Tuesday night, in the seasonal holiday spirit, I finally saw the original Night of the Living Dead. It really is one of the greatest horror films ever made. This is fear without compromise. The terror and suspense never let up. There’s absolutely no room for a happy ending.
The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (no one ever calls them zombies, that name came later) were shockingly gruesome in 1968. After countless imitations, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear haven’t gone away.
First-time director George Romero shot Night in black and white to save money, and I’m glad he did. As I pointed out in Black and White Films in a Color World, gruesome imagery delivers a greater emotional punch without color. We react to gushers of red blood as gory spectacle. But when the blood is dark gray, the emotions go deeper. Night of the Living Dead has been colorized three times (it’s in the public domain, so anyone can do it), but I see no reason to watch anything except the original version.
It’s also, quite unintentionally, a comment on race relations in America, then and now.
Romero cast an African-American actor, Duane Jones, as the film’s hero. The director insists that it wasn’t intentional; Jones simply gave the best performance at the auditions. That is, of course, the way it should always work, but we all know that it rarely does.
And yet, in scene after scene, things he does and things that are done to him take on an additional, racial significance. When he slaps a hysterical woman to calm her down (maybe I should be addressing gender issues here, too), the act seems especially daring because it crosses so many taboos. When an older, cowardly and selfish white man argues loudly and angrily about strategy, we react to him as a bigot, even though there is nothing in the dialog to suggest that he is. I won’t describe the ending, but it takes on additional, probably unintended racial weight.
The very fact that the star’s skin color makes a difference tells us something about the invisibility of whiteness. We’re conditioned to look at a black man as a black man, and a white man as simply a man.
Racial issues aside, Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on the dangers of government research, a look at American society, or simply as one of the scariest horror films of all time. For more on the subject, see Race and Casting in American Movies.
Bit of trivia: Romero’s first professional filmmaking job involved shooting short movies for a local public television children’s show hosted by Fred Rogers. He went on to create a truly terrifying day in the Neighborhood.