The zombie is a staple of horror cinema. It is a reanimated, unthinking corpse, whose unrelenting purpose and drive is to consume the flesh of the living. In contrast to an understanding of the zombie as a shallow figure with little symbolism or deeper meaning, I suggest that the zombie is a blank slate onto which we can write society’s anxieties, fissures, and insecurities.
As Kim Paffenroth highlights in Gospel of the Living Dead, the zombie is a figure that is especially appropriate for exploring the failings of human nature because its very fact of existence unsettles deeply held beliefs regarding cannibalism, religion, and the finality of death. These factors encourage filmmakers to use the zombie film genre as a critical lens through which to view humanity’s shortcomings. In total, this flexibility makes the zombie film genre an ideal site for incisive critiques of class inequality, racism, and white supremacy.
As a canonical film, Night of the Living Dead is dense with socio-political themes and critiques. For example, how do human beings behave when they are placed into anarchy? Are humans good and kind by their very nature? Or alternatively, when the zombie plague has stripped away all artifices of social control and authority, does humanity in fact lose its empathy, decency, and compassion? The social relevance of Night of the Living Dead is further encouraged by the film’s revolutionary casting of an African American lead, as well as its release during the social tumult of the ‘60s.
As a foundational zombie film, Night of the Living Dead’s influence is widely felt within the broader genre it helped to create. At present, because of how deftly Night of the Living Dead presented socially relevant themes, there is a significant pressure for zombie films to foreground social and political meaning in their narratives. Simply stated, instead of being “mere” entertainment, the zombie film “has to be about something.”
Over the past four decades, race has played a dominant role in the scholastic analysis and appreciation of Night of the Living Dead. But then again, perhaps all this extensive academic literature that discusses how race is used as a thematic or symbolic device precludes us from better understanding other facets of Romero’s film. Thus, we should ask ourselves, how does a pressure to read race into Night of the Living Dead mask other ways of constructing meaning around the story? How does our understanding of Night of the Living Dead, and our interpretation of its narrative change (or not) if race as a critical lens is removed from how we view the film? Must the zombie film have social significance? And what is lost by insisting that it does?
To answer these questions, it is important to realize that even though it is a smart and foundational film, Night of the Living Dead has had mixed consequences for Romero’s body of work, and for the broader zombie film genre. More specifically, Night of the Living Dead’s influence is so great, that it has made social and political commentary a basic rule for the genre. This necessity threatens to make pleasure, as a valued and acceptable goal and purpose of zombie film, illegitimate.
On the surface, Night of the Living Dead is a simple film. In minimalist style, Night of the Living Dead depicts the efforts of one group of people to survive in a one story home against an unrelenting tide of the undead. Romero’s aesthetic sensibilities masterfully support his storytelling goals: the film is shot in black and white in order to give the movie a documentary feel. In addition, the film moves forward in real time.
As a complement to its documentary feel, Night of the Living Dead does not feature either spectacular violence or editing choices that would break a suspension of disbelief. The sum result of these choices is a claustrophobic atmosphere that is grounded in the “real” rather than the fantastic. The ways in which Night of the Living Dead is grounded by reality encourages critical interpretation of the film.
The period specific events of the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War and youth countercultures, and the Cold War are at the forefront of how Night of the Living Dead conveys meaning. While Night of the Living Dead also offers critiques of the media (the omnipresence of the television and the pleadings of officials to maintain order and to remain calm in the face of disaster), of an ineffectual State which fails its citizens (the United States government is unable to contain the zombie outbreak), of mob rule (the lynching party inspired violence of the “posse” which “rescues” the protagonists and kills the heroic African American figure, Ben) and irresponsible science (it is rumored the zombie outbreak was caused by a space probe that recently returned to Earth), Night of the Living Dead’s critique of racism and racial injustice is among its most compelling themes.
In reading race into the Night of the Living Dead, I focus first on the principal characters. The characters in Night of the Living Dead are, with the exception of the protagonist, uniformly flawed. Barbra, the sister of Ben, the first “victim” shown in the film, is passive, shell-shocked, and in denial of the dire threat posed by the zombie apocalypse. Harry Cooper, husband of Helen Cooper, is a coward. Despite the best advice of Ben, he chooses to hide in the basement—a nod to the Cold War—and wait out the zombie attack. Harry is also in denial of the fact that his daughter, having sustained a fatal bite from a zombie, will inevitably turn on the party. The remaining characters, Helen (wife of Harry), Judy, and Tom are supporting characters who act in response to the power struggle between Ben and Harry.
Ben is the hero of the film. As the only African-American character, Ben’s actions exist in contrast to the other characters in Night of the Living Dead both symbolically (as a person of color in contrast to the “white” characters he is isolated with; to the whiteness of death embodied by the zombies; and the white lynching/rescue party) and practically. In terms of the latter, Ben is a character of action as opposed to reaction. This is an important distinction.
Ben first appears in the film using a truck to escape the zombie horde. His other heroic acts include gathering supplies, finding the television in order to gather news about the zombie apocalypse, lighting the house so that it will be easier to defend, boarding closed the windows to provide safety, and formulating a plan for escape. While Harry is content to hide in the basement, a choice which will lead to inevitable death, Ben is forward thinking and innovative. He is not crippled by fear and indecision.
The tensions between Ben and Harry are pregnant with racial overtones. Harry resents Ben’s authority and actively tries to subvert it. Harry also attempts to murder Ben by locking him out of the house and abandoning him to the zombies. Symbolically, Harry as the white male authority figure resents Harry’s assertions of leadership. If one understands the Civil Right movement(s) and the broader Black Freedom Struggle to be resistance movements against white male authority and their exclusive claims to citizenship and power, Ben’s assertion of his “manhood” against Harry’s illegitimate authority is a mirror of the challenges made by people of color against the white racial order.
In the language of the moment, Harry saw Ben as being “uppity” and not content to follow the “natural order of things.” Because the zombie outbreak is a shattering of the conceivable and the normal, Ben is forced to kill Harry both as a practical act of survival, and as a symbolic act that vanquishes the established order—a series of events brought into motion by the rising of the undead.