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“Night of the Living Dead” celebrates 50th anniversary

George A. Romero’s zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, premiered exactly 50 years ago, today, on October 1, 1968. A film both of and ahead of its time, Living Dead helped birth the modern horror genre, while simultaneously offering the year’s most biting criticism of America’s domestic and foreign policy. With Halloween right around the corner, and America’s political landscape beginning to look hauntingly close to that of ‘68’s, there’s never been a better time to revisit Romero’s disturbing indie classic.

Night of the Living Dead opens at a graveyard, where we find siblings Johnny and Barbara  (looking like Brad and Janet from Rocky Horror) bickering about their long car-ride. American flags litter the gravesite, reminding viewers of the soldier’s dead in Vietnam. Before long, the siblings encounter a strange man, looking dazed as he shambles towards them. This is the film’s first zombie, of course, and he quickly kills the brother before chasing the sister (Barbara) to a deserted farmhouse.

This is the farmhouse where the film, and Barbara, will make their stand, but Living Dead is not Barbara’s story. The movie belongs to Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American man and the film’s most sympathetic and level-headed character. Ben arrives at the farmhouse soon after Barbara and quickly sets about barricading the doors and windows (Barbara is in too much shock to be much help). Zombies are rapidly gathering outside, and it’s no accident that (at least initially) they’re all white men. While never directly addressed, racial tension runs throughout Living Dead, and this tension is handled in a fashion that American horror had never seen before (and wouldn’t again until the release of Jordan Peele’s film Get Out). As critic J. Hoberman notes, “viewers were more or less compelled to attribute racial paranoia to certain white characters while identifying with a minority point of view.”

“Certain white characters” refers primarily to the film’s real monster, a middle aged father and husband named Harry Cooper. Cooper, we discover, has been hiding in the house’s cellar with his family and another white couple, two local teens named Tom and Judy. When asked by Ben as to why he didn’t come and help when he heard Barbara’s screams (there was a zombie in the house), Cooper indignantly replies “We luck into a safe place and you’re telling us that we have to risk our lives just because somebody might need help!”

“Yeah, something like that,” Ben says. It’s not hard to read this argument as as indicative of a larger question in American race-relations. A debate soon emerges around whether to hide in the cellar (safe because there’s no windows, but a death trap because there’s nowhere to run to), or the house (where windows present a threat of breach, but also a chance to see the threat outside).

The group eventually settles on a different kind of window, a television, which broadcasts news of the government’s efforts to understand and defeat the “ghouls” that are tearing across the nation. The word “zombie” is never actually used in Living Dead, and Romero didn’t consider them as such when filming (“To me, they were dead neighbors) he said. The use of the word “ghoul” alludes in sound to the racist epithet “gooks,” used by U.S. soldiers to describe communist combatants in the Vietnam War. Indeed, the closest visual equivalent to Living Dead’s scarred and mutilated zombies may be the victims of the U.S. napalm bombings in Vietnam.  

Violence on the homefront, particularly that towards African-Americans, is also frequently alluded to. Armed militias, composed of mustached white men and attack dogs, patrol the countryside, hoping to eliminate the zombie threat. With Living Dead released five year after the Birmingham campaign, one couldn’t see attack dogs without recalling the images of non-violent protestors (many of them children) being assaulted by police and their dogs. The film’s ending, one of the most haunting and tragic in cinema history, won’t be spoiled here, but suffice it to say that it offers a portrait and condemnation of casual white violence that resonates to this day.

Equally resonant is the film’s most memorable line, yelled by Barbara as she tries to process her shock. “What’s happening?!” she screams. We find ourselves screaming the same question today, as our politician’s bounce-back, zombie-like, from sexual assault charges and racist rants, as school shootings are met with shrugs and prayers, as black people are slaughtered by those whose job it is to protect them.

No zombie movie can capture the horror of life in America, today or 50 years ago, but Living Dead acknowledges that horror, and probes it more deftly than almost any film I’ve seen. Those looking to be terrified and outraged this Halloween season need look no further.

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