The Surprising and Enduring Importance of Night of the Living Dead

Released in 1968, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead  film revolutionized zombies from menacing and mythic servants à la Halperin to the cannibalistic harbingers of the apocalypse that trudge across screens today.

By setting the majority of the narrative action in rural Pennsylvania, Romero communicated a terror far more intimate than that of the fantastical horror films which preceded Night of the Living Dead; what this film reveals is that what scares us, is not so far removed our own world— true terror can creep slowly out of the mundane. Films that we now view as emblematic of genre, the works of Carpenter, Craven, Cunningham, and Hooper, are themselves indebted to Romero’s contribution to the language of horror. Formal characteristics notwithstanding, the film is revolutionary in a second sense— the film was never intended to comment upon race and yet the casting of Duane Jones, a black man, as Ben transformed the narrative from what would’ve remained a solid story of fear and interpersonal anxiety into a damning examination of the precarious nature of black existence in America.

Although the film at its start establishes the hapless Barbra, played by Judith O’Dea, as the protagonist, Ben’s decisions and actions drive the plot forward as Barbra falls deeper and deeper into catatonia. The two encounter one another after having found refuge in the same farmhouse. Barbra had just witnessed the incomprehensible death of her brother and only kin and instead of attempting to make her current situation legible, we see her remove herself further and further away from reality. Ben, whose sole motivation is survival, finds himself tasked with protecting her along with the other white characters that appear in the house along the way. Ben is arguably the de-facto hero of this story which makes his death at the film’s end all the more complex. Ben dies at the hands of a government designated militia, men eerily reminiscent of a lynch mob, organized to protect citizens against the living dead. His humanity is misrecognized and he is disposed of as a member of the living dead.

Afro-pessimism is a theory of black non-existence, of the exclusion of black people from the order of the human. This exclusion is viewed as an inheritance from the enterprise of slavery. Afro-pessimists argue that blackness as a social and structural designation is one of living death; we are vulnerable to any number of violences, including premature death, because as subjects we were born socially dead. Social death necessitates the exclusion from “the rights of man” as well as the entitlements engendered through citizenship. Because we are socially dead, our bodies are often surveilled, viewed, and documented the same way in life as in death. The final scenes of the film focus on the cleaving and disposal-through-fire of Ben’s body. His disposal is documented unflinchingly through a montage of photos, surgical in their lack of feeling.

To reiterate, in the film, the government immediately organizes itself to protect the population from the zombie threat (something virtually unheard of in our neoliberal age, where government assistance is virtually non-existent and survival becomes a highly individualized affair) but Ben is not a beneficiary of that protection because he exists outside of the definitions of “human” and “citizen”. Ben’s death can consequently be understood as analogous to the ways in which New Deal and other governmental programs designated to aid American citizens often neglected black people in this country, for they were never the ones in mind when one imagined a “citizen”.

The film’s conclusion is what ultimately makes Night of the Living Dead, far more than a zombie apocalypse movie. 50 years after the film’s release, it remains a relevant, if unintentional, meditation on the ephemerality of black life. What we witness in the end is a microcosm of our world.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) dir. George A. Romero; 96 mins.

Daga Nyang is a jaded college student who still at the very least likes to talk about film.