The visual design of Night of the Living Dead 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.
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.
Chris resides in Owings Mills, Maryland and is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore. He is a freelance writer and editor and previously taught at The Community College of Baltimore County as an Assistant Professor of English and Mass Communication. He holds a master’s degree in Modern Studies from Loyola College and a bachelor’s in English from Rutgers University. He earned teacher certification in secondary English education at the University of New Mexico and is currently finishing a Certificate in Online Journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Once a staff writer for Greater Media Newspapers in New Jersey, his words have appeared in The Baltimore Sun, Senses of Cinema, Classic-Horror, Bay Weekly, Ground Report, and Blue Ridge Country.