As a horror film containing an implied social and fantastic background, the Night of the Living Dead includes the elements of other genres as well. There is relatively little violence in the film, and a lot of time is devoted to the suspense and escalating fear. With the measured pace of narration, events acquire unprecedented emotional importance. The essay aims to review the genre elements of the film and to reveal the techniques that can function as social criticism.
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According to the plot, in Pittsburgh, the dead rise from a cemetery and start to hunt living human beings. It happens supposedly because of radiation caused by NASA’s satellite, which comes back to Earth after a flight to Venus. The story begins on April 30, 1967, in the evening, and ends the next morning (Night of the Living Dead). This important detail is an additional marker of the atmosphere as it contributes to the social and historical dimensions.
For several reasons, the story of the Americans forced to fight off the attacks of zombies is polemic. In this essay, the restless dead will be called zombies. On the other hand, in the dialogues of Romero’s movie, this term is not mentioned (Night of the Living Dead). In the USA, films about zombies have been made before. However, usually, they were stories about New Orleans, Haiti, and Cuba. These were the territories where the voodoo cult was widespread at that time. A syncretic combination of traditional African shamanistic superstitions and beliefs with Catholic Christianity inspired many horror films (Williams 17). The debut work of Romero largely determined the modern image of a zombie.
This director laid the foundation for the popularization and active use of the zombie look in the movies. However, the first acquaintance of the viewer with the living dead occurred in 1932, when the picture White Zombie was released. The zombies were depicted as people who lost their minds and will and acted under the influence of voodoo. The success of the White Zombie contributed to the exploitation of the dead in all film genres: from horror to comedies (Williams 18). Starting with the Night of the Living Dead, the cause for people turning into zombies has been the dangerous consequence of scientific and technological progress, such as radiation or a pandemic. After Romero’s film, zombies became the dead who rise and come for the fresh human flesh.
In addition to being naturalistic, Romero’s film is rationalistic and prosaic. It works with popular stereotypes about popular scenarios of the end of the world. The darkness comes, and literally, it means the night. Nevertheless, the apocalyptic threat is hardly mentioned explicitly. It is not obvious what exactly caused the cataclysm: human scientific research, technological development, or a natural disaster. The director is more interested in the authentic emotions and reactions of common people who unite in a group and face apocalyptic danger. Other genres’ elements enrich the esthetics of Night of the Living Dead: it contains some elements of noir. It is a black and white movie, where the characters throughout most of the plot figure out their relationships in a confined, limited space. One more element of noir is the absence of a happy end. Moreover, none of the protagonists is alive by the end of the film (Williams 26). Romero’s pessimism can function as a social analysis showing that real salvation and mutual help are impossible.
The acting of little-known performers (recruited mainly from the local theaters), portraying those who managed to take refuge in the house, has unexpected psychological depth. Minimalistic simplicity creates an almost documentary effect of authenticity, which contributes to the profound impact the film makes. The film depicts a zombie apocalypse, and perhaps the whole world is infected. Despite this fact, there are not so many zombies on-screen. During the film, only a dozen and a half at a time show up. The appearance of each corpse makes shudder with horror. The suspense in the film resonates with social tension in the USA. It can be traced as far as to the Cold War anxieties (McFarland 22). Thus, the main danger for the characters is not the army of zombies but their incapacity to find a common language and act rationally. The filmmakers believe that the main potential danger for humans comes from other humans.
In the small group, Ben is an informal leader. One can argue if this fact contributes to an anti-racist subtext. It is very symbolic that an African American actor plays the leading role, which can be considered a social statement for that time. As one of the first genre films with an African American starring, the Night of the Living Dead stands out. Ben’s role was not written for a representative of racial minorities, but a modest budget did not offer much choice (Williams 26). Therefore, Duane Jones from the Pittsburgh Theater was the best option. It is possible to read the final scene of the film as a social analysis of racial segregation: an African American is hiding in a house, and the police indifferently shoot him (Williams 27). Perhaps in his debut work, Romero, along with a zombie story, actually attempted to hint at the problems of racial politics.
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On the imagery level, the film also contains visual elements that explore the social dimension. For example, the film begins with a demonstration of an ordinary country highway. However, the road leads straight to a cemetery. There, among the silent graves, one can see a star-striped flag waving proudly in the wind (Night of the Living Dead). The banner of the nation is stereotypically used as the guarantor of the victory over the enemies of America. Paradoxically, in the Night of the Living Dead, it is nothing but a harbinger of an inevitable apocalyptic tragedy. The most powerful country in the world is about to plunge into wild chaos. The citizens will turn into dead bodies, tearing the flesh of those who retain their human appearance.
To sum up, it is possible to define the film genre as a mixture of horror, psychological thriller, and even social drama. The social drama dimension is not only in the subtleties of the characters’ interactions. It is also possible that the director wanted to show the inability of people to think sensibly in critical situations. Perhaps Romero just made a film about zombies, with no social implication in it. Still, the dilemmas of the time reveal themselves in the movie even if she had no conscious intention to explore them.
Night of the Living Dead. Directed by George A. Romero, performance by Judith O’Dea, Duane Jones, and Marilyn Eastman, Continental Distributing, 1968.
McFarland, James. “Philosophy of the Living Dead: At the Origin of the Zombie-image.” Cultural Critique, vol. 90, 2015, pp. 22-63.
Williams, Tony. The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, Second Edition. Columbia University Press. 2015.