As Night of the Living Dead ages, we realize how embedded in our collective DNA it has become. To understand this film is to understand the American experience. If it’s “about” anything, it’s about revolution: revolutionary filmmaking, revolutionary cultural politics, and revolutionary social change, American style. Nothing is safe about this seminal film, and since its release in 1968, Night of the Living Dead has matured like a fine wine, remaining the standard par excellence for modern horror.
The year 1968 launched a new epoch in modern horror that, among its accomplishments, forced us to accept this unsettling reality: the most horrific monster of all is the one in the mirror. Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets featured a homicidal killer randomly terrorizing innocent civilians along an American highway, and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby revealed the hideous underbelly lining our most selfish, immoral temptations. Additionally, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey frightened us in its portrayal of space’s daunting vastness, computers’ anthropomorphic circuitry, and alien intelligence’s possible roles in our evolution. Also in the borderlands of sci-fi horror, Franklin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, in its depiction of a nightmarish world turned upside through reverse karma, reminded us of the evil in our collective xenophobia. And of course, there is Romero’s masterpiece, which thrust us into a world of monstrous humans who assumed many personas.
These films are filled with many delights. Writing about them (with the exception of Targets), PopMatters’ Marco Lanzagorta states, “these movies repudiate narrative closure, question rationality, portray authority institutions as inefficient and decadent, and are quite grim and violent. Back in 1968 these characteristics were original, and in a sense, they can be appreciated as a reaction to the political and social turmoil of the era.” Few years have so prolifically and dynamically solidified a genre’s post-modern template as effectively as 1968.
However, when compared with these films, Night of the Living Dead immediately stands out. Although each treats its subjects in exciting ways, Night of the Living Dead is the only film among them that featured an African-American protagonist and launched a diverse franchise of replicas. It’s also the only film shot in black and white; propped by a miniscule budget (less than $100,000); populated with “no-name” actors; produced or distributed by small, independent companies; and the only film that can be called its director’s debut.
Night of the Living Dead’s hauntingly striking mise-en-scene is one example of its groundbreaking qualities. “Mise-en-scene” is a French term that means, “to put on stage/in the scene,” and as John Gibbs writes in Mise-en-scène: Film Style and Interpretation, “a useful definition might be: ‘the contents of the frame and the way that they are organized’”. Gibbs emphasizes those two important elements in addition to a third, the film’s cinematography: the three fundamentally comprise the concept known as mise-en-scene. Once the visual design – the lighting, costumes, set design, actors, makeup, special effects, compositions, etc. – have been determined, how the camera invites us to view those elements is analyzed. Essentially, mise-en-scene encompasses all the visual elements of filmmaking, as opposed to the editorial, literary, and sound elements, although some argue these too may be factored into any discussion of a film’s mise-en-scene if they complement its visual design.
The emphasis on “night” in the title reflects the nightmarish visual atmosphere pervading the film. Rooted in darkness and shot in black-and-white, the night-for-night shooting enhances this bleak atmosphere, but ironically, the film opens in daylight. Barbra accents this irony when she says, “Well, it’s eight o’clock, and it’s still light!” as if yearning for Night herself. Johnny and her banter about changing the day that kicks off summer, and their exchange foreshadows the overall absurdity and irony that stalks the film. If Barbra only knew what Night was bringing with it! Upon her arrival in the farmhouse, a scene that should bring relief, night immediately descends, as if on cue, and engulfs many frames, shots, and angles, erasing any sense of relief the farmhouse might have offered.
The film’s opening scene also tantalizes with its semiotic possibilities. Immediately, we’re faced with symbolic, archetypal objects: the open road, an automobile, a cemetery, and an American flag. We’re quickly aware that this film is different than its predecessors – those creature feature flicks from the 50s and early 60s – and that we’re embarking on a metaphorical journey, a historical snapshot symbolizing more than its content. Pillars of American society – freedom, the home, the nuclear family, race, filmmaking, youth, the space program, etc. – will be under attack or on the attack. Few films in the American canon visually capture their respective zeitgeist more powerfully than Romero’s.
Most notably in this opening are Romero’s attacks on American freedom and the automobile’s symbolic representation of that freedom. The open road, often a reminder of American wealth, power, efficiency, and prosperity, leads rapidly to chaos, and the vehicle used to express that freedom – the automobile – limply smashes into a tree. In Night of the Living Dead, automobiles, and by extension the freedom they symbolize, are liabilities not assets. Later, as a truck explodes after an unimpressive ride, we’re reminded of that freedom’s death. Romero usurps the mythology surrounding automobiles with a message that they offer no escape, or more disturbing, that there’s no escape in the freedom they represent.
Irreverence colors this opening scene, mainly through Johnny’s actions and words, but Romero complements that irreverence with wicked cinematography that shatters our safety. Through a series of establishing and long shots, the camera maintains a safe distance from Barbra and Johnny, pronouncing and expanding the foreground and background and keeping us safely removed from their impending horror. However, suddenly, with the arrival of the first zombie, that cinematic distance is annihilated: close ups of the siblings’ faces appear in succession, providing a swift, deeply personal pace, and they, along with the zombie, are photographed as running into the camera. A few shots capture the actors running downhill, and when the camera is on the ground, we feel as if we’re tumbling downhill or spiraling downwards as the horror’s momentum penetrates our space. Although we weren’t invited, their horror is now, quickly, ours.
Barbra’s desperate escape leads her to a farmhouse; here, Romero’s visual design shines. What role does this desolate farmhouse play in establishing the film’s mise-en-scene? As the film’s predominant set, the farmhouse generates contradictory feelings: inside, we experience pastoral insulation through its large rooms, rustic furniture, and domesticated ornaments. However, immediately outside, we also experience isolation. Even without zombies, the farmhouse’s vast, lonely exterior connotes dread, so the inside should suggest the opposite, amplifying the importance of the interior’s potential as a safe haven. When the inside only compounds the horror, Romero’s farmhouse shatters the illusion of our most trusted institution: the American home is as dangerous as the evil outside its walls.
“Home” itself represents comfort and safety, but fear, violence, and hatred erupt inside the farmhouse. Romero foreshadows this corruption as Barbra enters; she rapidly encounters darkness, oblique lines, and layers of shadow reminiscent of the best film noirs and German expressionist masterpieces. Close-ups of her and other characters in the farmhouse, splashed in key light and propelled by back and fill light, create a sense of cinematic classicism. Film aficionados have visually been here before, but somehow, that visual familiarity doesn’t comfort. Immediately we recognize something isn’t right, especially since her arrival occurs while the sun is present. Disoriented, we wonder, is it day or night? Inside, as claustrophobia rapidly erases comfort, and shadows kidnap safety, we suddenly feel the farmhouse itself is as dangerous as the zombies. As night quickly descends, we know safety and comfort are impossible.
Furthermore, throughout the film, zombies attack the home as often as they attack its inhabitants. In that sense, the film is a visual deconstruction of the American “home” as tables, sofas, doors, and windows are broken or disassembled by the zombies and the farmhouse’s prisoners. When Harry Cooper, the stereotypically selfish, ignorant, cowardly Southern bigot who serves as Ben’s nemesis throughout the evening, tosses Molotov cocktails onto the front yard, we don’t see Cooper from the zombies’ point of view, only the explosions, producing a visual that suggests the home itself is revolting against these evil intruders.
Cooper lurks in the basement, but Ben stands tall on the ground floor: this juxtaposition represents part of the film’s commentary on social and racial class. Both literally and metaphorically, Ben occupies higher ground, while Cooper occupies lower ground. Ben states, “You can be the boss down there (an obvious allusion to the still racially-divided South); I’m the boss up here.” Ben is photographed in low-angle shots to highlight his tallness, especially when compared to Cooper and Tom, who are noticeably shorter. Such angles reveal the physical power, heroic regality, and moral fortitude of Ben’s character.
The farmhouse’s three floors reveal the male characters’ moral status. Ben is the first to venture upstairs, and prior to the zombies’ entrance into the farmhouse, never descends into the basement. Initially, Tom hides in the basement, but overcomes his fear, moves upstairs to help Ben, and remains. Conversely, Cooper repeatedly walks up and down the basement stairs, movements that symbolize his indecision and acceptance of dwelling within the “base” regions of his character. Cooper’s wife rebels against his decision to remain in the basement because she refuses to be locked in a “dungeon,” but because of her husband’s close-mindedness, paranoia, fear, and racist beliefs, and the fact that he “can’t ‘see’ a damned thing,” she succumbs and descends, permanently, with him.
“Home” is Where the Zombies Are
The graphic violence associated with Ben is visually stunning for 1960s cinema. That a black male deconstructs the American home while a paralyzed, fearful white woman watches him is breathtakingly audacious given the turmoil surrounding 1968 civil rights’ events. Ben repeatedly beats and later burns the “white” zombies; slaps Barbra and at one point appears to disrobe her; and brutally beats and eventually kills Cooper. These scenes’ racial implications have been well documented, but what warrants more discussion are the geopolitical implications of setting Night of the Living Dead along the borders of Western Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia.
Notwithstanding the practical realities of shooting a film in a familiar region (Romero attended college and lived in the Pittsburgh area), the film’s geographical setting is equally disturbing given its racial and military history. Nowhere are the South and North more blended than in the state of Maryland (at one point in the film, the city of Hagerstown, located in Western Maryland, is mentioned on television). In fact, in early 1861, Maryland’s state legislature voted to side with the Confederacy, but Lincoln quickly intervened to, among many reasons, assure safe passage for soldiers traveling from Northern states, through Maryland and Baltimore, and into the nation’s capital to report for duty. Subsequently, the first bloodshed of the Civil War was, fittingly, shed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. In essence, depending on your audience, Maryland is a Southern state wrapped in Northern clothing, or vice versa. Furthermore, Lincoln essentially created West Virginia, often known as “a child of the Civil War,” for political purposes, and the Battles of Gettysburg in Central Pennsylvania and Antietam in Western Maryland, two of the bloodiest days in US military history, were the only Civil War battles fought on Northern soil. These are grim reminders that Night of the Living Dead was photographed and set in a US region laced with intense racial tension and horrific military bloodshed.
Multiple battles erupt in Night of the Living Dead, and they’re not only pitting humans vs. zombies: as the film culminates with Ben’s “accidental assassination,” the events leading to his murder visually reflect the racial wars waged on American streets. The vigilante gangs of white rural men hunting zombies with shotguns and lunging, seemingly ravenous Germen shepherds are visually reminiscent of the gangs of Southern men, including Ku Klux Clan members and law enforcement officials, eager to eradicate their black brethren or quell black protests. Ben’s assassination visually reflects other real-life assassinations, most notably Martin Luther King’s, which occurred shortly after the film’s release. Unjustified and barbaric, each eliminated a heroic black male seeking to improve the welfare of his peers, black and white.
As the final credits roll, the stills of a murdered Ben transported with ice picks are chilling because they’re presented as documentary-like footage. These images conjure a journalistic feel that suggests this assassination, too, should be investigated, studied, and preserved. These photos offer a stark contrast to the film’s incessant action and tension: because they’re still shots, we’re invited to “look closely” and examine the consequences of the white men’s actions, and by default, our own, particularly when confronted by unknown Others. Analyzing the film in Bright Lights Film Journal as a “metamorphosis” narrative that “dramatizes the bewildering and uncanny transformation of human beings into non-human forms,” Stephen Harper argues, “the film carries uncomfortable messages about identity — about what it means to be a human being and about the terror of alienation.” Contradicting his heroism, Ben is mindlessly transformed by gangs of white men into an alien-monster-zombie, forcing us to ask, “Who exactly are the monsters here?” Stunned, we’re left contemplating the tragic consequences of this foolish act.
This documentary-like footage also connects the film to America’s own apocalyptic catastrophe: the Vietnam War. The opening scene’s footage of an American flag in a cemetery immediately confronts us with imagery aligned with national trauma. Writing about the film’s uncanny realism and verité, Harper writes, “television news in 1968 appeared in black and white, which would have given Night of the Living Dead a documentary-like feel to the film’s original audiences…This sense of verité is also emphasized in the series of gory still photographs that accompany the film’s closing credits and which recall the photojournalism of the Vietnam War…the film’s gritty, ‘realistic’ mode of address confers upon the film a ‘cultural verisimilitude’: the audience is asked to believe that the horrific events depicted could be happening now.” Romero’s realistic photography transforms the film into another nightmare documented by the media, similar to the race riots on American streets and the war in Southeastern Asia.
The depiction of zombies is equally groundbreaking. Their makeup is unique, and no two zombies look alike: some are caked with makeup or dressed in wounds, others have black patches around their eyes, and others appear relatively normal. The zombies’ faces’ visual impact paradoxically draws us closer: each has an unexpected visual identity, and we grow curious about each zombie’s character. Close-ups of bullet wounds and severed body parts are graphically startling. Wearing white or black clothes to blend with the dark backdrop, the zombies’ clothing helps them merge with the film’s black and white visual style. They are as much a part of the set as the farmhouse and fields.
The panoramic shots of zombies emerging mob-like from the night’s black horizons frighten because their horror is squared: not only is each individual zombie dangerous, but their volume is equally terrifying. Prior to Night of the Living Dead, horror’s monsters, particularly zombies, were mainly individualistic. They worked alone, or when in groups, their numbers could be easily counted (with perhaps the exception of Carnival of Souls, which Romero attributed as an influence). Not so with Night of the Living Dead, and Romero’s reliance on these “mob shots” compounds the terror of their volume: the zombies always outnumber and overwhelm like the gangs of white men turned zombie killers that also emerge from the fields. As the two groups, both serving as Ben’s adversaries, become indistinguishable, we visually recognize that Ben is faced with an impossible task. He may have overcome one monstrous mob, but he cannot escape this volume of opposition, a reality poisoned with racist implications.
Harper equates the mobs with America’s racial tensions, writing, “To many people, it seemed as though there might be a race war in America. Conservative, reactionary discussions of this possibility often focused…on the possibility that ‘we’ might soon be outnumbered by ‘them.’” In 1968 America, the experience of watching a mob of zombies overwhelm a small group of white people was a metaphor for the fear many whites harbored about the growing number of minorities populating American streets.
While these mobs march with robotic determination, their “values” are absurd because they’re not immoral, political, or anti-social, but rather, amoral, apolitical, and asocial. Their ambiguity forces us to invent them; since they represent nothing, the zombies may potentially represent everything, especially our fears. Since the film fails to restore order, we must create our own by reanimating the zombies with our own values, interpretations, and anxieties.
What we see in these zombies is essentially our reflection in the mirror. Marching with measured steps, their progress is marked by determination and persistence, a quality that resonates paradoxically with the American work ethic. Although they have one morbid goal in mind – methodically nourishing themselves on human flesh – they want to nourish and improve themselves; they want to survive, and in a world full of chaos, that is ironically admirable. Their homicidal obsession for consumption and its metaphorical implications regarding capitalism have been well documented. Nevertheless, the graphic depiction of their appetites is visually grotesque: one eats a bug off a tree, and as body parts fly across the field after the truck’s explosion, the zombies eat random body parts, picking at bones and fighting over intestines. Their appetites visually repulse us, yet those appetites remind us of our own consumptive tendencies. The zombies’ appetites are also cleverly foreshadowed by the frequent shots of animal heads displayed as trophies on the farmhouse’s walls: each head symbolizes what one living creature can and will do to another to survive, and in this context, the zombies’ appetites are not that different from ours. Set in the rugged, American wilderness, these primitive value codes seem almost natural. By disgusting and shocking us, the zombies make us feel better, thus serving as a strange type of therapeutic elixir for troubling times.
Naked, the zombies walk without inhibition. Additionally, their cannibalism resonates with incestuous overtones: not only do they devour human flesh, but they eat without inhibition, dining on sisters, as is the case with Johnny, or parents, as is the case with Cooper’s daughter, Karen. In one short, stunning scene, the young girl, while in the basement, without hesitation commits acts of patricide and matricide in a scene that ultimately serves as one of American cinema’s first generational homicides caught on celluloid. We see her eating her father, and the prolonged footage of Karen thrusting a trowel into her mother’s chest, etched in shadow and stark, shrieking music, visually consummates the grandeur of these zombies’ values and the film’s socially and culturally apocalyptic impact. The film’s visual design forces us to toss rationality aside as the revolutions consume us. Throughout, the film’s cinematography pushes us into the zombies’ point of view, and potentially, their value system. During a decade when inhibitions were cast aside with wild abandon, Night of the Living Dead buried the status quo and awakened a new day for one of our most treasured genres.
This essay pales in comparison to the remarkable scholarship already written about this remarkable film. Hopefully, I’ve added a few more insights to the many provocative conversations about it. But writing about such an aesthetically rich and complex film is challenging. In 1967, Roger Ebert wrote not a review but an “audience reaction” to a screening of Night of the Living Dead. He wrote, “I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed…I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.” Like those little kids back in 1967, each time after watching this classic, I’m still trying to figure out what hit me.