We all know that this Halloween will not look like other Halloweens from years past. And yet, the month of October waits for us all the same. It is about time we put the spirit of Halloween back into that abandoned department store that we call the year of 2020. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema put together a curated, month-long series called Screen Screams. This time, we will be covering all things zombies. For the review, we look at one of the most influential zombie films ever made: Night of the Living Dead.
What can be said about Night of the Living Dead that hasn’t been said before? Every piece of this film has been picked apart, like carrion birds descending on a corpse. However, the 52-year-old film feels just as fresh as it did the day it was released. Directed, written, shot, and edited by George Romero, this masterpiece of horror is the genesis of the modern American zombie film.
Prior to Night, most zombie films rooted themselves in the tradition of Haitian Vodou or voodoo. These films typically involved witch doctors and white people heading to their doom on mysterious Caribbean islands. This meant that early zombie films had strong racial undertones. On top of that, they reduced centuries of religious tradition into caricatures of witch doctors raising the dead. Romero breaks tradition from this by instead citing the cause of zombification as radiation from an exploded space probe. This fits in with Cold War-era fears of the time and adds to Night‘s overarching critique of American society.
For the uninitiated, Night of the Living Dead is a gothic tale about a disparate group of people trapped inside a house with a growing horde of undead growing ever closer. We are first introduced to the house when Barbara (Judith O’Dea) seeks shelter from the dead outside. In the house we have the Coopers; hot-headed Harry, his wife Helen, and their daughter Karen, who had a zombie bite prior to seeking shelter in the cellar. Tom and Judy are two young lovebirds and locals in the small town. Finally, we have our protagonist Ben.
You can’t talk about Night without praising Duane Jones’ performance as Ben. Although the film opens with Barbara, the film hands over the reins to Jones once inside the house. Previously a stage actor, this was Jones’ first film role, in addition to being one of the first horror films with a Black protagonist. Jones’ next film, Ganja & Hess, cemented his status as an icon of Black horror.
Ben further extends Romero’s critique of America into the realm of racial politics. The shots of armed militias of white men marching side by side with law enforcement are as equally chilling as the shots of the encroaching horde. Ben, who survives the night of the living dead, is unceremoniously gunned down by the mob in the finale. “Another one for the fire,” a member of the mob says. Without the gruesome special effects of today, the zombies in Night appear to be living humans from a distance, only their shuffling gaits and groaning giving them away. As the radio bulletin in the film describes, they “look like people but act like animals”. Paired with the militia, you get a frighteningly familiar picture: a group of white men using the barest of excuses to gun down a Black man.
Contemporary zombie media frequently has a message of forging connections in the face of mass decay. Whereas in Night, the characters are constantly at odds and no amount of hope is enough to save any of them. This tale of gothic Americana has created a lasting impact in the world of horror and plays an important role in the history of Black horror. Night of the Living Dead is a timeless film for good reason; and the perfect way to start your Halloween season. – Audrey Griffin
Night of the Living Dead is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.