I spend a lot of time debating and exploring “Night of the Living Dead” to an almost obscene degree. While today it’s been passed around more than a bong at a Grateful Dead concert, has been included in every horror boxed set imaginable, and has been remade, reworked, and rebooted to a sickening degree, somehow George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” has managed to survive it all. It still stands, feet planted, in the ground and taking whatever the film world throws at it. A lot of horror geeks say Romero gets too much credit for “Night.” I mean, in the end isn’t it just a retread of the novel “I Am Legend” and “The Last Man on Earth”? And surely, it’s not the first genre picture to star an African American man in a dominant role. But still, “Night” is just art in motion. It’s still a rich and deeply effective indictment on humanity, and still possesses themes about the inner monster that ring true even in the digital age.
I’m a big fan of the making of this picture because you often have to wonder if much of the subtext and sociological commentary is accidental or intentional. Romero feigns ignorance, so you’re left thinking that perhaps “Night of the Living Dead” is this happy accident where the stars aligned much like “Dark Side of the Moon” synching with “The Wizard of Oz.” The lack of budget meant there were no big name stars to lead the picture. So we have no Gregory Peck, Dorothy Lamour, or Jimmy Stewart battling the walking dead. Sidney Portier isn’t tackling zombies and waving fire at their faces, and Vivian Leigh and Steve McQueen aren’t burnt alive and consumed by the walkers. The lack of star power works in the film’s favor because we’re able to connect with the characters without the distraction of iconic faces.
There’s no barrier between reality and fantasy, so we’re watching average people fight monsters. Star Duane Jones had a hand in the ultimate conception of hero Ben who repaired his character in the script transforming him in to someone of dignity. Where as Ben was originally an African American thug who spoke mostly incoherent English, Jones insisted on making Ben in to a more educated and dignified every man who knew how to work around the walking dead based on his experiences at the diner (still an expository–and crucial–recollection that haunts my dreams). Originally Ben was supposed to be slapped by Barbara twice and remain battered by her, but upon his insistence, he’s only slapped once and hits Barbara back.
Whether sub-conscious or not, this was a bit of an implication toward the civil rights movement of the sixties where the minority, ruled by the white master, would not only rise up for equality but hit back. And then some. Another key moment that’s almost impossible to notice unless pointed out, is that we only see the induction of female zombies once we’re introduced to the abusive and dysfunctional Harry and Helen Cooper. Though it’s mostly due to the low budget and limited scenery, “Night of the Living Dead” feels like a perpetual nightmare that one simply can not escape. Every bit of land outside the realm of this farm feels void, and the darkness is almost all consuming to where you’re never sure if there’s anything out there but thick blackness peppered with flesh eating zombies.
You not only don’t trust the farm house, but you don’t trust the woods to guide you to safety. What’s worse is you don’t trust the people around you. Because every single person within the farm house are human, capable of error, and are filled with bias and prejudice. The script never comes out and points to the fact that there is a dense barrier of these biases, but you know that Harry doesn’t trust Ben because of the color of his skin, Helen is too frightened by Harry’s violent nature to say Nay, and Tom and Judy are much too passive to claim their land and take control. To add more problems to this extraordinary event, puritanical Barbara is too wrapped up with the sexual violation of the opening attack, that she can’t actually stand up to fight, let alone realize that corpses are getting up, walking, and are focused on eating the flesh from their bones.
That’s almost like being attacked by a werewolf and complaining that you banged your elbow against the door while trying to escape. Though likely due to budget restraints, again, the creatures in this film have human faces. They’re us. They have been us. We can be them. And we can lose our identities and join the mobs while still retaining the facade that made us human. Which is one of the advantages of the walking dead that plague the characters and stand in the way of their annihilation. In “Night” it’s impossible to obliterate the dead because they still look like us, in “Dawn” the living refused to dispose of the dead because deep down they hoped to restore some of their loved ones back, and in “Day” there was still that futile grasping of the concept that we could domesticate the dead and bring them back to some semblance of humanity and docile nature.
By then the world has ended, so the pursuit to tame Bub is not only incredibly pointless, but a demonstration of our hubris to play god and master death. “Night” stands alone among the horde because it’s a testament to the genius low budget filmmaking can conceive, and for the bleak, and utterly defeating surprise ending that left viewers with the notion that though this menace was color blind, we aren’t. George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” still is one of the best, if not the best horror movies ever made. It’s pitch perfect in writing, mood, and scares, and still holds up to scrutiny, no matter how harsh. The final scene leaves us with the feeling that this situation is hopeless, while the much superior “Dawn” confirms to us that, yes, it’s absolutely hopeless.