As we take a closer look at horror this October, some popular genres are apt to be dismissed as mere blood and guts. The zombie genre is one of them. But one of the genre’s original films reveals many more layers.
Warning: This is a spoiler-filled article.
George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead arguably spawned an entire subgenre of horror. While not the first zombie film (White Zombie, released in 1932, is frequently called the first), it was extremely popular, and was largely responsible for the current popularity of the monsters. The film’s, shot on a meager $114,000 budget, is grounded and localized, mostly taking place in a local farmhouse. Barbra is there with her brother Johnny to decorate their father’s grave when the undead attack, killing Johnny and chasing after her. She flees to the house, where she meets Ben, and eventually two couples hiding out in the basement. Throughout the course of the film, everyone is eaten by the zombies, except for Ben, who manages to survive the night. The next morning, however, he is mistaken for a zombie and shot in the head.
The impact of the film within the horror genre can hardly be overstated. The film made $30 million off of its $114,000 budget, earning more than 250 times it’s investment. It spawned five subsequent films and two remakes. Fifty years later, it continues to be a consistent part of the conversation. This despite the controversy it faced upon release – its use of explicit gore was criticized, and the film does have some shots that would not be out of place on The Walking Dead.
The film is also noteworthy for its approach to race relations. Ben was portrayed by Duane Jones, a black actor, and is undoubtedly the hero of the story. The other characters, all white, die before him. In the year 1968, this was ripe for analysis from a race relations perspective, although it is dubious whether that was Romero’s original intention. According to him, Jones simply gave the best audition for the role. But it’s hard to separate the facts of the cast’s race from the film’s ending, one that emphasizes the danger not just of the external, but the internal. Ben has just as much to fear from the humans as he does the zombies.
And that in particular may be the greatest contribution that this film gives. While zombies came to be linked with consumerism (thanks to this film’s sequel, which takes place in a shopping mall), this film can be viewed more as an examination of humankind’s depravity. The monsters – who look quite similar to their living counterparts – eat humans by instinct. In the house, tensions rise and the survivors nearly devour each other metaphorically, as the zombies do so literally. This gets to a core truth that is a centerpiece of the Christian worldview: humans are broken and evil. Clay Jones once said that human depravity may be the only part of theology that is empirically provable.
Of course, one could argue that this results in a strict fatalism. After all, Ben is the strongest, most intelligent, and most resourceful of the bunch, and even he bites the dust. But it’s important to remember that the genre of horror is more interested in threats than solutions. That fatalism is a key theme in Romero’s work (and that’s an easy claim to support) does not mean the source of it is invalid. One of the most helpful places for the horror genre to explore is the existence of absolute evil, which 21st century religious sensibilities have sometimes shied away from.
There’s much more than can be said about the film, but the biggest takeaway for me is that there’s so much to say about it to begin with. More than just a shallow scare-fest, Night of the Living Dead contains social commentary on race, power relations, and the depravity of humankind, with great use of a limited budget to boot. It’s a key piece in analyzing the genre, and shows that there are ideas worth mining from it.