is not as vacant as it had seemed, but we won’t know that for some time. There’s a corpse upstairs. There’s a young couple and a small family in the basement. And as Barbra panics, she meets Ben, who pulls up to the house in the hope that someone will be there, that someone will be able to unlock the gas pump outside, that someone will be able to help. He finds Barbra, who has retreated so far inward she can barely speak.
Ben takes over as our hero, and he proves himself immediately more competent than both Johnny and Barbra…the former because he takes out two zombies with a tire iron soon after we meet him, and the latter because he is in full control of his emotions.
If you’ve seen the film, you might push back against that claim. I couldn’t possibly blame you. Ben lashes out a number of times throughout Night of the Living Dead. He raises his voice. He hits people. He throws his weight around. But here’s the thing: I think the movie has Ben do these things not so we’ll suspect he’s out of control, but to assure us that he’s in control.
He gets angry when he allows himself to get angry. When he resorts to anger or violence it’s because he considered the situation and decided that these are the appropriate responses. Ben knows what kindness will get him and what violence will get him, and he decides how to behave based on that.
In other words, I don’t think he ever actually loses his temper; he deploys his temper.
Early in the film he shouts at Barbra, only to catch himself and speak to her more calmly. He’s aware of what he’s doing and how he’s behaving. He took the wrong approach and realized it quickly; he corrected himself.
This is in stark contrast to Barbra, of course, and is in more direct contrast to Mr. Cooper, the older man hiding in the basement. Mr. Cooper demonstrates nearly no control over his emotions.
Mr. Cooper never shuts up. Every thought he has, he voices. Every feeling he has, he expresses. He’s honest to a point that it no longer seems like a virtue.
Turning back to Barbra for a moment, it fascinates me that she doesn’t break down until she’s finally safe. When Johnny is attacked, she’s alert. When she flees, she’s alert. When she explores the house, she’s alert. Then Ben shows up. He barricades the windows and doors. He provides her with the first safe breaths she’s been able to take since tragedy struck. And that’s when she shuts down.
It’s a remarkable and realistic thing. Her mind held itself together as long as it could, just to get her out of danger. Once it did, it relaxed and it fell apart.
Mr. Cooper is the opposite. He doesn’t seem to enter survival mode until he sees everything Ben has done to keep them safe. He points out whatever flaws he can find, to the point that that’s all he’s doing. He introduces panic to an environment that is likely as safe as it could possibly be, considering the circumstances. He held himself together in the basement, without food, a radio, or an escape route if things got even worse. Ben opens the entire home to him, and that’s when he feels unsafe.
Or, no, let me take that back. That’s when he feels threatened.
Mr. Cooper’s concerns are not unfounded. His rationale is that by barricading himself — and whomever else would care to join him — in the basement, he’ll have only one entrance to defend. In the main home, every window and door becomes a liability. The zombies could attack from any angle. The zombies could attack from every angle. With the boards on the windows, the people inside can’t even see them. They won’t know how many are out there. They won’t know what’s happening. They’ll be vulnerable from all sides and unable to respond until it’s too late…
But what comes through — and comes through all too clearly — is the fact that his authority is threatened. Until Ben showed up, Mr. Cooper had final say. Now, suddenly, here’s this…this nobody with a different idea of how things should go. And he’s poking holes in Mr. Cooper’s approach.
Mrs. Cooper and Tom — one half of the young couple — both see through Mr. Cooper’s concerns. They know he’s mainly pushing back because he wants to be in charge again. On some level, he may even need to be in charge.
The power struggle between Ben and Mr. Cooper — verbalized and silent in about equal measure — is the real tension of the film. The zombies are incidental. It’s not for nothing that the boarded up windows keep us from seeing them. Night of the Living Dead was made on a shoestring budget, but unlike many monster movies, spending more time with the monster here would not have been cost prohibitive. Romero’s monsters are extras in simple makeup, shuffling or swaying with dead-eyed stares. If he could afford to hire the extras, he could afford to show them as often as he liked. Blocking them from view was therefore an artistic decision, not a symptom of artistic limitation.
It’s not the zombies that matter. It’s the frustration inside the house. It’s the mutual lack of trust and respect. It’s the knowledge — which we and the characters can only keep at bay for so long — that this arrangement is unsustainable, because neither Ben nor Mr. Cooper are going to back down.
Mr. Cooper is positioned as the antagonist, but it speaks to Romero’s understanding of humanity that his ideas are no worse than Ben’s, nor are his concerns less valid. Like chronic whiner Johnny, we get it. I understand where Mr. Cooper is coming from. I believe in him as a person. Yes, I like seeing Ben sock him repeatedly in the jaw when we get to that point, but it doesn’t take much mental effort to see the situation from Mr. Cooper’s point of view. To know, to understand, and to sympathize with what happened off camera. (In fact, in the Living Dead novel, it’s the Coopers who are positioned as our focal characters from the first film.)
The man is in an impossible situation, living through inexplicable horror. If the other folks in the house didn’t already have their own equivalent stories, they’d never have believed his. He’s traveling with his family. His vehicle is attacked by a mob of what looks like people but clearly are not. They overturn his car with his wife and daughter inside. In their rush to get away, his little girl is bitten. He and his wife run with her in their arms for more than a mile before they find this farmhouse and even the suggestion of shelter and safety. Seeing — correctly — that the number of windows and doors in the main home present an enormous risk, he takes his family into the basement and reinforces the door. His daughter slips into unconsciousness for long stretches. There is no way to treat her and nothing they can do except hope that they live through the night and find help tomorrow.
Tom and Judy also seek the safety of the farmhouse, and they’re young. They’re in search of leadership. They listen to Mr. Cooper. Maybe he knows best and maybe he doesn’t, but he’s at least taking charge, and none of his decisions are putting them in immediate danger.
This is the arrangement. This is sustainable. They hide in the basement of a stranger’s home until the sun comes up and — they can only hope — the nightmare is revealed to be just that.
Then Ben turns up, and Ben has different ideas.
His course of action is more…active. He recognizes the same flaws in the home that Mr. Cooper recognized, but he addresses them rather than retreats from them. He puts up a fight. He’s more clear headed and less emotional.
Tom finds a new leader. Seemingly a better one. Judy follows, of course. Mrs. Cooper lets her resentment show. Mr. Cooper was probably not a very good guy at any point in his life, but in a time of crisis he implemented a solution. He was in control. And then all of that is swept away and the chaos potentially reintroduced, just because some guy happened to see a gas pump outside.
What gives Ben the right? Well, nothing. But nothing gave Mr. Cooper the right, either. They should have equal claim, except that it’s Ben who found the gun.
The gun is the most obvious symbol of the power struggle, and it’s an important one. (Mr. Cooper even observes out loud that he has to get his hands on it.) Because Ben has it, he wields a bit more power over Mr. Cooper. One gets the sense that if Mr. Cooper had it, nobody else would wield power at all. Ben wants something close to a democracy, with everybody contributing. Mr. Cooper wants an autocracy, in which his decisions aren’t questioned. These are incompatible.
The characters know it. Ben articulates it. “You can be the boss down there,” he says, “but I’m the boss up here.”
The other symbol of the power struggle is Barbra, broken, distant, and almost completely silent. Mr. Cooper insists several times on taking her into the basement. Ben insists that she stays in the main home with him. She’s incapable of expressing her own opinion, and both men know it, so they each assert their authority over her. On some level, they may have her best interests in mind. Overall, though, they each have an opinion because it’s in opposition to what the other one wants.
Both approaches have flaws. If nobody questions Mr. Cooper, then nobody will be made aware of — and be able to address — any weaknesses in his plan. This goes for even the most obvious one: They don’t have any food in the basement, something that Mr. Cooper doesn’t even seem to realize would be a problem until he finds out Ben has plenty upstairs.
And Ben…well, his flaw is that everybody gets a say, which means their odds of survival are both helped and hindered by everybody else. More hands means more help. It means tasks can be delegated. It means everybody’s knowledge is pooled. It also means that any one of them can make a mistake, jeopardizing the lives of everyone else.
In a moment of narrative cruelly, someone does make a mistake, and it does jeopardize lives. In fact, it takes them. And it’s Ben himself who makes the mistake.
It happens after they tune in to a news bulletin listing the nearby rescue stations. One of them — Willard — is only about 17 miles away. It’s too far to go by foot — especially with an injured child — but they can take Ben’s truck, if they get the gas pump unlocked…which was the entire reason Ben stopped at the farm house to begin with. Tom finds a key labeled as belonging to the pump.
For a moment, it seems as though things are going to work out. Not just that, but all of the pieces are coming together. It’s as though fate is guiding them toward a solution. All of the dots are being connected. Their salvation is as simple as pumping gas.
Slight detour here: Dawn of the Dead reveals that making it to a “rescue station” might not have helped after all. We’ll discuss that more next week, but in retrospect this suggestion works as a double dose of cruelty. They die because they failed to get there, and they would have died if they’d gotten there. The group is literally damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
Anyway, the clear path forward is tossed bit by bit back into chaos. First, Judy — terrified that she might not see her husband again — joins Ben and Tom in their attempt to gas up the vehicle. They drive up to the gas pump where Tom struggles with the lock. The key is labelled, so he knows he has the right one, but something isn’t working. It’s jammed. The lock has been changed. Something is wrong.
It’s a desperate moment. The zombies are closing in. The amount of time Ben and Tom and Judy have left on this Earth can be measured in footsteps.
Ben makes a decision to shoot the lock off. He sets down his torch, levels the gun, and tells Tom to back away. He fires. The lock falls. It worked. But the leaky nozzle and the torch on the ground immediately pose another, larger problem.
Tom drives the truck away to avoid killing everyone in an explosion. He exits the vehicle before it blows, which is when Judy realizes her jacket is stuck. He barely has enough time to begin helping her before the truck explodes. Tom and Judy are killed.
It’s Ben’s fault, technically. Their deaths are on his conscience. He wasn’t stupid or foolish or even short-sighted. Things didn’t go according to plan. Ben pivoted. It was that or let them get swarmed as Tom fiddled with the lock. He tried. He did something. He didn’t seal himself into a basement and leave the others to fend for themselves. He took action.
The action killed two people. So what was the better option?
Mr. Cooper sees himself as vindicated. “Two people are already dead on account of that guy,” he tells his wife. This is evidence not only that Ben’s approach was inferior, but that it was actively destructive. Had they stayed in the basement, none of this would have happened. Tom and Judy would still be alive. That’s a fact. Those two were dumb enough to follow Ben, and look what happened.
Romero, morally, is on Ben’s side. I think that’s pretty clearly illustrated in the first exchange Ben and Mr. Cooper have. It’s only after Ben and Barbra get settled and fortify the house that the basement door swings open to reveal five more people are already sharing the home.
Ben, completely fairly, asks Mr. Cooper why he didn’t come up to help when he heard them boarding up the windows and doors. “I’m not gonna take that kind of a chance when we’ve got a safe place,” he tells Ben. “We lock up into a safe place, and you’re telling us that we gotta come up here and risk our lives just because somebody might need help, huh?”
“Yeah,” Ben replies. “Something like that.”
Mr. Cooper’s the asshole. Period. Full stop.
And yet it’s Ben who gets people killed. Morally, sure, let’s all be on Ben’s side. But rationally? Maybe there’s something to what Mr. Cooper says. It’s no accident that Romero steers Ben into that very basement — and has him reinforce the door with the barricades Mr. Cooper set up — when the main home is overrun. The basement saves Ben’s life. Mr. Cooper is dead by that point, but it’s also no accident that Romero keeps his eyes open. On some level, even if it’s only metaphorically, he sees Ben’s silent admission that he was right all along.
All of this makes Mr. Cooper more believable than some of the other human villains we see in Romero’s series. Dennis Hopper’s cartoonish mustache twirler in the moronic Land of the Dead comes immediately to mind, but, to be honest, the motorcycle hooligans from Dawn of the Dead — the very next film we’ll cover, and another great one — count as well. Romero does a consistently great job with his sympathetic characters — the ones with strong moral cores — but seems to have trouble getting into the minds of humans who aren’t quite as good natured.
The characters come to understand what’s happening the way we all do: through television. The news reports gradually share more and more information as it becomes available. We learn that the attackers are not in a trance, but have returned from the dead. We learn that the process of returning takes only a few minutes. We learn that they hunger for flesh. We learn that this is not an isolated problem.
And we learn why it’s happening. Sort of.
Romero later regretted that he explained — again, sort of — his zombies in Night of the Living Dead. In the remaining five films and the novel, the origins of the zombies are speculated upon, but never firmly established. Here, though, a news report specifies that it’s due to radiation from a returning “Venus probe.” We even hear from some government officials who confirm that this is the case.
I’m with Romero in the sense that the zombies work a little better without knowing why they exist and what triggered the wide-scale reanimation of corpses, but I also find it very easy to dismiss the Venus probe as being The Official Story.
The government within the film would have reason — as it does in real life — to provide a sense of reassurance in the face of the unknowable. I am willing to believe that this fictional administration is baffled as to the nature of what’s happening, and a coincidental return of a probe from beyond the stars provides a convenient scapegoat. “Radiation did it” doesn’t help any of the survivors, but it might quell panic for just a little bit longer. If the government knows what caused the problem then, surely, they must be that much closer to finding a solution.
“We have no idea what’s happening,” while truthful, would only have caused more damage.
More damage than the zombie apocalypse, yes, I realize what I’m saying is absurd…but what else do you do? Do you lie? Do you tell the truth? You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. So is everybody else.
And so when reporters parrot the Venus probe explanation as fact, I believe it. That’s what they’ve been told. And when the government officials are cornered by reporters on the street, their reluctance to confirm the Venus probe explanation could be political theater. Why not? They can play their dishonesty as a moment of unfiltered honesty. There’s no better way for the government to perpetuate a lie than to have other people think they’ve figured it out for themselves.
I’m okay with the Venus probe for that reason. I think it’s a symbol of confusion and desperation on the part of a government that no longer has control over anything aside from its own lies.
Romero didn’t intend that — hence his regret — but it works on another level. It works as a promise that whomever is trapped in the White House has no better understanding of this crisis than everyone trapped in the farmhouse.
Regardless of the reason or lack of reason behind the outbreak, an audience in 2020 is going to be many, many steps ahead of the other characters when they hear that the Coopers’ daughter has been bitten.
Ben reacts fairly, considering how little the characters know, suggesting that the kid could have caught a disease from “those things,” but he keeps the conversation constructive. He offers to carry her wherever they need to go. He suggests they find the Coopers’ car and try to get it back on four wheels. When Barbra mumbles something about Johnny having the car keys, he tries to find out where her car is.
But we know it’s too late for the little girl. She’s been bitten. That’s it. She’s both halves of the living dead.
The late-game reveal of the child rising, bloodthirsty, attacking her own parents is one of the few times the movie suffers for its age. By now, we know how zombie bites work. It’s not a surprise when the girl turns, and it’s not shocking when she attacks her parents. We’ve been ready for that since we learned a zombie took a bite out of her. What’s more, the girl — the zombie version — has appeared on boxes and posters for the film for decades. We know what’s coming. Like Ripley being the star of Alien, it’s a surprise that decades of marketing have ruined for us.
And that’s okay, because the little zombie girl in the basement may come toward the end of the film, but it’s not the last or biggest shock we’re left with. And Romero knew it shouldn’t be. A child zombie would have been enough in 1968. It would have shaken people up. It would have given them a haunting image that would stay with them long into the night, as they failed to fall asleep.
But that wasn’t Romero’s point. It was a big moment, but not the moment toward which he was building.
Night of the Living Dead, though no character mentions it, is about race. Not exclusively. Maybe not even predominantly. But it’s there. It’s in nearly every scene. It’s in nearly every exchange. It’s a filter through which the entire film can be viewed, even if we don’t quite know that until we reach the end.
Romero has said that Ben wasn’t written with a black actor in mind. I believe that. Romero has said that Ben ended up black because Duane Jones gave the best audition. I absolutely believe that. But the moment the dynamics between the characters start to kick in, it’s race that keeps them burning.
Mr. Cooper doesn’t need race to make him skeptical of Ben, but it’s there every time he tries to turn another survivor against the man. It’s there every time he argues to get the defenseless white woman away from him. It’s there when he doesn’t trust him with a gun. It’s there in the precise amount of venom with which he injects his criticisms.
It’s there, of course, when locks Ben outside the house to die.
For Mr. Cooper, somebody usurping his authority is embarrassing and emasculating. But for it to be a black man…well, that’s inexcusable. Absurd, even. The dead rising from their graves? That’s nuts, yeah, but can you believe the nerve of this guy?
Tom and Judy, the younger couple — the younger generation — seem to have no trouble accepting Ben and his guidance. Why would they? This guy survived an attack and has done more to fortify the home than anybody else has. He’s also the only one suggesting action instead of isolation. That’s who Ben is to them. That’s who Ben is, full stop. It’s Mr. Cooper — and his notions of racial superiority — that can’t see that.
It’s there in the way in which Mr. Cooper disagrees with Tom yet seethes at Ben. One of them needs a comeuppance. In the disaster at the pump, Mr. Cooper is sure, the wrong one got it.
And it’s there in the ending.
I won’t walk you through it. I can’t. You either see it, or you can’t see it.
Ben, the lone survivor of a literal night from Hell, steps toward the daylight to be shot dead by a group of hillbillies.
Is there more to it? Sure, but not much.
We met the leader of this mob, Sheriff McClelland, during a news broadcast earlier. His compatriots are, without exception, armed white men. They practice poor trigger discipline. They hold their firearms dangerously. Their guns are mismatched and reflect, essentially, whatever they’ve been able to grab.
McClelland puts on a decent face for the news crew, but at no point does he come across as especially competent or even concerned about what’s happening. And why would he be? He’s confronted with a problem he can solve by pulling a trigger. Ditto the rest of his merry band. These aren’t deep thinkers. These aren’t men of strong moral fiber. These are the people who stood up enthusiastically when they heard volunteers were needed to shoot things.
Romero chose these people specifically for the impression they would give to a viewing audience. When he cast reporters, he cast people who look like reporters. When he cast government officials, he cast people who look like government officials. When he cast zombies, he cast people who looked…like people. Because that’s what they were. A normal, average bunch of people you might otherwise have encountered on a bus.
When he cast this group of armed rednecks…well…
He knew what he was doing.
And he knew what he was doing when he had one of them tell another to shoot a black man and then congratulate him on his marksmanship.
Whatever amount of care and consideration the mob employed at the start of their operation — and I am confident it was not much — is long gone by sunrise.
They’re careless, aiming whatever weapons they have at whatever human figure is moving in the distance. We see them do it. Advance, shoot, reload. Collect the bodies, toss them in a fire. No pause for consideration. No attempt to call out and see if, maybe, there’s a living person up ahead. On some level, they’re well aware that they’re shooting people — usually in the back — who may be alive. The end of the film proves it, if we tried to push the thought from our minds earlier.
But, hey, what are they going to do? Stop and check every person they find? Ask if they’re okay? Deal with their followup questions and requests for help? Can you imagine how much time that would take? At that rate, we’ll never get through this. It’s far quicker to pull a trigger.
We know we’re not zombies. That’s enough. We know others might be zombies. That’s enough.
In the earlier news broadcast — when McClelland was on his best behavior for the viewing public — he tells the reporter about a previous zombie encounter.
“We caught them trying to claw their way into an abandoned shed,” he says. “They must have thought someone was in there.” Then, quickly: “But there wasn’t, though.”
If you can make it to the end of the movie and conclude that a group of zombies were going against everything we’ve learned about them, that they really were trying to smash their way into a structure that contained nobody who would have drawn their attention or appetite, you are a more imaginative person than I will ever be.
We know what they were doing. We know what McClelland’s squad did. And then the reporter gave him some coffee so he’d be alert enough to march along and do it all over again.
In my book on Resident Evil, I write about the experience of sharing Night of the Living Dead with a theater full of people who hadn’t seen it. I won’t repeat the story here, but I will say that that moment — that precise frame of the film — fifty years later still had so much of its original impact.
Nothing else about the film could be said to have aged as gracefully. I love Night of the Living Dead and I stand by my earlier assessment that it’s nearly perfect. And yet we can sit down and pick at it. We can poke fun at some of the acting and directing. We can talk all day long about how it did or didn’t overcome its budgetary limitations. We can certainly talk about later zombie films — even those by Romero — and how they eclipsed the accomplishments of this one, rendering it obsolete. Turning it into a relic. A museum display piece rather than anything that matters today.
But then there’s that ending.
I wish I could say that that ending has aged terribly. I wish I could call it a relic of a different time. I wish I could see this only as one man dying in a work of fiction.
I wish to God I could.
Color films had been made for nearly three decades before Night of the Living Dead. They were commonplace by 1968. And yet, years after color films became the norm, Romero gave us a black-and-white horror movie.
Maybe that’s coincidental, but it doesn’t feel that way.