They got Barbara. They came, just as Johnny said they would. Dead hands clawing over each other to secure a grip and drag her away from the house. Barbara is lost in the horde of the undead, taken away to be devoured, to become the very thing she feared the most. This, the climax of George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead in which the pretty, young, and good white woman meets a gruesome end would be the shocking downbeat to send audiences home with and fill their nightmares. That is, until what happened next took an even more shocking turn, one that turned a little independent B-movie into one of the most socially relevant horror movies to ever emerge from the darkened corners of America’s history.
It’s been 50 years since writer-director George Romero and co-writer John Russo first unleashed the ravenous walking dead onto our screens and into the public consciousness. Zombies, more well-known and widespread than ever in our popular culture, are no longer shocking. Audiences may be shocked on a weekly basis as fan-favorite characters are torn apart on their television screens by way of AMC’s The Walking Dead. But the zombies themselves, though admirably regarded for the special effects work that brought them to life, or un-life, have become commonplace. And as much as we may love and root for ragtag groups of survivors popularized by zombie films and television, well, they’ve become common as well. We’ve seen grizzled survivors, warrior women and human savages who give in to their worst impulses time and time again. But in 1968, Romero’s survivors made a statement, not that they could beat back death, but that they couldn’t. In the flat Pennsylvania landscape of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, survival is measured in minutes, not years.
Modern zombie efforts are often driven by hope. Despite the guts and splattering of blood strewn across the walls, there is a purveying sense of optimism that humanity will get through this and come out on the other side — perhaps different, but out all the same. From modern classics like 28 Days Later (2002) to more recent offerings like The Girl With All the Gifts (2016) and Cargo (2017), there is a sense that the zombie apocalypse isn’t the end but a chance for a new beginning, a biblical flood where bodies have replaced water but the strong and righteous can still be saved. In Night of the Living Dead, morality and goodness don’t mean salvation. These characters were damned from the start. Romero’s zombie film is driven by nihilism of the American variety.
The film opens with the now-iconic scene where siblings Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) pull up to a graveyard to lay a wreath on their father’s grave on behest of their mother, who didn’t travel with them. Johnny, bespectacled and smirking, mocks the idea of visiting the grave of someone they can’t even remember. The dead and the rituals we use to keep their memories alive are a joke. While his sister shows compassion, even kneeling at the grave of her father to offer up prayers, Johnny says “prayin’s for church,” before laughing about being damned. And to complete our sense of Johnny being a complete and utter ass, Johnny teases his sister for good measure, with the oft-quoted line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”
All of this is to give viewers the sense that whatever happens to Johnny next is, if not deserved, then at least warranted. The attack on Johnny by the ghoul and his eventual zombification is presented as a kind of moral justice, one that filmmakers of slasher movies in the following decade, and more recent voices like Eli Roth, have since taken to heart. From the beginning, we’re made to think that there is some divine hand at work, pulling the strings of the wicked and innocent and closing the curtain on them only if they fall into the category of the former. But our sense of things changes in the third act when all hell breaks loose and we learn that the only higher power is the thresher of American pride, one that separates on age and race for a singular end result of life strewn across the ground — the seed of the living dead.
Since the film’s release, viewers and critics have placed their own political understanding on the film, uncovering subtext that while often unintentional is fascinating nonetheless. In a featurette, “Light in the Darkness” for the Criterion Collection remaster of Night of the Living Dead released earlier this year, Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro says, “George went to the id of America.” The result being that the actions driving the film are primal and instinctual, mistrust and power struggles not born out of people knowing each other, but of an American history ingrained in their DNA. Of course, central to any discussion of the politics and history buried in Night of the Living Dead is Ben (Duane Jones) and his place in an America undergoing massive change as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. Romero said that the casting of Duane Jones as Ben had nothing to do with race, that he simply chose the best actor for the job that his limited production could get. But because of that casting, and the role that Ben, a black man, takes on, the film is racially charged. Through Ben, Night of the Living Dead offers layers of commentary that have given the film a lasting appeal that it otherwise may not have had.
Zombies are rooted in black culture. Before Romero’s creatures, which he considered “ghouls,” zombies were undead slaves with roots in Haitian folklore and necromancy. The Afro-Haitian history of the zombi has largely been erased by popular culture with only a few zombie films, notably Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and, to a lesser extent, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), harkening back to the concept’s roots. Although Romero had little control over the confluence of his ghouls with zombies, it seems fitting that a black character should take center stage in Night of the Living Dead, if not to reclaim the cultural association of zombies then at least to be given more of a presence and relevancy than a black character had ever had in the horror genre before. Prior to the Night of the Living Dead, zombie films did utilize Haitian folklore in films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and the first zombie feature, White Zombie (1932). But the culture surrounding these ideas existed in the background, as a kind of tribal magic that served as a tool for the wants and fears of “sophisticated” white people. In Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, most black faces are seen in the background, undead slaves working a mill, or providing cryptic, cowardly advice to the film’s heroic white leads. As the title White Zombie suggests, the European image of the zombie served as the film’s biggest selling point, despite the fact that the Haitian zombi and the sorcerer who controlled them, bokor, had never really gotten their day in the sun.
Although set in Haiti, White Zombie is for all intents and purposes a Gothic horror movie. Filmed on leftover sets from Universal’s horror pictures, the film feels of that ilk though not as confidently directed or acted. It’s castles, coach drivers, butlers and the love of wealthy white people caught in the corruption of black, no black magic. White Zombie is white. We learn about the history of zombies through Bela Lugosi’s “Murder” Legendre, who is made up to look Asian, which is a whole other issue. But the film, which is good despite the obvious racial issues that are easy to point out in a modern context, creates a sense that not only are black people unable to tell their own horror stories, they also are secondary to the stories of the white strangers who enter their lands.
Duane Jones, as the first black lead in the horror genre, is anything but secondary. Jones’ image has carried the film’s social message and become, perhaps unfairly, the surviving symbol of blackness in horror. This symbolism is equal parts because of the manner in which Jones handles the role and because the genre still has, in the 50 years since the release of Romero’s film, struggled to offer heroic black leads. The Duane Jones-starring Ganja & Hess (1973) — later remade by Spike Lee as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), The People Under the Stairs (1991) — another Wes Craven feature, Tales from the Hood (1995), Demon Knight (1995), Bones (2001), The Transfiguration (2016) and Get Out (2017) are significant horror entries to feature black leads, but arguably only Get Out has managed to become a phenomenon and its place in the history of cinema is still novel. Even films like Candyman (1992), in which black history is instrumental to the plot, are told through the lens of white experience. Night of the Living Dead could have gone the route and may have even led audiences to believe it would in the beginning, but the shift from Barbara to Ben is one of historical significance, even if unintentional.
Structurally, our introduction to Ben breaks format. We began our story with Barbara and Johnny and it would stand to reason that Barbara would become the film’s lead. After all, we know why she’s here, we have a sense of her backstory and familial connections. She is a known entity. But Ben comes from nowhere. We know, by way of the monologue he delivers, how he ended up at the house, but not more than that. His story is a secondary narrative, a response to comfort the white woman in a catatonic state. But that changes once Ben takes charge and slaps Barbara, literally, out of her hysteria. A black man slapping a white woman feels shocking even now, but it 1968 it was unheard of. But Romero quickly establishes that Ben is a heroic figure, smart, capable and basically responsible for writing the guide on zombie survival.
Every aspect that horror had taught audiences about black men — that they are unimportant at best, and rapists of white women at worst — is tossed aside as it becomes clear that Night of the Living Dead is Ben’s story rather than Barbara’s. Even the shift from a graveyard to a modest house dispels the Gothic quality of the horror movie and replaces it with a residential horror. But that doesn’t deter the film’s capability to stir our deepest, or rather darkest, fears. In an interview with the New York Times, Jordan Peele discussed Night of the Living Dead‘s influence on Get Out, saying, “all social norms break down when this event happens and a black man is caged up in a house with a white woman who is terrified. But you’re not sure how much she’s terrified at the monsters on the outside or this man on the inside who is now the hero.” But Ben’s heroism doesn’t come easily or without pushback.
Barbara quickly falls to the background once the other occupants of the house, the Cooper family and teenage couple Tom and Judy, are introduced. Within the shelter house, a microcosm of American social relations is formed. The antagonism between Henry Cooper and Ben is immediate, as is their struggle for leadership. Henry acts as though his age and race predicate his leadership skills, despite the fact that he has been hiding out while Ben boarded up the windows and doors, securing their safety. It’s difficult not to look at this through the lens of American slavery in which blacks were forced to build up this country on their backs while white people took the credit and the leadership role. It also seems worth mentioning that the Coopers are the only characters with a last name, which cements both their history and status — their legacy of whiteness. While Henry Cooper’s wife, Helen, doesn’t agree with her husband, she remains largely passive, concerned solely with the fate of her infected daughter rather than the fate of strangers. Helen’s position speaks to the complacency and lack of allyship seen from so many white women who would fight for their own rights but ignore the cries of blacks. Tom and Judy attempt to build the bridges of communication between Henry and Ben, and ultimately agree that Ben is a more sensible leader. These teenagers are the hope of the future, the change of the ’60s that would see them move, if only slightly in some cases, away from the feet of their white ancestors and into the arms of revolution.
Even when Henry Cooper acquiesces and gives Ben leadership begrudgingly, his pride still prevents him from fully trusting the black man’s survival skills. It’s the cellar that he insists is the safest place and believes that the sanctuary’s resources should follow him down there. This cellar, the Coopers’ dwelling place, can be seen as the subbasement of America and its worst impulses. “The cellar is a death trap,” Ben says rightfully, while foreshadowing his own tragic fate. “We’ve got a right. We’ve got a right,” Henry yells before Ben retorts “Is this your house?” in what has to be considered the proto-mic drop. Ben follows this up by saying “Get the hell down in the cellar. You can be the boss down there. I’m the boss up here.” These are America’s division lines — the North and South, and even when they reconcile briefly, the tension between the two parties proves to be their undoing and leads to the collapse of this chamber piece set society.
Although Romero may not have been aware of the racial impact of Duane Jones’ casting, the actor himself was very much aware of it. In an interview conducted by Tim Ferrante in 1987 and featured on the Criterion release, Jones relays a story about a ride home from the set one night with extra Betty Ellen Haughey.
We were driving through downtown Pittsburgh of all places and heading back to Duquesne when all of a sudden we became very aware of the fact that there were some teenagers in a car following us. And at first we thought it was some of the young folks who were around the filming. And I looked back and I said, “Betty, those are strangers.” And then I looked back, one of them started brandishing a tire iron at me. And the paradox and the irony of that I had been walking around brandishing a tire iron at ghouls all day long, and there was somebody brandishing a tire iron at me from a car but in absolute seriousness. And that moment … the total surrealism of the racial nightmare of America being worse than whatever that was we were doing as a metaphor in that film lives with me to this moment.
At the film’s end, after all of the supporting characters have been killed off, unable to let go of their pride as parents, as siblings, as boyfriends and as white men with last names, Ben survives. The house is overrun with zombies and Ben has nowhere else to retreat but the cellar, his very own sunken place, if you will. There he manages to kill the reanimated bodies of the Coopers, and wait out the morning and rescue. There’s really nothing like those final moments of Night of the Living Dead, and the first time you see it, it really is shocking. Ben. Heroic, brave, black Ben emerges from the cellar at the sound of the American militia, all white, come to save the day. He exits the cellar, only to be shot dead, killed by yokel earning his badge killing zombies. His murder recalls an earlier line in the film from the radio announcer who creates a sense of control throughout the movie’s chaotic events. “Things that look like people but act like animals,” the radio voice says, describing the zombies. It’s difficult not to associate that description among similar ones that have been used to dehumanize black people, ones that those teens chasing down Duane Jones on the highway surely had on their minds, ones that result in the bodies of black men slain at the feet of white cops.
While there have been better-made horror movies in the 50 years since, some even directed by Romero himself, and there have been bigger budgets, better actors and more scares, there may not be any single denouement and message more frightening than the one George Romero leaves us with at the end of Night of the Living Dead. As a police sheriff says the final lines, “That’s another one for the fire,” we’re shown still images of Ben’s lifeless body stacked on the pile of the dead — an effigy to be burned on a lawn. Ben survived the night of the living dead but could not survive America. In the end, they got him too.