Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dir. George A. Romero
31 for 31 is a curated film program for the month of October. Conceived of as a compilation mixtape, the program explores the historical and cultural legacy of Horror cinema. Consider this my billet-doux to the genre.
Personally, I am experiencing a pang of zombie fatigue at the moment. You can’t seem to escape their lumbering masses no matter where you look. Whether it's the neverending wave of films, multiple television shows, or just the braindead horde lining up for Trump this November—zombies are everywhere. Nevertheless, they remain a beloved movie monster, and the Patient Zero in this enduring epidemic is George A. Romero and his 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead.
Without warning, the dead have risen from their graves and they are famished. Within hours a rural town in Pennsylvania is overrun, forcing a small group of scattered survivors to take refuge in a nearby farmhouse. As the living dead encroach on their sanctuary, tensions amongst the group continue to escalate. The monsters outside are closing in, but its the monsters inside they need to worry about.
Romero’s zombies have always acted as a medium to express himself. In the turbulent ’60s with the Vietnam War raging and the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, the violent imagery of Night is not that far off from the mood of the nation at the time. Furthermore, casting Duane Jones to play the film’s bonafide hero, Ben, gives the film added resonance. In 1968, it was almost unheard of for a Black man to have a leading role in a film dominated by white actors. This was only one year removed from Sydney Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night after all.
As Ben, Jones is the most capable character in the story and assumes command of the fledgling survivors. While those around him panic, Ben keeps his cool. He’s the first one to recognize the zombies' weakness to fire and spends most of the movie kicking undead ass. While Romero would claim he cast Jones as Ben simply because he “gave the best audition,” his inclusion aligns with the subversive nature of the film. When considering the bitter resolution of Ben’s character arc, his race grants the film’s climax an extra layer of poignancy. In a bit of historical symmetry, Tony Todd would take on the Ben role in the 1990 remake, just a few years shy of his own landmark turn as Candyman.
Night of the Living Dead was an immediate success upon its release and it ushered in a brand new genre of horror. Although no characters actually refer to them as “zombies” in Night — preferring to use the term “ghoul” instead — it standardized the modern perception of them. Their most recognizable traits: a slow-moving gait, a craving for human flesh, and a contagious bite were all first introduced in this film. Every subsequent zombie to crawl out of the ground since owes its reanimation to Romero in some way. In short, with release of Night, the zombie movie was alive (and dead).