Few films have come to define a genre as vividly as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. This movie remains one of the few examples of low-budget, independent horror to have crossed into the canon of critically revered cinema.
Night of the Living Dead stands as a universally resonant horror film - emotionally, temporally and geographically. Romero’s distinctive approach to his subject matter resulted in a film which comes very close to being all things to all people.
Horror has always had the potential to be a truly transcendent genre. One of the most widespread critical preconceptions about horror—one that it shares with science fiction—is that by introducing elements of fantasy, a work becomes less likely to explore resonant social and emotional issues and instead concerns itself with escapism. Fans will quite rightly call foul at this, but such a prejudice remains common place.
We’d argue that not only is the conservative critical position untrue, the opposite is in fact the case: the inclusion of fantasy elements such as ghosts, aliens and, yes, zombies frees a work from the constraints of narrative probability, opening up a new, free arena in which greater extremes of the human condition can be put under the microscope. Presenting the impossible allows the artist to test humanity to its limits.
In Night of the Living Dead the ‘impossibility’ is a zombie uprising, but Romero is less interested by the dead in narrative terms than he is by the extreme pressure-cooker situation they create for his characters. Plot-wise the zombies are simply enemies, a malignant obstacle that our heroes have to overcome; yet their mere presence serves as a token of the apocalypse, the worst situation that humanity could ever have to face. The end of life itself is a universal fear, one that comes without cultural or historical baggage; by evoking this, Romero allows the film to tap into the most extreme fears of anyone who watches it.
As a concept, the dead returning to destroy the living is worse than Germany invading Poland, worse than Islamic fundamentalists destroying a New York landmark, worse than a tsunami killing tens of thousands of people—so far beyond the realms of likelihood, in fact, that it is impossible for us to emotionally rationalise or even to simply come to terms with the situation. It is a catastrophe beyond that we can even imagine.
This is not to dismiss Romero’s craftsmanship in his artful use of the zombie, elevating them to agents of the apocalypse whilst retaining the established garb of the undead. In doing so he came to define them better than any other artist. From their roots in old travellers’ tales about the voodoo-infused culture of Haiti (where allegedly zombies were slaves trapped in a sort of hypnotic living dead, rather than the actual dead reanimated), they belong to the same rich seam of fear that also yielded vampires and Frankenstein’s monster—the fear of something that takes a human form but lacks humanity. In fact, the zombie is terrifying because it takes this fear even further; there is a good chance that a zombie may take the form of one of our loved ones, an even crueller disparity.
Both Barbra and the Coopers are forced to confront that cruelty, and their ultimate inability to comprehend or adjust to the nature of what they face renders their destruction all but inevitable. For a film that’s largely about people in conflict with other people, Romero’s choice of zombies as the fantasy element for his film is doubly apt; the creatures outside the farmhouse may seem like people, but they are not to be trusted, whilst on the other hand those inside the farmhouse definitely are people but can’t really be trusted either.
The result is not the “them and us” situation that the plot might otherwise necessitate, but instead a sliding scale of humanity, with Ben at the top and the zombies at the bottom. It’s a perfect example of how the fantasy elements in genres works can be simultaneously literal and metaphorical, rather than simply one or the other.
Zombies are an appealingly blank canvas for Romero to work with. Throughout all his Dead films, he studiously avoids giving a reason for why the dead have returned to life, avoiding the soapbox politics of many of his lesser imitators. Instead, the hordes of zombies are a mocking inversion of society itself. In Night of the Living Dead, they are simply the masses, their desire to tear our protagonists apart mirroring the similar situation inside the farmhouse.
In Dawn of the Dead they are mindless shoppers, drawn to a consumer paradise to—well—consume. In Day of the Dead, they are the besieging army, bringing out the worst militaristic excess from the soldiers. In Land of the Dead, they are the poor, clamouring for access to the ivory tower owned by the rich. Romero wittily plays on how ordinary the zombies really are; they’re not exotic sci-fi monsters, they wear nasty cheap suits and rubber washing up gloves.
In Romero’s hands, the most terrifying harbinger of the apocalypse is… mundane, ordinary people. It’s this duality that really raises Romero above his successors - a catastrophic, horrible event of almost inconceivable magnitude, being delivered by ordinary people, acting in the way ordinary people do.
But Night of the Living Dead’s universality extends beyond just the emotional. The Dead films were the first (and arguably only) zombie films to achieve worldwide recognition. Beyond genre devotees, few people will have heard of White Zombie or Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Most people have seen one of the Dead series, which is in large part down to Romero’s themes not being tethered to specific geographical arenas or bound by the constraints of identifiable eras.
That is not to deny the America-centric origin of many of Romero’s themes. The film’s cultural impact and resonance have often been bundled up by critics into a neat little packaged labelled “US disillusionment with the Vietnam War”. This is clearly pertinent given the particular confluence of socio-political developments of the era, and late ‘60s America provides an appropriately chaotic and graphically violent tableau against which critics can assess the film. Upheavals, both domestic and foreign, litter most decades of a country’s national life, and care should be taken before attributing deeper significance to what are often the sovereign state equivalent of indigestion.
No such caution is needed when analysing the USA’s trauma of the ‘60s, which undoubtedly marked the end of the optimism of the post-war boom generation and brought with it the first clear checks on the American ‘can do’ spirit. In the fields of science, the economy, foreign policy and much else, America questioned why its hitherto dazzlingly successful and popular brand capitalist democracy seemed to be shown wanting when faced with the achievements of Soviet and Chinese communism.
Romero’s genius was to move beyond the symptoms of America’s crisis of confidence and diagnose the general worldwide cause. The optimism arising from the end of the Second World War very quickly soured into bitter disappointment as politicians were shown incapable of winning the peace. Staggering economic advances brought with them mass movements of people, the erosion of family life and the steady atomisation of society. These systematic changes were clearly beyond the power of the individual to contain or counter or of their government to address, and that powerlessness readily fed into fear.
We are given only fleeting references any central authority in Night of the Living Dead, with our besieged protagonists being left in no doubt that they are on their own. When “rescue” does arrive, its motley nature does little to reassure the viewer that the ordeal is truly over. Such fears are not unique to the ‘60s or felt exclusively by Americans, and as a result the film will continue to play well in any period or place where people are confronted with the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable or simply the new - witness how Cooper is as reflexively hostile to newcomers Ben and Barbra as he is to the zombies gathering outside.
Thus, the film is as relevant to a British audience as it would be to an American, both historically and contemporaneously. The “Swinging Sixties” was as much an attempt to put a positive face on the often unwelcome changes being wrought in that decade as it was the fanfare of a nation striding confidently into the future. It is interesting to note that only seven months separated Night of the Living Dead’s US premiere and the leading British politician Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, in which he quoted from Virgil in warning, “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.
Fast-forward 40 years and immigration, unease at globalisation and the menace posed by extreme ideologies remain hot-button issues. Britain has recently introduced quotas on immigration, has a Prime Minister who trumpets “British jobs for British workers” and looks likely to impose some of the most stringent anti-terror laws in the Western world.
With a film genre as prone to derivation and imitation as horror, it was inevitable that many Romero’s innovations would be echoed in the work of subsequent writers and directors. In elevating the zombie from a simple monster to a creature of metaphorical and allegorical weight, he ensured that the dead would become a ‘go-to’ genre staple for any artist wishing to add conceptual substance to his or her film.
This could cut both ways; the obviously Romero-inspired Shaun of the Dead played out the zombie apocalypse as part of an amusing look at contemporary London life, whilst the French film Les Revenants (aka They Came Back) explored the emotional dimension of the return of the dead to quite brilliant effect. On the other hand, films like the disastrous Fulci / Mattei collaboration Zombi 3 (aka Zombie Flesheaters 2) and Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City simply offer tired and facile environmental platitudes, where the resurrection of the dead is a trite warning for what might happen if we’re not careful.
Watching these films, it becomes readily apparent that at least part of the impact of the Dead films comes from their lack of a message or moral lesson; in presenting a tableau rather than using plot to drive home a message, Romero chooses to let us draw our own conclusions rather than rely on handouts.
It’s unsurprising that 40 years on we’re still talking about Night of the Living Dead. It continues to dwarf not only zombie movies, but the horror genre as a whole and stands unchallenged as modern cinema’s definitive take on the end of the world. It still feels as fresh as the day it was made, not only because of the universality of its themes but Romero’s forward thinking and insightful treatment of them. In charting the human response to the stuff of nightmares it is assured universal relevance.