The cultural context into which Night of the Living Dead was released was a remarkably turbulent one. The decade had, of course, seen the election and assassination of John F Kennedy, and his brother Bobby, escalating US involvement in Vietnam, the rise both of Civil Rights and Black Power movements and the assassination of their two leading spokesmen Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It had seen waves of anti-war protest sweeping college campuses and the explosion of race riots in cities from New York to LA. And it had culminated, in the year of the film’s release, in the election of Richard Nixon on a ‘law and order’ ticket. It was against such a seismic political background that first time film maker George A Romero, on an astonishingly low budget and with only two professional actors in his cast, laid down the foundations of a forty year film making career that would consistently call into question some of the nation’s most ideologically expedient beliefs whilst bringing about a significant shift in the politics of American horror cinema.
In his graphic preoccupation with death and (not) dying, horrific physical violence and deep psychological horror, Romero has undertaken a forty year exploration of the complex relationship between national mythology and the actualities of history. For if Night of the Living Dead undertook a powerful exploration of the ’60s implosion of American society, its key institutions such as the family and its ideologically dominant formulations of ethnic and gendered identity (what black people and women were ‘like’), then Diary of the Dead (Romero’s most recent release) continues in much the same vein as the now veteran film maker continues to ask whether Americans do indeed inhabit a democratic state, whether that state operates in the interests of the majority of its citizens and whether (in the face of the PATRIOT Act, ‘extraordinary rendition’ and Guantanamo Bay) Americans retain the self-declared right to espouse the cause of freedom to the world.
Unsurprisingly, Night of the Living Dead inaugurates many of the stylistic and thematic preoccupations that would come to dominate Romero’s later work. From its unabashed deployment of gothic standbys such as the lightning storm and the distracted diaphanous heroine to its canted chiaroscuro evocation of both RKO horrors of the ’40s and their German Expressionist precursors, Night of the Living Dead is a film in love with the history of horror.
Various takes on this theme abound across the Romero canon – from the 1976 film Martin’s interpolation of black and white pastiches of early vampire movies to Diary of the Dead’s core plot device – whereby student film makers have their shooting of a mummy movie interrupted by the coming of the zombie apocalypse. But this is no mere celebration of gore for gore’s sake. However lovingly Romero may shoot his disembowelments and dismemberments, the fragmentation of his protagonists’ bodies and the dissolution of their minds, there is a highly serious political purpose at work here – an enquiry into ideologically saturated nature of American media culture and American social life.
Night of the Living Dead’s grainy montage of stills depicting the African American protagonist Ben’s body being dragged away with hooks and burned unceremoniously by the all-white militia that has mistakenly shot him, is Romero’s first explicit take on the subject. It is, of course, strikingly redolent of those chilling ‘strange fruit’ photographs of lynchings in the American South that, in their unflinching celebration of racially motivated murder reveal an otherwise concealed, and truly horrific, ‘truth’ of American history. Romero, of course, has repeatedly challenged the implicit racism of US society in a range of African-American hero protagonists whose qualities and deeds deny the ethnic stereotypes of the mainstream media.
In much the same way, we have watched his female protagonists evolve from a state of helpless passivity in Night of the Living Dead to an authoritative mastery of both their own selves and the ways in which they are represented by others. For as Diary of the Dead unequivocally asserts, the first responsibility of the film maker is to tell the truth about the world that he or she inhabits. The problem in America, as Romero sees it, is that the mainstream media seems determined to bend that truth to fit the political agenda of the nation’s social and economic elites. So, from the Cold War era broadcasts Night of the Living Dead that attempt to reassure the already doomed populace to the news media’s flagrant re-editing of news footage in Diary of the Dead, America is shown to be a nation betrayed – a nation that is either soothed into inaction or inured to the consequences of its acts, however suicidal they may be.
In the temporal and conceptual trajectory of Night of the Living Dead (and indeed several other of Romero’s zombie classics) we might then glimpse an appropriate response to such a state of affairs – the film(s) moving from evening into darkness and then to the dawn, just as the protagonists move from the outside world, to the sanctuary of indoors and thence to an introspective examination of themselves. Such an enquiry is essential if they are to discover who, or what, they are. Such self knowledge, Romero seems to argue, is essential if our humanity is to survive.
Tragically, though, Romero himself seems unconvinced as to whether the species is, in fact, worth saving – for between the ’60s and the present day, there seems to have been little meaningful social progress. For if Night of the Living Dead took place in a world of trigger happy patriarchs, race hatred and overseas war, where curtailments of civil liberties were justified by a conservative administration only too happy to evoke ‘national security’ as catch all justification for their policies, then so too is Diary of the Dead. For whilst the present film might deploy digital film technology, the internet and mobile phone networks in the telling of its tale, the tale it tells differs very little from that of the 1968 original.
Forty years on and Romero’s America is still a divided nation. On the one side are the rich white kids possessed of the hundred thousand dollar education that is their birthright (but unable to find their way out of a darkened warehouse). On the other are the smart, resourceful and essentially cooperative members of a black urban underclass who choose to stay in the zombie infested city because ‘for the first time in our lives we got the power.’ Forty years on and the nation is still under attack, beset both by the zombie hoard who, in their very ordinariness, are allegories of our sad, deluded, greedy selves and by those still-living monsters who carry out atrocious acts of misogynistic barbarity with their twelve bore shot guns but in so doing lose what it is to be human. Little has changed, Romero seems to say as he asks once more a question he inferred in Night of the Living Dead and posed explicitly in its sequel Dawn of the Dead 14 years later: whether humanity is worth saving at all.