How 'Get Out' Puts 'Night of the Living Dead' in a New Light

For a movie released nearly 50 years ago, George A. Romero's zombie masterpiece thrums with meaning today.
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Duane Jones in 'Night of the Living Dead' (left) and Daniel Kaluuya in 'Get Out'

The first time you watched the late, great George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, you probably puzzled over its ending, made ambiguous both by the text and by Romero himself, who back in 2016 denied that he cast his lead, Duane Jones, because of his skin color. Do the men scouring the Pennsylvania countryside kill the film’s hero, Ben, because they mistake him for one of “those things,” the cast’s preferred nomenclature for zombies, or because they’re gun-toting racists emboldened by the state’s undead panic to shoot an innocent black man? Odds are you’ve never satisfactorily answered the question for yourself, and if that’s not proof of the movie’s indispensability, nothing is.

For a movie released nearly 50 years ago, Night of the Living Dead thrums with meaning today. For the most part, of course, that’s to Romero’s credit; in making an apolitical film loaded with unintentionally political signifiers, he wound up with a pliable story open to reinterpretation no matter the era. But we can also give credit to Jordan Peele, writer-director of Get Out, one of 2017’s essential movies and arguably Night of the Living Dead’s most important successor, for validating Night of the Living Dead’s significance with his own movie.

The time gap separating them is irrelevant. Today, each informs the other as independent works of socially conscious horror, two movies that pair together perfectly regardless of age or differences in aesthetics and intentions. (Seriously, they make an absolutely superb double feature when next you find yourself with about three hours of free time on your hands.) In so many ways, Get Out is intertwined with Night of the Living Dead. It’s inevitable that if you start off talking about one, you’ll eventually find yourself talking about both.

Peele has oft cited Night of the Living Dead as an influence on Get Out, being one of the few American horror films to tackle the thorny subject of race, and it just so happens that as we close in on the latter’s one-year anniversary, the former got a spiffy Blu-ray release this week courtesy of the Criterion Collection. If you’re tempted to assume the boutique home entertainment outlet planned the street date on their Living Dead disc this perfectly, maybe don’t: The timing is entirely coincidental, per the Criterion Collection’s producers. But that just makes that happy accident feel like something closer to kismet, affording us a new opportunity to revisit them both and take note of how we watch them differently in proximity to one another. It might even change Night of the Living Dead's most common focal point.

When we read into Night of the Living Dead, we usually read most into Ben’s fate. Over the years, critics have untangled its symbolism and declared it a protest against the Vietnam War, a tale of the disenchanted 1960s American nuclear family, and an examination of the flawed mechanisms of mass media and governmental agencies. But what we come back to most is how the film echoes the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which preceded its premiere by around six months, and even the assassination of Malcolm X, which predates its premiere by three years and some change. In 1968, as in the 2010s, watching men gun down Ben without considering the possibility of violence motivated by racism is impossible; countless instances of police officers killing unarmed black men and black teens in recent years (“recent” being a loose keyword) emphasize how much American society hasn’t progressed in the last five decades.

Thus, Night of the Living Dead marries its past implications with modern implications. It’s a product of its period that will, as long as racism festers in our country, continue to have things to say and lessons to teach us. And yet it’s the film’s claustrophobic scenes that feel most urgent in a post-Get Out culture. It’s not that Ben’s death is suddenly less shocking in 2018 than in 1968, or literally any other year in Night of the Living Dead’s lifespan (if that word can be used to describe a movie about ghouls). It’s that Get Out gives us new ideas to mull over, or perhaps more accurately it puts a spotlight on ideas that have always existed and sets them at front and center, and we bring those ideas with us on rewatching Night of the Living Dead. The question of “why” in regards to the film’s ending remains, but questions of trust feel more pertinent.

If Get Out is about anything (and it’s about many things), it’s about being black in a space dominated by whites. Get Out presents that experience as a cutting punchline to start with, a series of inappropriate comments made by white characters to Peele’s protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), that he responds to only with tight-lipped smiles and frustration communicated solely through subtle expressions; in a different movie we would merely roll our eyes at the stream of discriminatory faux pas. Those who have seen Get Out know that the faux pas have sinister connotations, but it’s Chris’ discomfort and paranoia that reflects in viewing Night of the Living Dead anew. The film’s white castmembers aren’t plotting to body snatch Ben, but that doesn’t change the innate tension of his circumstances.

Viewed through a 1968 lens, Night of the Living Dead is about white people trapped in a house and terrified of the lone black person in their midst. Viewed through a contemporary lens, the horror is vice versa. Like Chris, Ben is a black man stuck in a room, surrounded by white people; like Chris, Ben can only guess at what his company thinks, and specifically what they think about him. (One other similarity: They’re both highly resourceful, especially compared to their white peers.) We can safely assume Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), the authoritarian blowhard who has it out for Ben from the minute they meet, isn’t the progressive type, but contextualized via Get Out, it’s reasonable to wonder at Tom’s (Keith Wayne) open-mindedness, too, much less Barbra’s (Judith O'Dea) or Helen’s (Marilyn Eastman).

Do they rank among America’s tolerant citizens? Or do they too harbor prejudices left unspoken? How much danger is Ben really in from the moment he takes refuge in that rickety old farmhouse? That’s another set of questions you likely won’t be able to satisfactorily answer for yourself, but questions without easy answers are in keeping with Night of the Living Dead’s defining ambiguities. Peele knows it, too. Whether he meant to or not, the perspectives couched in Get Out flip Romero’s masterpiece on its head, and we should be glad for that: He’s given us a fresh angle on a classic. 

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