You’re trapped in a secluded farmhouse, surrounded by a growing horde of the ravenous undead. Do you hole up in the secure but inescapable cellar? Or do you stay above ground and try to fortify the vulnerable upper levels? What if you hear a fellow survivor screaming in terror – do you stay hidden, or charge in to the rescue? Upstairs or down, fortify or flee, aid or abandon – in the end, it doesn’t matter. In George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, nobody’s getting out alive.
In 2018, the zombie genre has itself become something of a shambling, relentless corpse. An endless stream of movies, TV shows and video games mean there’s little in the realm of reanimated corpses left to shock us. So, try to imagine what audiences in 1968 must have felt upon their first viewing of seminal zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, George Romero’s shocking directorial debut. Co-written with John Russo, Romero’s is a straightforward tale: the dead have started to reanimate and attack the living, and a ragtag group of strangers holed up in an abandoned farmhouse must try and survive the night. The film codified much of the now-accepted movie lore surrounding the undead (including their taste for delicious human flesh, a trope borrowed from vampire novel I Am Legend) and kickstarted a genre that, 50 years later, refuses to die.
For a genre-defining picture, Living Dead couldn’t have been more cobbled-together. Shot on a less-than-shoestring budget of $114,000, the film’s walking dead were played mainly by friends, who initially weren’t paid in anything other than food and a fun experience. It became one of the most successful independent movies ever made, reaping $30 million at the box office – around 250 times its budget. Romero drops us straight into this scary new world through Judith O’Dea’s Barbra. After a wild-eyed man attacks her and kills her brother Johnny as they visit their father’s grave, a terrified Barbra flees, taking shelter in a nearby farmhouse – now one of the most iconic locations in horror movie history.
Barbra briefly displays the kind of resourcefulness that would make her a stellar Final Girl in another movie. Despite her terror, we see her kicking off her heels so she can run faster, and releasing the handbrake of a car she doesn’t have the keys to in order to make a quick getaway from a pursuing zombie. But it doesn’t last long. Arriving at the house, her brittle nerves are finally shattered when she explores the upstairs landing. Upon discovering the rotting corpse of the erstwhile owner (a horrible flash of gory special effects, shocking for the time and grim even today), she spends much of the movie in a virtually catatonic state of shock.
Enter Ben. Another survivor seeking shelter within the farmhouse, Ben (Duane Jones) is the kind of smart, level-headed guy you’d welcome into your fantasy Zombie Apocalypse team, and the film’s real protagonist. The only black character, Ben wasn’t originally written with a specified race – Jones simply auditioned, and the best actor got the role. Romero made no specific changes to the script to reflect the actor’s race (a fact we’ll want to remember when we discuss the movie’s notorious ending later) – although Jones was able to make his own suggestions. Co-star Karl Hardman explained in an interview that Ben was originally conceived as “a rather simple truck driver”. A quick glance at the original script shows a pretty stereotyped figure, one whose accent is written phonetically. Jones, unsurprisingly not keen to play that sort of role, “upgraded his own dialogue to reflect how he felt the character should present himself”. It’s due to his influence that the Ben we see onscreen exists at all.
Thanks to Jones, Ben feels like a decidedly modern protagonist. The urgency of the situation means he’s harsh at times, but there’s a gentleness to his pragmatism that feels far more modern than your average 1960s hero. His first words onscreen are ones of reassurance to Barbra: “It’s alright”. He gives Barbra little tasks to do as he fortifies the house (sorting through a cup of nails to find the biggest ones, for example). Here, you get the sense that although he could certainly use the help, Ben simply seems to be trying to break her out of her delirium. When Barbra faints, Ben gently sets her on the sofa and unbuttons her coat, a thoughtful callback to her earlier semi-delirious complaint that she was too hot. Later, searching a closet for supplies, he finds shoes. Remembering that Barbra is barefoot, he takes a pair back to her, putting them on her feet when she doesn’t seem able to herself. Ben constantly reassures Barbra that things are going to be alright – and with someone as demonstrably strong, capable, and decent as Ben at the centre of it all, you don’t doubt his belief.
But zombie flicks have never posited that the undead are the only threat to the living. The discovery of other survivors hiding in the house presents new conflict. The Coopers (brash patriarch Harry, even-tempered wife Helen, and daughter Karen) and a young couple, Tom and Judy, have all been holed up down in the cellar. Ben and Harry immediately butt heads when it transpires that, from their relatively safe position downstairs, Harry heard Barbra’s screams when she first entered the house – he just chose not to act. Ben is appalled; Harry is unrepentant.“You’re telling us we gotta risk our lives in case somebody might need help?” Harry asks dismissively. To him, it’s unthinkable. To Ben, it’s a no-brainer. In Ben vs. Harry, Romero offers a simple juxtaposition of human instinct in a crisis. We see the urge to help those in need stacked against aggressive self-preservation and a “look after your own” mentality that still feels urgently relevant.
But the film’s larger conflict arrives from a seemingly much simpler choice: upstairs or down? Ben rejects the idea of retreating to the cellar, which has just one entrance and no windows, as suicide – if it’s breached, there’s no escape. Harry refuses to stay above ground and help fortify the upper level – his daughter is injured, and the windows and doors are too exposed. These two options almost become separate kingdoms, as each man draws their line in the sand. “Get the hell down in the cellar,” Ben says. “You can be the boss down there. I’m the boss up here.” The film shows its 1960s sensibilities as the women of the group get relatively little say in the matter (Romero’s female characters are underserved throughout the movie), but Harry’s wife Helen cuttingly derides her husband’s abrasive need for control: “That’s important, isn’t it? To be right. Everyone else has to be wrong.”
We come to realise that Helen’s statement is far more pertinent that it first appears. In the end these decisions are meaningless, and no one is rewarded for “right” or “wrong” choices. Selfishness doesn’t pay off, but neither does kindness. Tom and Judy, broadly sympathetic to Ben and happy to follow his ideas, are charred to a crisp by a gas explosion as they try to get the truck outside started. Helen is violently stabbed to death by her daughter when Karen eventually succumbs to her wounds and turns into a zombie. Barbra, finally snapping out of her reverie, is eaten alive when the creatures eventually burst through the windows. Even in the “safety” of the cellar, Harry is devoured by his daughter. No one was right. The film isn’t smug or gleeful about this revelation – it’s just a bleak reality. As the house is overrun, Ben, now the lone survivor, is forced to do what he vehemently refused to earlier. He retreats to the cellar.
A new day dawns. Against all odds the brave, pragmatic Ben has survived the night. He’s outlived every other character. By the unwritten laws of cinema, Ben has won. So when he’s unceremoniously shot in the head by the local sheriff after emerging from his hideout, it’s a shocking, visceral punch to the gut for the audience. Romero maintained that, even prior to Jones’ casting, Ben was always going to be shot by the posse. A white actor would have performed the same scene. But by casting a black actor in the role, this conclusion instantly takes on a grimmer political relevance, regardless of Romero’s original intent. “Maybe People are the Real Monsters” may be an overused trope, especially in the zombie genre, but it helped create one of the most thought-provoking endings in the horror canon, as Ben’s journey is abruptly ended not by the undead, but by white law enforcement.
The closing credits remain some of the most viscerally disturbing of any in film history. A series of grainy still photographs show the posse standing over Ben’s body, meat hooks in hand as they prepare to throw him onto a mass funeral pyre. Ben becomes an anonymous corpse, utterly dehumanised. Horror movies have always reflected the cultural anxieties of their day, but it’s rare for a film made 50 years ago to feel so modern – and not always for the right reasons. These monochrome images of white law enforcement standing over a recently murdered black man feel both distantly historical and uncomfortably modern.
In many ways Night of the Living Dead could have been made yesterday. The complexity behind its central idea – that you can make all the “right” choices, be a good person, and still end up dead – defies our desire for things to be fair and neatly wrapped up. It’s this complexity (not to mention the devastating conclusion) that presents a movie that, half a century later, feels exactly as relevant as when it first screened – if not more so. How many other films can say that?