Films that cause outrage frequently become the focus of cults and of spirited defences exactly because their capacity to outrage is seen as a challenge to mainstream tastes and sensibilities.
Night of the Living Dead is often seen as a break within the history of the horror movie. Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies (Bloomsbury, 1988), for example, not only starts its account of the modern horror film in 1968, when the film was first released, but devotes its opening chapter to a discussion of this movie. Like others he claims that this film broke with many of the narrative and ideological conventions of the classical horror film and that it therefore not only transformed but implicitly criticised these conventions.
In the film, radiation from outer space reanimates the dead, who roam the earth as flesh eating zombies. The narrative focuses on a small group of humans who are thrown together by these circumstance and try to survive the night in a house besieged by zombies. However, rather than successfully pulling together to overcome the threat, the human inhabitants eventually fail to survive and the film features a remorselessly “unhappy” ending.
It is therefore argued that the film breaks with the classical conventions of the horror film because it rejects all the American ideals on which previous narratives are supposed to have relied. The two lovers in the narrative are burned alive and eaten because they love one another too much to be separated. The forces of law and order are presented as a mindless and reactionary lynch-mob who accidentally shoot the one remaining survivor at the end of the film. The people in the house do not even form themselves into a tight-knit community, but are largely destroyed by internal tensions and conflicts.
Central to these conflicts is the figure of Harry Cooper, a racially bigoted middle class family man, and Robin Wood in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia University Press, 1986) has made particular reference to the handling of the family within the film. Not only is Harry’s patriarchal authority shown as brutal, bullying and illegitimate, it has made his wife into a passive aggressive nag. Furthermore, the one thing that keeps them together is their daughter, a child that eventually becomes a zombie; murders her mother with a trowel; and eats her parents’ flesh. In this film, Wood claims that the family does not represent a positive bulwark against the threat from without but is depicted as a repressive institution that breeds monsters.
Harry’s bigotry is also associated with other elements within the film. His main adversary is the heroic figure of Ben, a black man who tries to organise the group. Not only is Harry’s refusal to accept Ben’s leadership clearly, if never explicitly, associated with racism, but Ben’s handling by the forces of law and order is supposed to virtually evoke the persecution of civil rights activists during the period. Furthermore, aerial shots of these forces are also supposed to visually allude to news footage of American troops in Vietnam.
Finally, the film is seen as an attack on capitalism, and particularly consumer capitalism, through its depiction of both the zombies and the humans. On the one hand, Wood has claimed that the zombies represent the logical conclusion of capitalist exploitation through which people literally live off one another and, on the other, it is claimed that there is little difference between the mindless, compulsive cannibalism of the zombies and the mindless, passive, conformity of the humans who unquestioningly accept the authority of the television and are destroyed as a consequence.
However, we need to be careful with films that are claimed to represent breaks within the history of a genre. Although Psycho (1960) is often read in this way, I previously argued in Rational Fears (Manchester University Press, 1996) that the film can also been seen as the culmination of a whole series of tendencies within the genre that had been developing for over a decade and a half. Similarly, although Scream (1996) is often read as a self-conscious reflection upon the slasher film, my general introduction to Horror, the Film Reader (Routledge, 2002) argues that this position neglects the fact that these films were also highly self-conscious and self-reflexive.
Halloween (1978), for example, was praised on its original release for its witty references to earlier horror films, and while Sydney Prescott’s boyfriend in Scream is called Billy Loomis after the Donald Pleasance’s psychologist in Halloween, Donald Pleasance’s character itself is named after Sam Loomis, John Gavin’s character in Psycho. Indeed, not only is Halloween textured out of references to earlier movies, as was argued in my volume Horror (Batsford, 1992), the genre has always been highly self-reflexive, even as early as the Gothic novel of the late 18th Century.
The claims for Night of the Living Dead therefore need to be understood within another context, and it is one that alerts us to the processes through which reputations are established and maintained, processes previously discussed by Robert E. Kapsis, Barbara Klinger and Charles J. Maland. Like the reputations of many horror films before and since, Night of the Living Dead became a celebrated object on the basis of the controversy that surrounded its release, a controversy that is discussed in some detail by Hoberman and Rosenbaum in Midnight Movies (Harpers and Row, 1983). Films that cause outrage frequently become the focus of cults and of spirited defences exactly because, as I argue in my work on cult movies, their capacity to outrage is seen as a challenge to mainstream tastes and sensibilities.
However, as Kevin Heffernan has shown, this controversy needs to be understood not as a result of Night of the Living Dead’s distinction from earlier horror films, but rather the ways in which it represented the culmination of a series of production and distribution strategies from the late '50s onwards. As Heffernan points out, the film picks up on a long series of films featuring black leads and dealing with racial tensions, and also a long series of films dealing with a small group of characters attempts to survival in a post-apocalyptic world that was often inhabited by cannibalistic monsters. Nor was it even the first to link these two developments, as can be seen in the case The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), which featured Harry Belafonte as one of the last men on earth.
However, this is not to deny the significance of Night of the Living Dead but rather to re-explain that significance. Night of the Living Dead not only established the career of George Romero, who has gone on to become one of the most respected and influential directors in contemporary horror, but it also established the figure of the zombie as one of the most important monsters within contemporary horror. Narratively, stylistically and thematically its influences can be detected throughout the following period, and it has not only spawn four highly influential and successful sequels, Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), and Diary of the Dead (2007), but was even loosely remade in 1990.
Mark Jancovich is the series editor (with Eric Schaefer) of the Manchester University Press book series Inside Popular Film. He has published widely on film, media and cultural theory; genre (particularly horror, pornography and the historical epic); audience and reception studies; and contemporary popular television. He is currently working on a history of American horror in the 1940s.