In 1968, Hollywood changed forever. The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night and Bonnie and Clyde ducked it out for Best Picture honors at the Academy Awards. But while these movies vied for the Oscar, an independently financed black and white film about flesh eating monsters, Night of the Living Dead, went on to influence filmmakers and to become a truly legendary film. Night of the Living Dead gave us the first rules of the modern zombie, a creature not animated and steered by another as in earlier films like the Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, but utterly out of control, ruled and propelled only by the urge to kill and consume. It singlehandedly created a genre that 40 years later is in the midst of a renaissance.
But more than the monsters it created, more than the legions of sequels and rip-offs it spawned, Night of the Living Dead gave a new face to one of our most ancient fears. Because even with legions of flesh eating monsters beating down the doors, the most dangerous and often most frightening things in Night of the Living Dead are the humans in the house.
From the very first scenes of Night of the Living Dead, our fellow humans are the most frightening things in it. Even before the reanimated corpses have made their first appearance, Johnny’s mocking, cruel and haunting “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” rings out, a line that never fails to lose it’s chill even after umpteen screenings. Later, when Ben, the closest thing that Night of the Living Dead has to a heroic figure makes his first appearance, the audience initially thinks that he is another zombie.
Certainly, the fact that zombies are simply reanimated humans serves to underscore the danger that humans pose to one another in the film. The zombies look like us, they mimic us, at times they even reflect us, but ultimately they are not us. Romero realized that we don’t need monsters to make us afraid or make us turn on one another. All we need is something bad to happen and be left to our own devices. And though the film shows us gruesome monsters, they’re never really the villains of the piece, any more than a flood or a plague could be considered a monster. The zombies serve only as a prop, a device used to trap the cast inside and see what happens to them. And what happens is not pretty.
The true danger of the film erupts once, rather than from outside, Mr. Cooper and Tom burst in from the basement in the most sudden and jarring invasion of the film. The battle of wills between Cooper and Ben begins almost immediately, and pulls everyone else in the house into the conflict. Lines are drawn in the sand, and within moments, both characters are demanding that the calm and accommodating Tom choose sides, cordoning the house off into zones. “You go be boss down there,” sneers Ben, his confidence in his plan bolstered by the rifle he’s holding. “I’m boss up here.” It’s an ultimatum issued as a challenge, and it sets the stage for an inevitable confrontation between the two men, one that threatens to bring the fragile safe house crashing down around the heads of everyone inside it.
Things come to a head once the rifts have been seemingly healed, following the survivors disastrous attempt to gas up the remaining truck and flee the farmhouse. But when the plan goes south, Cooper bars the door in a failed attempt to keep Ben out of the house. It’s the closest Ben has come to death, and comes on the heels of the fiery deaths of Tom and Judy, killed not by the reanimated dead, but by a simple accident brought about by haste and carelessness. While the dead feast on the charred remains outside, Ben strikes down Cooper, the last straw that seals the fate of all those inside the house.
As the dead beat down the barricaded windows, Cooper makes a desperate grab for the rifle, ending up dead for his trouble, shot by Ben. But more importantly, the struggle distracts fully half of the remaining survivors, leaving too few reinforcements to keep the undead at bay until rescuers can arrive in just a few short hours. Barbra is carried off into the moaning horde, and the Coopers fall prey to their own infected daughter, sequestered in the dank cellar where Ben spend his final moments, surrounded by the bodies of his former allies.
Ultimately, it’s not the dead who compromise the farmhouse fortress, but the senseless bickering and battling of the living. Ben, the last survivor of the bloody night, is finally killed not by flesh hungry zombies, but by the carelessness of a bloodthirsty posse that shoots first and never thinks to ask questions. This theme is carried through each of Romero’s sequels, with humanity’s worst traits dooming the last survivors. Recklessness kills in Night of the Living Dead, while in Dawn of the Dead, the mall stronghold is brought down by a roaming pack of looters, representing the greed and out of control consumerism satirized throughout the film. Day of the Dead, meanwhile, sees spite and mania compromise the relative safety of the bunker letting the dead flow in like a tide.
Admittedly, Night of the Living Dead is not the first film to save on special effects by casting human beings as the antagonists. The cold war classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers had played upon the fear of our neighbors and loved ones a full fifteen years prior. But even here, the fear is ultimately of the other, an alien force (whether it’s the threat of saucer based pod people or the more terrestrial red menace) corrupting, subverting and controlling those around us.
Only with Night of the Living Dead did our fellow survivors, independent of outside influence, acting only on the advice of their basest whims, take action to harm us. And by penning his cast into a cloying shack, Romero ratcheted up the tension and terror of the situation to previously unseen heights and set an example for generations of horror movies to follow. In so many of the finest efforts of the genre in the years that followed, the “good guys” swiftly become their own worst enemies.
Think of John Carpenter’s The Thing, whose gruesome special effects take a back seat to the unwavering paranoia of the arctic bunker. While the films famous exploding dog is a great shock sequence, the real tension of the film stems from the constant wonder at whether or not Wilford Brimley is going to suddenly burst open and strangle you with a tentacle, and from knowing that there’s nowhere to run. Who can forget the claustrophobic closeness of Ridley Scott’s Alien, or the trapped animal intensity of Kubrick classic The Shining. But the most direct descendents of Night of the Living Dead have only begun making their way through theaters in the last decade or so.
In films like The Descent by Neil Marshall or the gruesome thriller The Ruins, the basic formula established in Night remains almost unchanged: a small band of survivors find themselves trapped, battling against an unrelenting Other. But unlike the more insidious creatures of the first generation of Night descendants, the unwholesome beasties in these films are more straightforward in their approach to mayhem. They don’t intend to replace us, or control us. They never want or attempt to possess or become us. More often than not, these creatures borrow even their motive from the Romero playbook; they mostly just want to eat us.
But the characters in these films, tired and scared, sensing the end closing in on them, use every weapon at their disposal to survive. They swing wildly, with knives and axes, with cruel words and charges that have long gone unspoken. And while terrible creatures attack from all sides in The Descent, the most jarring moment is the look of horror in the eyes adrenaline amped spelunker realizing she’s just killed one of her compatriots. But it pales in comparison to the cold stare of the last survivor, who strikes down her best friend without mercy and leaves her to be devoured.
The tables here have turned completely, and instead of monsters becoming us, we have become the monsters. The most recent of the films in this vein is Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter, in which our lust for oil and the coin it represents releases an ancient race of murderous specters. Trapped on the tundra, isolation and claustrophobia begin to creep in around the edges of the psyche. When this instability is prodded by human demons like infidelity, pride and greed, the once tightly knit crew turns upon itself, oblivious to the outside threat until it’s too late, and dooming the entire world through their folly.
The real monsters in the films that Night of the Living Dead influenced, the ones that pose the most danger, are the hobgoblins we face every day. Jealousy. Selfishness. Anger. Lies, rage and simple misunderstandings are responsible for a body count that neither CHUD nor plant nor glowing wendigo thing could ever hope to match. In these films, even with diabolical and subhuman monstrosities to contend with, the most troubling casualties are born from our most basic imperfections.
If you can judge a culture by what it’s afraid of, what does it say that the ugly stepchildren of Night of the Living Dead are only now truly coming into their own. After a decade of suffering through splatterfests like Saw and Hostel that dwell on torture in place of real fear, it seems that viewers have finally moved on to the truly scary premise of these films. It’s not that people are being hurt – it’s that other people are doing it, indiscriminately and without consequence. This is the heart of the matter that more and more of today’s films come to, that the cruelty and pain humans are capable of inflicting on one another, intentional or not, is scarier than any rubber masked baddie that Hollywood can churn out.