Night of the Living Dead (1968)

“They’re coming to get you, Barbara,” — Russell Streiner, Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Horror films, I would argue more so than any other genre films, remain known over time because of their deep connections to reality. This is not a new phenomenon; many horror films intentionally reflect the reality in which they are produced. However, some horror films do not set out to have the impact that they produce with time. Night of the Living Dead (1968) by George A. Romero was made to entertain and tell a new story, not lead conversations on social issues or jumpstart a new sub-genre of horror. Regardless, it has done it all.

The story begins with siblings Barbara* and Johnny visiting a relative’s grave in the Pennsylvanian countryside. After decorating the headstone, Johnny recounts a time in their childhood when he scared Barbara in the same cemetery. Seeing Barbara getting uncomfortable, Johnny goes further and teases her for being afraid. Making their way back to the car with Johnny still trying to scare his sister, they see a solitary man in a suit walking slowly in their direction. Embarrassed by her brother’s behavior, she tries to get by the stranger without engaging with him. The man grabs Barbara when they cross paths, and Johnny comes to her aid when she screams. Barbra braces herself against a headstone while Johnny fights with the strange man. Johnny falls and hits his head on a stone grave marker. He does not get back up. The stranger starts chasing Barbara out of the cemetery. She gets in the car, which the man tries to break into with a brick. Barbara does not have the keys, so she coasts with the car in neutral until it hits a tree. She gets out on foot (the man still following her), and she runs down the road in search of help.

*There were some conflicting spellings of her name in my research, but I figured this was the most likely spelling

Barbara finds a solitary house not far from the main road. After running inside to evade her pursuer, she discovers that the house is not empty. After finding the decaying corpse of the house’s owner, she is startled by Ben (Duane Jones), another survivor who had taken refuge in the house. Ben immediately gets to work on boarding up windows and finding resources in the unfamiliar house. Barbara is so traumatized by the afternoon’s events that all she can do is sit quietly in a catatonic state. More survivors come upstairs from the cellar: a young couple who had been on a day trip when the phenomenon began and the parents of a child who had been injured by the ghouls. The child rests in the cellar while the adults take turns watching her.

As the night goes on, the house’s occupants must find ways to survive. With tensions already high and differing perspectives on how to approach this unprecedented situation, the survivors clash to the point of physical violence. News reports come in with updates. The survivors do what they can, but to no avail. With nowhere to run and the number of the living dead increasing just outside their refuge, the survivors rapidly lose any hope they had as dawn remains far away.

Night of the Living Dead is often a major film discussed in conversations of horror and race, with good reason. Ben, a Black man sheltering in the house following the zombie outbreak, represents a crossover of culture and horror stories. While director George A. Romero asserted that the casting of Jones as Ben was simply because the actor was best for the part, Ben’s presence in the film (as well as his fate) has become iconic in discussions of race in horror. A fantastic documentary on the subject of Black representation in film is Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, directed by Xavier Burgin. Night of the Living Dead was one of the first films featured in the documentary. What the contributors had to say about the impact of Jones’ role is fascinating, but one quote in particular from actor Ken Foree stayed with me:

Night of the Living Dead was so important because for the first time, we’re not just the victims. We were the destroyers and the protectors for other people against monsters.”

From a few scenes into the movie to the very end, we see Ben leading, protecting, and putting his life in danger for the others sheltering in the house, all of whom are white. They do not listen to him or follow his lead; Ben is the only survivor in the end. The following morning, he is shot through a window by a white man who is part of an armed group searching for survivors. Ben’s body is included among those of the zombies that had been taken down. The bodies are then burned in a field.

Ben’s actions of risking his safety to protect the others are brushed away. I remember the first time watching this film and how confused and angry I felt at how Ben’s life was taken so suddenly and without feeling. I realized as the credits rolled, however, that this narrative was all too familiar in a world where Black lives are treated with a similar disregard. Intentional or otherwise, Night of the Living Dead‘s contribution to the conversation of racial justice represented in horror films is indisputable and has influenced many horror creators and academics since the film’s release.

Night of the Living Dead continues to be a key feature in conversations of socially influential horror films. It may be riddled with unintentional humor and exasperating victims, but there is no denying the superiority and timelessness of this film. Night of the Living Dead is on my must-watch list for all horror fans. For anyone who has not seen it yet, it is fortunately widely available to stream. It is my favorite zombie film of all time. I still have yet to find many similar films that compare to its craft and entertainment value. This film has been iconic since it was first released, and its unmatched qualities will keep it in that state for a long time still.

Until next time,


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