The year is 1968. Urban crime, which led to a so-called “white flight” from many cities, is now intruding into the suburbs. Segregationists are attempting to link the perceived increase in crime to the emerging civil rights movement and argue that maintaining the walls of segregation is necessary to defend “white society” from the diluting effects of growing numbers of minorities.
Although the majority of whites are sympathetic to the cause of civil rights, many feel threatened and disengaged from what they see in the news coverage of violent protests in New York and other large cities, so they become silent observers of extremists on both sides of the issue. Tensions are particularly high in Pennsylvania, which saw one of the earliest race riots in Philadelphia in 1964 and later one of the most violent and deadly in the rural town of York in 1969.
The opening sequence of Night of the Living Dead seems to parallel this social context as a young white woman, Barbra, flees to the safe confines of a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse after her brother is killed at the hands of someone whose demeanor and violent actions are completely incomprehensible to her. There she finds the corpse of the owner and realizes that the house is not as secure as she might have hoped. Despite this fact, she is able to lock herself inside, seemingly protected from the shuffling pursuers outside.
Barbra’s limited sense of security is shaken when a stranger, Ben, suddenly breaks in. He takes control of the situation and tries to assure her that things are going to be okay, but she remains too frightened to speak. In an attempt to gain her confidence, Ben gives a detailed account of how he has been victimized and is fortunate to have survived. Barbra is clearly sympathetic as she begins to describe her own similar experience, but Ben is not interested in listening to her story.
When a group of other people (all white) later emerges from the cellar, Ben chastises them for waiting so long to make contact. The most vocal member of the group, Harry Cooper, defends their reluctance as being reasonable in light of the approaching threat. Harry goes on to suggest that everyone should return to the cellar because it can be barricaded and completely sealed off. Ben is adamantly opposed to the idea and demands that the group remain upstairs where they can maintain a visual link to what is happening outside. Harry argues that to do so only leaves everyone vulnerable and that anything short of complete isolation will eventually lead to their being overwhelmed and destroyed by the outside threat.
At this point the central conflict of the film is established: Harry advocates complete isolation (segregation) while Ben supports a more moderate course of action. Harry’s arguments for barricading themselves in the cellar until help arrives are clearly stronger than any opposing ones, but the film portrays his admonitions in a Cassandra light as the rest of the group (including Harry’s own wife) aligns with Ben.
This leads to events which correspond metaphorically to the stereotypical fears of racist groups of the time. These range from the general fear of racial dilution, which is expressed as Harry watches zombies consume the flesh of two members of the group, to more personal fears such as when Harry learns that his wife wants to follow Ben instead of him. In the end, Harry’s predictions are exactly realized when the house is swarmed and everyone but Ben is killed. As if to emphasize that Harry was right all along, the film has Ben surviving the onslaught by barricading himself in the cellar until help arrives.
Given the intensity of racial tensions in Pennsylvania during the time the film was produced, it is not surprising that an African American might seem to be the best choice for the role of Ben even though the script was written with a Caucasian actor in mind. More specifically, this seemingly progressive casting decision superficially masks the clear parallels between the message of the film and those of racist groups of the time.
It can be argued, however, that the casting actually reinforces the parallels in that it places a well-spoken African American, Ben, as the voice of moderation that ultimately leads to the deaths of all of the white characters. In fact, a linkage between Ben and the zombies is unambiguously established at the end of the film when a rag-tag band of locals – with no small resemblance to the white lynch mobs of the time – mistakes Ben for a zombie and kills him.
Nobody would argue that any of the principals involved in the making of the film were trying to further a racist agenda – and Romero himself has denied any conscious attempts at social commentary in the film – but it is often argued that literature and films tend to unconsciously reflect the social contexts in which they are created. Night of the Living Dead seems to do just that. This may go some way toward explaining the highly inflammatory reception the film received from critics at the time of its release.
In terms of grisly horror and gore, Night of the Living Dead hardly goes beyond the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, or even of Alfred Hitchcock (especially The Birds), that were released earlier in the decade. The fact that Night of the Living Dead was viewed so differently in 1968 is likely the result of its striking a raw nerve that fortunately isn’t so raw today.