If you drive through the lonely countryside between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, historical markers tell of the hostile invasion of 1863, when Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania. Border towns went up in flames, yet that was only a prelude to the epic slaughter that followed at Gettysburg. The past lingers in certain places, and as you watch the stark beginning of Night of the Living Dead—where from out of darkness the undead move through the trees toward a barricaded Pennsylvania farmhouse—one can almost see those gaunt southern boys in tattered gray, some barefoot and starving, marching through those same trees 100 years before.
In the spring of 1863, the border towns of Pennsylvania were in near panic. It was the noontide of the Confederacy, buoyed by rebel victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The Confederate Army was camped near Hagerstown, Maryland—just south of the Pennsylvania line and poised for an offensive strike against the ‘northern aggressor’. The Union command had already decided to concede the Cumberland Valley, retreating north to protect the bridges of Susquehanna. As Lee’s army crossed the undefended border, Pennsylvania towns were ransacked for food and water. The town of Chambersburg was burned to the ground.
Hostile invasion, racial conflict, and familial betrayal—the Civil War is reenacted on a micro level in Night of the Living Dead. Almost all of the action in the film takes place inside a barricaded farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania—the film was shot in Evans City, a small hamlet just east of Pittsburgh. The claustrophobic dread that permeates the film is the result of an unfathomable enemy, one that is ruthless and voracious.
Night of the Living Dead begins with Ben and Barbra taking refuge inside a farmhouse from an invading horde of ghouls. Barbra is nearly frozen with terror after witnessing her brother’s murder by a ghoul. Isolated and surrounded by the undead, they turn on the radio and an emergency broadcast warns citizens to stay in their homes. The newsman can give no explanation for what’s happened, nor provide any hope as far as rescue measures taken by authorities. There’s a sense of abandonment by an ineffective government.
Ben and Barbra soon discover that there are five other survivors hiding in the cellar. Cooper, a middle-aged businessman in white shirt and tie, represents white authority. He wants everyone to go to the cellar. Ben, who is black, thinks that the cellar is a death trap. Ben defies Cooper, and this conflict underlines a deeper racial suspicion between the two men. As a representative of the white overclass, Cooper thinks Ben should defer to his authority; he constantly refers to Ben as a ‘madman’, unworthy of being a leader. There’s another racial subtext here—the white fear of miscegenation; Ben thinks of himself as Barbra’s protector, now that her brother is dead. The fact that the blonde, white Barbra has attached herself to a black man seems to feed Cooper’s hatred.
Cooper: You’re crazy…those things are going to be at every door and window in this place—we’ve got to go down to the cellar.
Ben: Go down to your damn cellar and get the hell out of here.
Cooper: (turning towards Barbra) I’m taking the girl with me.
Ben: You leave her here, keep your hands off her.
Tom, who was hiding in the basement with Cooper, is the voice of compromise within the group. He suggests (quite reasonably) that they join forces to defend the ground floor of the house and use the cellar as a fallback position. Yet the hatred between Cooper and Ben poisons the debate and the distrust between the two men now threatens the survival of the group.
The film offers a remarkably specific case of what Lincoln referred to in his ‘House Divided’ speech. After Lee’s army overran southern Pennsylvania, Confederate officers ordered white citizens to assist in capturing their black neighbors. Gettysburg, a major station on the Underground Railroad, fell under the control of the slave masters. Free blacks were captured and taken south to the auction block. A contemporary account describes the bleak reality:
“One of the exciting features of the day was the scouring of the fields about town and searching of houses for Negroes. These poor creatures, those of them who had not fled upon the approach of the foe, concealed in wheat fields around the town. Cavalrymen rode in search of them and many of them were caught after a desperate chase and being fired at.”
The racial betrayal is echoed in the film. After a botched escape attempt in which Tom and Judy are killed, Ben runs back to the farmhouse for refuge and Cooper locks him out. As the ghouls close in, Ben breaks down the door and thrashes Cooper. Later on, Cooper tries in enlist his wife to steal Ben’s rifle.
Cooper: Helen, I have to get that gun.
Helen: Haven’t you had enough?
Cooper: Two people are dead because of that guy.
Near the end of the film, the survivors make a last stand to defend the farmhouse against an overwhelming army of ghouls. Cooper steals Ben’s rifle. The two men fight over the weapon, and Ben shoots Cooper. The divided house cannot stand, the ghouls break in. Mortally wounded, Cooper staggers down to the cellar, where his injured daughter, Karen, has died and turned into a ghoul. She feeds on her father. Barbra is carried away by her undead brother. Helen tries to escape to the cellar, where Karen is waiting.
In the horrific ending there’s a telling coda. Ben locks himself in the cellar and survives the night, and it becomes clear that Cooper was right—the cellar was the safest place. Racial pride and suspicion leads Ben into tactical error. In the DVD interview, director George Romero addresses Ben’s decision-making: “He’s wrong, that character makes mistakes…and it’s out of anger. Sometimes a person in that minority position sees certain things very clearly, but then they’re blinded to other things…because of anger and rage.”
The local militia arrives at the farmhouse the next morning and destroys the ghouls. When Ben emerges from the cellar, a militia gunman kills him. No one survives, and the die was cast at the beginning—the existence of racism within the house destroys trust and corrupts human relationships. Here’s how Romero describes the end of the film: “When daylight comes, here’s the posse, the rednecks with guns, and you’re like…oh crap, here they come.”
Describing himself and others who made the film back in 1968, Romero says: “We were ‘60s guys, we thought we had an honest chance to change the world, but then you turn around and not only has it not changed for the better, but it was starting to get worse”. In the documentary One for the Fire, Romero expands on this point: “We finished the movie…threw the print in the trunk of the car, and as we’re driving to New York we hear over the radio that Martin Luther King had been shot.”
In an audio interview included on the DVD, Duane Jones (the actor who plays Ben) recalls an incident on the set: “While George and the crew were planning a shot, a magnificent butterfly wandered into the house, and I remember clearly—it landed on a far wall. And to a person, every single one of us stopped what we were doing…and were just standing around admiring this beautiful, beautiful creature that had just come in among us like a spirit. When it was time to get started, someone on the crew thought it would be a joke…and smashed the butterfly against the wall. And I remember the stunned silence of the group…no one could believe that he had done that, and no one could convince him that this was a horrible thing to do.”
Jones describes something that’s almost too fragile for words—a ‘butterfly effect’ defining violence as a progressive sickness. Night of the Living Dead reveals the racial distrust within a group (society) that should be working together to survive. Fear of the ‘Other’ locks the participants in a fateful trajectory of violence. As Romero states in the interview found in the Special Edition DVD of his sequel film, Dawn of the Dead, “The most frightening thing is your own neighbors, they’re the real monsters”.