The Social History of ‘Night of the Living Dead’

26 Feb

So, in Ireland part of the Leaving Cert exam for History is a special essay topic. I decided to go against the usual subjects, as I tend to do, and chose Night of the Living Dead! My teacher took some convincing (from another teacher) but it eventually came into being. It’s about two years old and my writing’s developed since then, but anyhow, I thought I’d post it here.. seems like a fitting host for it. Spoilers are abound if you haven’t seen it. (You may have to click to read the rest at the end of the post)

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”The politics of it were striking at the time, they have a black lead…the clear anti-Communist hysteria that’s running through that film…And there was so much going on in the movie that it wasn’t your typical horror film”.  – John Landis, director of ‘An American Werewolf In London’

The 1920s saw the age of horror triumph in Hollywood with simple monster movies, like ‘The Bat’ and ‘The Monster’. During that period people enjoyed the short escape from the anxiety of World War I. Soon Hollywood took the horror further with the aim being to truly scare the audiences. It was in 1931 that the now classics ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ were released. Following on from their success, boundaries were pushed again. Bela Lugosi’s ‘White Zombie’ would set things in motion for a string of zombie movies to follow. It used the voodoo sorcery myth to explain the walking dead. This mythology was soon to change with the introduction of George A. Romero to the genre.

Horror movies had always been something abstract, something that didn’t occur in everyday life. The last thing Cold War America wanted was for the horror to be introduced into the mundane. People were terrified of the threat of a Communist take over and the “zombie was the perfect monster to encapsulate such anxieties”. Films at the time reflected these fears, like ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’. Hitchcock‘s ‘Psycho’ internalised terror and showed that the real threat was not “in the skies” but in everyday life. That the monster “is not simply among us, but possibly is us”. This idea influenced Romero and just a few years later “Night Of The Living Dead” was made, pushing all the previous boundaries far beyond where they thought imaginable.

Night Of The Living Dead’ (NOTLD) was made on a low budget by the production company, Image Ten Inc. The film tells the story of a group of seven people who take refuge in a farm house while fending off the hoards of the walking dead that gather outside. Romero wanted to show the end of the world, but felt that “rather than opening with the fait accolpli, it might be more interesting to observe the world during its collapse”. This reflected fears at the time of America’s Capitalism crumbling at the hands of Soviet Communism.

They didn’t just set out to make a normal horror movie. They wanted to ensure it would attract attention and stand apart from the other movies at the time. Co-writer John Russo stated, “We wanted to make sure it got noticed…forcing the picture into more daring areas than other films had gone”. It’s worldwide acclaim and worship proves that they indeed achieved their goals. It influenced many budding film-makers that went on to create some of the most notorious horror movies we know today.  Among these was Tobe Hooper, director of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’,  “It had a profound affect on my life…as a result of seeing that film…I decided to do a horror film”.

Many people in the movie industry began to realize that horror movies could be so much more, even containing an underlying political statement as this film had. NOTLD explored the anxieties of the people as the threat of Communism seemed to be forever looming overhead. The next few years saw an abundance of ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ sequels trying to recapture Old Hollywood horror. However, the horror movie industry was forever changed. Boundaries were continuing to be pushed. ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), ‘Jaws’ (1975) and ’The Omen’ (1976) were released in the years following NOTLD.

When the film was released it was met with much condemnation. Christian fundamentalist groups accused the film-makers of being “Satanically inspired” due to the gory scenes of feeding and the circumstances under which Marilyn Eastman’s character is killed. This film was unlike anything that preceded it. The audience, especially children who had been left in the cinema for the double feature, had “no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt”. Reading Roger Ebert’s review gives great insight into how utterly shocking and terrifying it was; “The movie…had become unexpectedly terrifying”. One of the most striking scenes is when Helen’s daughter becomes one of “those things” and brutally murders her mother with a trowel. As John Landis, director of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, said, “You didn’t see that stuff in movies at that time”.

Nobody survives. This is another thing that people found very difficult to accept. Not only did the characters die, but the hero, Ben, dies. That was the most shocking. The ending was uncompromising and left audiences stunned. Ben makes it through the night, and emerges from the basement the next morning. Outside, the sheriff’s deputies are killing the ‘ghouls’ and burning their bodies. When Ben appears at the window he is shot; “That’s one more for the bonfire”. The audience had no hope to cling to, no happy ending. They were left frozen with fear with tears in their eyes, unable to deal with the horror that had unfolded before them. American culture, particularly westerns, has taught us that there is always a hero. He gets the girl, saves the town and rides off into the sunset. This was not the case for Ben. He was a sort of faulted anti-hero, a far cry from John Wayne.     

Before the release of NOTLD the black community were represented in films, but not always in the best light. The women were usually maids or servants while the men were seen as uneducated and dangerous, like the character Tom Robinson in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. However, there are exemptions. 1939 saw Hattie McDaniel become the first African American to be nominated for and win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in ‘Gone With The Wind’. Also, Nichelle Nichols became a household name with her character Uhura on ‘Star Trek’.

NOTLD dealt with topical racial issues without ever meaning to. Duane Jones, who played the lead Ben, received the part after simply giving the best audition. This casting makes Duane Jones the first black actor to play the leading heroic character in a non-race-specific role.  On this subject, director Romero said, “At first he thought he’d never get the role…he thought he was being exploited…and finally realised, ‘hey, we’re just making a movie’”. Jones was a well educated man and a former English professor at New York State University. He also went on to hold a professorship at Vassar University. After getting the part of Ben he changed much of his dialogue, as he refused to read the role as it was. The character was originally a simple minded truck driver. If Jones hadn’t made the changes I don’t believe the part would have had the impact it does now.

Romero tried not to make mention of certain things racially and treat Ben like any other character. He did realize that the assassination of Martin Luther King would help the movie get noticed since it featured a black lead. This is mirrored in the film’s ending where Ben is shot. This seemed like the natural route to take since Ben shared many characteristics with King. He was a peaceful man and tried to deal with the attacks without the use of violence. Also, he was a strong leader, even though he was met with some opposition from the character Harry Cooper.  Romero helped strengthen the positive image of the black community in the film’s sequel ’Dawn Of The Dead’. In this, Ken Foree’s character Peter became the first leading black character to survive in a horror movie.

NOTLD handled many topical issues of it’s time. Duane Jones portrayed a strong black character at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was coming to a close. Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court Justice and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed. The threat of a Communist take-over was an obvious theme throughout the film with the zombies’ indoctrination. Even the reason for the reanimation of corpses brings about fears of the time. In the film, scientists and military officials speculate that it’s due to radiation emanating from a Venus space probe that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere. America’s Space Race with Russia created suspicions of spy satellites. Every fear America had was exploited in the movie.

NOTLD is accepted worldwide as a legendary piece of movie history. It has been a great source of inspiration for prominent directors, such as Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Edgar Wright to name a few. I spoke to Tom Savini, director of the 1990 remake, who said; “historically, ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ is a classic ranking up there with ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Casablanca’, and personally it ranks as my first feature film as a director, and publicly it propelled the zombie craze that is still very much alive and kicking…or, if you will…shambling”. It’s just celebrated it’s 40th anniversary and is still as popular as ever. ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ will continue to inspire, terrify, unnerve and delight audiences for many years to come.

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