The year 1968 was filled with tumultuous change. Political and social unrest divided the country, and the violent change brought about by assassinations, riots, and a war that provided no avenue for victory would alter American culture and thinking in ways both better and worse in the years to come.
In 1968, horror movies at the box office included The Conqueror Worm with Vincent Price, Rosemary's Baby with Mia Farrow, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave with Christopher Lee, and Night of the Living Dead with zombies; lots of them.
In 1968 I was twelve years old. At the time, I didn't realize how important that film was and still is, or how it would change forever the pantheon of fictional monsters, and create a sub-genre that would provide the fodder for legions of undead, flesh-eating ghouls to roam across the landscape in countless films. Zombies have been parodied, satirized, gory-ized, psychoanalyzed, sexed up, sexed down, and alternately made mindless and mindful ever since, but it all came to a rotting head in 1968.
At the time, I was not prepared for the sudden shift in cinematic horror from "rubber monsters, cardboard gravestones or hands groping in the shadows" as Alan Jones concisely describes it in his book, The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. Up until then, I had watched in cozy comfort as man-made monsters, vampires, and various aquatic wild-life tried to wreak havoc in an ordered universe; only to be stopped in the end by the triumph of scientific reason, religious belief, and when all else failed, a pointy piece of wood or the trusty military might of the army, navy or air force.
But director George Romero changed all that. No longer could the monster be contained, controlled, or avoided by day. The ordered universe was no longer neat and tidy, and it was not subject to man's laws or scientific codexes or heroic deeds. And the monsters were us! We were mindlessly devouring each other and infecting each other in gruesome, bloody ways in a suddenly nihilistic universe governed by godless quantum change.
Did I mention I was only twelve when I first watched Night of the Living Dead? It was at the evening showing at the Benson Theatre in Brooklyn. Afterwards, the long walk home was fraught with shadows of zombies lurching from every doorway and side street. For the next two weeks I couldn't take a bath at night with the door unlocked. I had become one of those kids that Roger Ebert wrote about when he watched the film for the first time.
I don't think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they'd seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed… I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.
Real terror? Yes; I was terrified. Frankenstein was one of the undead, but at least he didn't go around eating people. Dracula just sucked the life blood out of you, but never ripped off and chewed on a body part while doing it. These next-door-neighbor ghouls were monsters beyond all reason or hope of redemption. These were creatures from some undreamt hell that would not be stopped as they mindlessly devoured everything still alive in their path. And religious icons, voodoo rituals, wolfbane, military might and scientific knowledge were powerless against them. You bet I was terrified.
Numerous scholarly tomes and papers have been written examining the racial and cultural overtones prevalent in the film, even though Romero may not have been fully cognizant of them at the time. In Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, Annalee Newitz builds a solid case for drawing parallels between Night of the Living Dead and DW Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation.
Night is in many ways an updated version of Birth, except this time around the upwardly mobile black man is the film's hero, rather than its locus of evil and terror… Ben is a black man with power in a white-dominated society; he is also, like Silas, ultimately destroyed for it.
Take away the racial overtones and capitalistic corporate undertones that permeate the film (how many cubical zombies do you work with?) and what you are left with is that terror I mentioned earlier. Terror of the unknown suddenly reaching out for you and surrounding you. Unreasoning terror that knows no surcease from sorrow, no pitying the fool, and no god to blaspheme against. Terror that takes your daily routine and utterly destroys it without remorse, leaving you with little hope, and no sun-will-come-out-tomorrow to look forward to; just more unrelenting terror.
The film starts off in typical horror movie fashion, as Johnny and Barbra, brother and sister, drive to a bleak and deserted cemetery to lay a wreath on their father's grave. The eerie, cobbled together music — bits and pieces of existing music were used — warns you immediately that this is not a typical horror movie. When Johnny's "there coming to get you Barbra" joke backfires, the film quickly moves from the cemetery to the isolated house in the woods.
The house becomes the focal point of the battle to stay alive, but it also represents more than a temporary refuge. It is the pinnacle of the American dream of security and happiness, along with that two car garage and a chicken stewing in every pot. Romero films the house in a noir style, with ominous shadows lurking in every corner, and stark contrasts that accentuate the bleak and dire situation our would-be survivors are facing. This house is not a safe haven. It is a death trap, soon to be surrounded by lumbering undead looking for a late-night meal. Unlike vampires that need to be invited in, zombies have no such code of conduct.
Barbra meets Ben at the house. Ben is the only African American in the film, and he has to contend with an all-white zombie jamboree outside, and more distraught white people hiding out in the basement of the house. He happens to be the only rational, cool under fire individual in the group, too. He forages around to find whatever he can to board up the place, all the while dealing with an increasingly catatonic Barbra, and a really annoying white guy named Harry, whose wife and daughter are holed up in the basement, along with a young couple. Harry's daughter was bitten by one of the undead, so you know where that is going to lead; but back in 1968, we didn't know.
It is when Barbra climbs the stairs and discovers the home-owner, or what's left of her, that I and every other kid realized this was not going to be a fun ride. There would be no safe thrills and chills here. No Ed Wood undead Tor Johnson's or Vampiras' shambling about. The situation grew more and more grim by the minute and there was no Van Helsing in site.
Harry's one great idea is to stay locked in the basement. Ben wants to fortify the house, and have avenues of escape if necessary. Outside, the zombies gather in greater numbers, waiting, while the two men bicker and fight for control of an uncontrollable situation. Throughout this ordeal, key icons of control and salvation come into play: the radio, the television, and the gun. More than once "we'll be alright until someone comes to rescue us," is spoken. In today's post-Katrina world, we know differently; but back in 1968 we didn't know.
Romero closes in on the Zenith radio as the news describes the growing civil disaster as a mass murder spree by persons unknown, and the bodies of victims are found to have been partially eaten. I really wanted to go for popcorn then, but I was too afraid to leave my seat. A television set is soon discovered, and everyone eagerly gathers round to listen and watch as newscasters discuss what the hell is happening with concerned scientists, the puzzled military, and local good-old boy militias. A humorous, and still timely scene has a news reporter hounding a scientist and military commander leaving a high-level Washington meeting, only to have the scientist warn about the seriousness of the situation, while the military person downplays it with a "we don't really know yet" attitude. The television provides an anchor of normalcy in a world gone mad, and they cling to it for succor; as the mother observes, as long as there's "some kind of communication, authorities will send help."
Pretty soon the situation escalates to the point where the newscaster reverses his first recommendation to stay put, and tells listeners to head to a safe location near them as soon as possible. The National Guard protected locations are flashed at the bottom of the television screen as Ben devises a plan to take the truck and gas up from a pump just a few feet away. There's just the problem with those two dozen or so zombies standing in the way to be taken care of. Tom and Judy, the young couple, argue over why Tom has to be the one to help Ben. Tom puts it rather well when he says "it's not like a wind passing through. We've got to do something and fast." He hops in the truck to drive it to the gas pump, while Ben wards off the undead with a flaming table leg used as a torch. Judy decides at the last minute to join them, but things go from bad to worse when the truck catches fire. Tom and Judy wind up barbecued in the ensuing fireball, as Ben hustles back to the house, only to be locked out by Harry. He breaks the door down to get back inside, and shoots Harry for almost getting him killed.
Now comes the Tom and Judy a la carte scene, and it is here that horror films were forever changed. In a graphically gory scene by 1968 standards, the zombies reach into the truck and grab a hand-full of roasted human remains, then chow down in stark, nauseating close-ups. I was glad I didn't go for that popcorn now.
With the taste of human flesh in their mouths, the zombies head for the house and start breaking in. Mom retreats to the cellar, where she is promptly killed by her daughter with a trowel, in a brutal scene that was quite shocking for me and the other kids to witness. The fact that she was snacking on her dead dad before she kills her mom was also another taboo broken. Barbra, in yet another taboo-breaking scene, is pulled through the door to her doom by her now undead brother. The one person she apparently relied on for her protection and security.
And Ben, who did not want to retreat to the basement, now has no other option. He locks himself in, and has to shoot mom and dad as they become hungry undead themselves. Society and it's precepts fall apart as the zombies fill the house, looking for their next living victim.
When morning comes, Ben is still alive, but in an ironic twist of faith, his rescuers, the all-white militia patrolling the woods to kill zombies, kills him with a bullet to the head in the mistaken belief that he is a zombie. So no one survives; not even the upwardly mobile and educated Ben. That was a real downer.
I left the theatre that evening shaken, and no longer secure in the commonplace. George Romero had brought ghastly horror home, both figuratively and literally, and the course of future horror films would follow the same path, to the dismay of parents and censors in the decades since then, and probably for the decades to come.
Night of the Living Dead stands as a classic horror film because it deals with social and cultural themes as they existed in 1968, and more importantly, as they still exist today.
Quick, pretend we're undead. Perhaps the zombies and would-be rescuers will not notice us and go bother somebody else. One can only hope.Powered by Sidelines