Night of the Living Dead: cult horror classic is a character study and commentary on American society

George A Romero, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Made on a minuscule budget, George A Romero’s famous horror film is proof that a large pot of money isn’t necessary to create a great film that still resonates with new generations of viewers nearly 50 years (as of this time of writing) later. “Night …” is essentially a character study whose plot is driven by the behaviours and motivations of the various people thrown together in a farmhouse due to an unusual emergency. A brother-sister pair visit their deceased father in a rural cemetery and are later set upon by a mysterious ghoul. The brother is killed and the sister, Barbara (Judith O’Dea), flees for her life and makes her way to the farmhouse. Ben (Duane Jones) takes her in and from this moment on, Barbara spends the rest of the film suffering from post-traumatic shock. Ben barricades the farmhouse from attacks by ghouls, at least until he discovers that a family has been sheltering in the building’s cellar. Much of the rest of the film revolves around the conflict between Ben and the family patriarch Harry Cooper (Ken Hardman) which explodes into a fight for the one rifle the besieged humans have among them when the ghouls launch a mass attack on the farmhouse.

While the plot writes itself – there is not much a group of humans in a farmhouse under attack from flesh-eating monsters can do apart from trying to prevent ingress and arguing about the best way to do this – the interest in the film stems from Romero’s casting choices and the many ways in which the film up-ends conventional Hollywood stereotypes about plot and character. Hiring a black actor to play the more sane and compassionate Ben endows the film with a social justice theme: in emergency situations, people must rely on one another for help and safety regardless of their social and economic backgrounds. The humans in the farmhouse become a metaphor for Western rationality and enlightenment surrounded and threatened by ignorance, bigotry and hatreds from white America’s dark past of its relations with black and native Americans. Harry Cooper, a white man, behaves selfishly and indirectly causes his own death. The radio that the humans depend on gives them information about how the ghouls came to be: news that the ghouls are dead people reanimated by radioactive fall-out from a fallen satellite rams home a warning about how nuclear warfare and related technologies can have dire consequences for the survival of humankind.

Ben and Harry’s argument is significant in defying audience expectations about aspects of the plot: Ben argues for safety on the building’s top level and Harry wants everyone down in the basement cellar; as it turns out, when the zombies invade the farmhouse, Ben takes refuge in the cellar! Another way in which the film defies conventional story-telling is that when US authorities finally arrive at the farmhouse to rescue any survivors, they end up killing the sole survivor of the mass zombie attack as well as the zombies themselves. This downbeat ending underlines the film’s message that in the end, death overtakes us all and what matters is how we have lived our lives before then.

The film’s minimal style and the cast’s naturalistic acting – and Barbara’s trauma – ensure that it remains fresh even after half a century since it was made. The many innovations and breaks with conventional story-telling introduced by “Night …”, along with its raw natural style and underlying message about humans, endowed with intelligence and reason but unable to work together to solve common problems because of social and cultural barriers, not only spawned an entire new genre of zombie movies but cements its statusĀ as a classic American film.