As Night of the Living Dead ages, we realize how embedded in our collective DNA it has become. To understand this film is to understand the American experience. If it’s “about” anything, it’s about revolution: revolutionary filmmaking, revolutionary cultural politics, and revolutionary social change, American style. Nothing is safe about this seminal film, and since its release in 1968, Night of the Living Dead has matured like a fine wine, remaining the standard par excellence for modern horror.
The year 1968 launched a new epoch in modern horror that, among its accomplishments, forced us to accept this unsettling reality: the most horrific monster of all is the one in the mirror. Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets featured a homicidal killer randomly terrorizing innocent civilians along an American highway, and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby revealed the hideous underbelly lining our most selfish, immoral temptations. Additionally, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey frightened us in its portrayal of space’s daunting vastness, computers’ anthropomorphic circuitry, and alien intelligence’s possible roles in our evolution. Also in the borderlands of sci-fi horror, Franklin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, in its depiction of a nightmarish world turned upside through reverse karma, reminded us of the evil in our collective xenophobia. And of course, there is Romero’s masterpiece, which thrust us into a world of monstrous humans who assumed many personas.
These films are filled with many delights. Writing about them (with the exception of Targets), PopMatters’ Marco Lanzagorta states, “these movies repudiate narrative closure, question rationality, portray authority institutions as inefficient and decadent, and are quite grim and violent. Back in 1968 these characteristics were original, and in a sense, they can be appreciated as a reaction to the political and social turmoil of the era.” Few years have so prolifically and dynamically solidified a genre’s post-modern template as effectively as 1968.
However, when compared with these films, Night of the Living Dead immediately stands out. Although each treats its subjects in exciting ways, Night of the Living Dead is the only film among them that featured an African-American protagonist and launched a diverse franchise of replicas. It’s also the only film shot in black and white; propped by a miniscule budget (less than $100,000); populated with “no-name” actors; produced or distributed by small, independent companies; and the only film that can be called its director’s debut.
Night of the Living Dead’s hauntingly striking mise-en-scene is one example of its groundbreaking qualities. “Mise-en-scene” is a French term that means, “to put on stage/in the scene,” and as John Gibbs writes in Mise-en-scène: Film Style and Interpretation, “a useful definition might be: ‘the contents of the frame and the way that they are organized’”. Gibbs emphasizes those two important elements in addition to a third, the film’s cinematography: the three fundamentally comprise the concept known as mise-en-scene. Once the visual design – the lighting, costumes, set design, actors, makeup, special effects, compositions, etc. – have been determined, how the camera invites us to view those elements is analyzed. Essentially, mise-en-scene encompasses all the visual elements of filmmaking, as opposed to the editorial, literary, and sound elements, although some argue these too may be factored into any discussion of a film’s mise-en-scene if they complement its visual design.
The emphasis on “night” in the title reflects the nightmarish visual atmosphere pervading the film. Rooted in darkness and shot in black-and-white, the night-for-night shooting enhances this bleak atmosphere, but ironically, the film opens in daylight. Barbra accents this irony when she says, “Well, it’s eight o’clock, and it’s still light!” as if yearning for Night herself. Johnny and her banter about changing the day that kicks off summer, and their exchange foreshadows the overall absurdity and irony that stalks the film. If Barbra only knew what Night was bringing with it! Upon her arrival in the farmhouse, a scene that should bring relief, night immediately descends, as if on cue, and engulfs many frames, shots, and angles, erasing any sense of relief the farmhouse might have offered.
The film’s opening scene also tantalizes with its semiotic possibilities. Immediately, we’re faced with symbolic, archetypal objects: the open road, an automobile, a cemetery, and an American flag. We’re quickly aware that this film is different than its predecessors – those creature feature flicks from the 50s and early 60s – and that we’re embarking on a metaphorical journey, a historical snapshot symbolizing more than its content. Pillars of American society – freedom, the home, the nuclear family, race, filmmaking, youth, the space program, etc. – will be under attack or on the attack. Few films in the American canon visually capture their respective zeitgeist more powerfully than Romero’s.
Most notably in this opening are Romero’s attacks on American freedom and the automobile’s symbolic representation of that freedom. The open road, often a reminder of American wealth, power, efficiency, and prosperity, leads rapidly to chaos, and the vehicle used to express that freedom – the automobile – limply smashes into a tree. In Night of the Living Dead, automobiles, and by extension the freedom they symbolize, are liabilities not assets. Later, as a truck explodes after an unimpressive ride, we’re reminded of that freedom’s death. Romero usurps the mythology surrounding automobiles with a message that they offer no escape, or more disturbing, that there’s no escape in the freedom they represent.
Irreverence colors this opening scene, mainly through Johnny’s actions and words, but Romero complements that irreverence with wicked cinematography that shatters our safety. Through a series of establishing and long shots, the camera maintains a safe distance from Barbra and Johnny, pronouncing and expanding the foreground and background and keeping us safely removed from their impending horror. However, suddenly, with the arrival of the first zombie, that cinematic distance is annihilated: close ups of the siblings’ faces appear in succession, providing a swift, deeply personal pace, and they, along with the zombie, are photographed as running into the camera. A few shots capture the actors running downhill, and when the camera is on the ground, we feel as if we’re tumbling downhill or spiraling downwards as the horror’s momentum penetrates our space. Although we weren’t invited, their horror is now, quickly, ours.
Barbra’s desperate escape leads her to a farmhouse; here, Romero’s visual design shines. What role does this desolate farmhouse play in establishing the film’s mise-en-scene? As the film’s predominant set, the farmhouse generates contradictory feelings: inside, we experience pastoral insulation through its large rooms, rustic furniture, and domesticated ornaments. However, immediately outside, we also experience isolation. Even without zombies, the farmhouse’s vast, lonely exterior connotes dread, so the inside should suggest the opposite, amplifying the importance of the interior’s potential as a safe haven. When the inside only compounds the horror, Romero’s farmhouse shatters the illusion of our most trusted institution: the American home is as dangerous as the evil outside its walls.
“Home” itself represents comfort and safety, but fear, violence, and hatred erupt inside the farmhouse. Romero foreshadows this corruption as Barbra enters; she rapidly encounters darkness, oblique lines, and layers of shadow reminiscent of the best film noirs and German expressionist masterpieces. Close-ups of her and other characters in the farmhouse, splashed in key light and propelled by back and fill light, create a sense of cinematic classicism. Film aficionados have visually been here before, but somehow, that visual familiarity doesn’t comfort. Immediately we recognize something isn’t right, especially since her arrival occurs while the sun is present. Disoriented, we wonder, is it day or night? Inside, as claustrophobia rapidly erases comfort, and shadows kidnap safety, we suddenly feel the farmhouse itself is as dangerous as the zombies. As night quickly descends, we know safety and comfort are impossible.
Furthermore, throughout the film, zombies attack the home as often as they attack its inhabitants. In that sense, the film is a visual deconstruction of the American “home” as tables, sofas, doors, and windows are broken or disassembled by the zombies and the farmhouse’s prisoners. When Harry Cooper, the stereotypically selfish, ignorant, cowardly Southern bigot who serves as Ben’s nemesis throughout the evening, tosses Molotov cocktails onto the front yard, we don’t see Cooper from the zombies’ point of view, only the explosions, producing a visual that suggests the home itself is revolting against these evil intruders.
Cooper lurks in the basement, but Ben stands tall on the ground floor: this juxtaposition represents part of the film’s commentary on social and racial class. Both literally and metaphorically, Ben occupies higher ground, while Cooper occupies lower ground. Ben states, “You can be the boss down there (an obvious allusion to the still racially-divided South); I’m the boss up here.” Ben is photographed in low-angle shots to highlight his tallness, especially when compared to Cooper and Tom, who are noticeably shorter. Such angles reveal the physical power, heroic regality, and moral fortitude of Ben’s character.
The farmhouse’s three floors reveal the male characters’ moral status. Ben is the first to venture upstairs, and prior to the zombies’ entrance into the farmhouse, never descends into the basement. Initially, Tom hides in the basement, but overcomes his fear, moves upstairs to help Ben, and remains. Conversely, Cooper repeatedly walks up and down the basement stairs, movements that symbolize his indecision and acceptance of dwelling within the “base” regions of his character. Cooper’s wife rebels against his decision to remain in the basement because she refuses to be locked in a “dungeon,” but because of her husband’s close-mindedness, paranoia, fear, and racist beliefs, and the fact that he “can’t ‘see’ a damned thing,” she succumbs and descends, permanently, with him.