Film * George A. Romero * Zombies! * 1968
I don’t know who decided that the “zombie apocalypse” was going to be the new hotness when it comes to apocalyptic scenarios, but I hate them. First of all, call me old-fashioned, but I like my doomsday scenarios to at least be plausible. Nuclear annihilation, ravaging plague, environmental collapse: these things could totally happen! Rampaging legions of the undead… not so much. Now, newer versions of the zombie apocalypse usually call it a virus and then move on with the clichés. And that’s the other thing that keeps me off the old zombie train. You can make the zombies run fast, you can make their bites contagious, you can make them do whatever you want, but in the end they all circle back to the same blueprint. This film is that blueprint.
It seems like when I come down on an entire genre I end up pointing to all the times I enjoy products of said genre. You say “zombies” and I groan inwardly, but at the same time I can name individual examples of things I like in said genre. I have never seen this particular movie before, which seems like an oversight, although I am familiar with the gritty 1990 remake that managed to creep me out when I’d watch it alone in the middle of the night on Cinemax. Now I have another individual example that I like, which is annoying, because what if I really do enjoy zombies? No, it is the children who are wrong. Anyway, Night of the Living Dead is a public domain film, which is pretty funny because it shouldn’t be. Turns out you should put copyright information on the print of your movie when you release it. I only bring this up because I ended up watching the version of the film on Hulu, which is hosted by Elvira, and which I recommend because Elvira is great and makes the world a better place.
As for the film, it’s a cheaply made, borderline schlocky horror film which feels like it should be ten years older than it is. The key difference between Night of the Living Dead and other cheaply made schlock films of the late fifties is the stark bleakness presented. Oh, and there’s a black protagonist, which is kind of a big deal for 1968. The story is quite simple. It opens in a graveyard, where two young siblings are leaving flowers for a relative. The brother is a goof, and when he sees a shambling man wandering around he begins to make fun of him. Sister freaks out, and for good reason because this dude starts assaulting them. She runs away, and becomes either catatonic or hysterical for the rest of the movie. Barbra, despite her uselessness, finds a seemingly abandoned farmhouse, where she hides from the zombie hoard which is so far comprised of like two dudes. Shortly thereafter, Ben shows up. He seems to be on the ball, and quickly sets about boarding up the house, taking stock of the supplies, and assessing the situation.
It is soon discovered that a bunch of people are holed up in the basement already. There is a young local couple in addition to The Coopers, who are older with an injured young daughter. Mr. Cooper is a dickhead. The rest of the film is these people having bitch-fights about things while the zombies grow in number and aggressiveness. This, of course, is the zombie blueprint. When it comes to sheer survival in the face of an unmitigated disaster, the vestiges of civilization fall by the wayside. Night of the Living Dead is an extremely localized version of an apocalyptic disaster, but it shares the same characteristics as stories which are larger in scope. Despite this seeming limitation, the film still manages an atmosphere of stark horror, and the film revels in its bleakness.
Everyone dies. I didn’t really see this coming until the near the end of the film, but yep. All of the struggle and arguments and planning were for exactly nothing. This isn’t even an example of everyone being terrible and deserving their horrible deaths, either. Tom and Judy, the young local couple, are perfectly fine and died a fiery death anyway. In retrospect, most of the discord within the survivor’s house was between the two primary dudes, Ben and Harry. Everyone in the house dies as a result of these two guys having an alpha-male battle over who gets to be leader of the treehouse. This would be significant enough, however the film throws a bit of a curve at the audience. Ben is a black man, and that’s an important distinction. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Especially considering that the film was made in 1968, and America wasn’t really in habit of watching competent black leading men yet.
Ben has a clear understanding of survival. He’s willing to put himself at risk in order to save others. Most importantly, the film does not call explicit attention to his race. None of the other characters mention it, nor does Ben himself. Further, Ben is not an ideal hero. His escape plan sucks. He’s clearly prideful. When there was a moment to be the bigger man, he instead kicks the shit out of Harry. Later, he just up and shoots him rather than come to some kind of truce. Regardless, he is still shown to be the better of the two would-be alphas. Harry is a coward. He is even more prideful than Ben, and stubborn as well. He’s a dick to his wife. He is arguably implicit in the deaths of everyone involved because he refused to help out. Still, the fall of the safehouse is at the feet of these two men. Ben refused to compromise, there was never any significant cooperation between him and Harry’s group, and as such they all succumbed to the menacing outside threat.
So what of Ben’s blackness, then? In the film his skin color is incidental. He is treated the same as everyone else, flaws and all. For me, it’s notable for a few reasons. First and foremost, while the film doesn’t explicitly call attention to Ben’s race, there is definite subtext happening. Barbara is a hysterical idiot, but it’s not difficult to read her initial intransigence in dealing with Ben as being afraid of everything. This includes brother-eating zombies, naturally, but it also includes being a woman alone with a man in a strange, stressful place. And a black man in particular. I suspect watching a strong black man smack a white girl around would have been a shock upon release. Further, the conflict between Harry and Ben is on the surface a fight of leadership. Yet there is a large amount of unexpressed racial tension below this. Ben has no intention of relinquishing his individuality and agency. Harry makes it clear that he’s not going to submit to another man.
Strip away the conventions of civilization and the racial aspects of society can begin to hash themselves out. In 1968, Ben as a black man would have still been considered a second class citizen, despite his competence, despite the actively changing social landscape of the late 1960s. From Ben’s perspective, the zombie attack levels the playing field. Everyone has a right to survival, and if Ben is the best suited to this, he deserves to live. Harry has the most to lose in this situation, because he is less competent and should therefore submit to Ben’s leadership. When his society is intact, Harry’s superiority is not really questioned (at least, it wasn’t before). When it disappears, Harry clings to the artificial construct of racial superiority to the detriment of everyone else. This desperate need to maintain the status quo gets Harry and his family killed. And eaten. Eventually Ben stands alone.
Then, suddenly, the apocalypse is over. The cause of the disaster is kind of hand-waved away (like with almost all zombie fiction), this time with mysterious Venus radiation or whatever. It was a widespread tragedy, but it only lasted one night before the apparatus of civilization was reinstalled. The National Guard, and the Sherriff, and the rest of the machinery of society sweep into the farmyard at the end of the film to restore order. As such, a strong, competent black man is decidedly out of place in a world of Harrys. The crisis is over, but as Ben emerges from the ruins of the apocalypse, he is immediately cut down by the people who should be saving him. The status quo is restored.