The race and patriarchal subtexts of Night of the Living Dead deeply resonated with the torrid social and cultural landscape of that bleak period in American history. As such, no discussion of Night of the Living Dead can be complete without considering these important issues. On our third day celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, PopMatters offers six articles that discuss issues related to race conflict and phallic control.
Night of the Living Dead was released the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Thus, the images of Ben destroying furniture to barricade the house and putting fire to a sofa to keep the zombies away bring to mind images of urban violence and rioting. The race issue is further complicated in those scenes where Ben tends to the nearly catatonic Barbara, as these suggest what was then still a forbidden interracial relationship. This reading is reinforced when one takes into account that the attacking zombies -- not to mention the cops who come to murder Ben in the end -- are all white, resembling lynch mobs.
These race anxieties are redoubled in the other survivors who have been hiding in the farmhouse basement. These include the dysfunctional Cooper family, Harry, his frustrated wife Helen, and bitten daughter Karen, as well as the young couple, Tom and Judy. According to Harry, the basement is the best place to hide, while Ben believes they should stay upstairs, as the closed underground appears a deadly trap. Their conflict comes to a head over their only gun. At this point, the fight for survival turns into a battle for phallic control between two alpha males.
As such, the race and patriarchal subtexts of Night of the Living Dead deeply resonated with the torrid social and cultural landscape of that bleak period in American history. Therefore no discussion of Night of the Living Dead can be complete without considering these important issues. On our third day celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, PopMatters offers six articles that discuss issues related to race conflict and phallic control.
In “The Trouble with Harry”, Prof. Peter Hutchings attempts to vindicate Harry. Indeed, while most readings of the film consider Ben and Harry as the nominal hero and villain respectively, Hutchings argues that Harry was not such a bad guy. It's a real irony that Harry is without a question the most unpleasant character in Night of the Living Dead, but he just happens to be the most insightful.
In a similar vein, Jeffrey Uhlmann's “Subverting the Subversion” observes that, if we ignore characterization nuisances, Ben is simply a well-spoken African-American who ultimately leads to the deaths of all the white characters. Furthermore, Harry is a voice that promotes isolation and segregation by urging everybody to hide in the basement. As such, the seemingly progressive casting decision of Duane Jones as Ben actually reinforces the intolerant ideologies of racist groups of the time.
Several race subtexts found in Night of the Living Dead are discussed in detail by John Grassi in “The Unhappy Undead”. Romero’s film simply reenacts the American Civil War at the micro level, Grassi states. Then, for instance, the seemingly unavoidable conflict between Ben and Harry is reminiscent of Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech.
In “Why Can’t We Just Eat Brains and Be Happy?”, Chris Deis discusses the ways in which race is operative in Romero’s film as a thematic and a symbolic device. And perhaps more important, Deis explores how the interpretation and appreciation of Night of the Living Dead would change, or remain the same, if race as a critical lens is removed from the way we view the film.
As previously stated, because of its subtextual representation of race conflict, Night of the Living Dead perfectly reflected the torrid cultural and political landscape of American during the late '60s. While this observation explains the popularity of Romero’s film in the USA, it makes us ponder why Night of the Living Dead is an equally esteemed and respected film in other countries.
In this regard, Andrew Smith's “Zombies in Wardour Street” provides a detailed exploration of Night of the Living Dead within the context of the British horror film. Even though British audiences were becoming familiar with the evolution of the horror film, Romero’s film still presented a startling leap into the unknown.
Finally, Matt Nida and Carl Swift also consider the success of Night of the Living Dead from a British perspective in their essay, "Zombie Nation". The power of Night of the Living Dead resides on the way Romero presents a terrifying apocalypse brought by monsters not that different from the ordinary people that we meet every day. In that light, the authors conclude that Night of the Living Dead is as relevant to a British audience as it would be to an American, both historically and contemporaneously.