The horror genre is littered with controversial films, films that inspired censorship and protests and extreme backlash. While controversy is certainly good for box office takes, it’s not always good for the critical interpretation of a film. Horror fans, especially, know that controversy does not always merit the backlash our favorite genre films receive. A violent or unsettling or difficult movie doesn’t mean it’s bad—sometimes, it means that the film has done its job.
Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero’s 1968 black-and-white exploitation classic, is one such film. What modern audiences see as an undisputed but perhaps dated work of essential horror, contemporary audiences were shocked and appalled by Night of the Living Dead. It was violent! It was gory! It tested the very boundaries of decency!
Despite its critical success, the movie simply did not deserve to exist, according to some critics. As the Variety review put it, “Until the Supreme Court establishes clear-cut guidelines for the pornography of violence, Night of the Living Dead will serve nicely as an outer-limit definition by example.”
But it’s precisely because of those outer-limits that films like Night of the Living Dead are essential. They ask us to question art, to question the way we tell stories. They force us to consider uncomfortable implications of what we’re seeing onscreen. In short, they ask what deserves to be committed to film and why.
Before Night of the Living Dead, horror films were largely atmospheric, powered by innuendo and suggestion, composed of shadows and flickering lights. These films invited viewers to fill in the blanks, to conceive of the horror themselves. This method engages the audience, who must vicariously experience the violence and terrors on-screen in order to follow the film. However, this style of filmmaking relies upon the scope of the viewer’s imagination.
Instead, Night of the Living Dead takes the reader’s imagination out of the equation in significant ways. Scenes are full of confrontation instead of innuendo. The lack of imagination no longer protects a viewer’s experience.
As Romero explained, “It was to the extent that we felt that films aren’t usually made this graphic. But why not? You know what’s happening. Why cut away when you know exactly what’s going on? We got the intestines, and we showed the ghouls going at them, and we said, ‘Well, we’re just going to leave that stuff in’.”
Night of the Living Dead was done playing nice when it came to horror. It wasn’t going along with the idea that some things are simply not meant to be depicted. Instead, it was going to force people to admit that they just didn’t like seeing that sort of thing, which is a very different matter.
Some critics failed to see the distinction. In addition to likening Night of the Living Dead to pornography, Variety attacked its filmmakers. “In [a] mere 90 minutes this horror film (pun intended) casts serious aspersions on the integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers, distributor Walter Reade, the film industry as a whole and [exhibitors] who book [the picture], as well as raising doubts about the future of the regional cinema movement and about the moral health of filmgoers who cheerfully opt for this unrelieved orgy of sadism.” The New York Times review dismissed it as a “spare, uncluttered, but really silly…junk movie.” Christian fundamentalist groups accused the filmmakers of being “Satanically-inspired” due to the scene where little girl Karen Cooper attacks and feeds on her mother, in addition to the overall cannibalism.
However, some critics recognized the merit of the film’s provocative stance, though they expressed concern for the way the film wielded this power. Roger Ebert, who enjoyed the film, was alarmed that the film was easily available to children. These young children had, “no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.” No longer were horror movies just “delightfully scary”. They had become unexpectedly terrifying.” But still, he declared that, “Censorship is not the answer.”
Ebert understood that the film was important. He felt that it probed at a deep truth, at a fissure that should be examined, though not by children. Kids got should get a free pass, according to Ebert. They should be protected; adults, meanwhile, should be afforded no protection other than their choice to see the movie or not.
Even today, Night of the Living Dead retains much of its raw edge. Sure, the practical effects are dated. The acting isn’t the best, and some of the jump scares are easy to spot. But the strength of this film has always been in what it portrays simply and straightforwardly.
There’s a certain coldness in the way Romero’s stationary camera depicts the zombies slowly but surely stumbling towards their prey. There’s the way the off-kilter camera gets up close and personal for the frantic struggle between desperate survivor and relentless dead. I am always disturbed by the desperate yet quiet struggle and groping hands when a zombie reaches through the back door and grabs at Ben (about 45 minutes in). That scene is just so raw, so honest, and very violent in an understated way. When you get right down to it, there’s nothing quite as primal as relentless human hands grabbing you and refusing to let go.
And that’s to mention the scene where Ben begins pummeling the crap out of the deserving Mr. Cooper.
Or when the zombies descend on the bodies of the teenagers in the burnt-out car.
Or the horrific scene of matricide, where a sweet little girl eats her father and then murders her mother with a trowel.
Or the heartbreaking part where Barbara’s zombie-fied brother carries her off.
Or the end, which is devastating in its irony, that poor Ben could survive a lot of things, but not a rag-tag group of rednecks. For all his bravery, grace under pressure, and nerves of steel, he was still gunned down and thrown into the fire with the rest of them.
In this film, no one is safe, no matter how resourceful, how persistent, how determined. It’s the farthest thing from a happy ending an American movie can get, a chilling message that was not lost on anyone.
There has long been a question about how much Romero wanted his film to lay bare the roiling conflict just beneath the façade of calm, polite society.
Certainly, he and co-writer John A. Russo wanted to tap into the tensions gripping America in the 1960s. “It was 1968, man. Everybody had a ‘message’.” Romero explained. “The anger and attitude and all that’s there is just because it was the Sixties. We lived at the farmhouse, so we were always into raps about the implication and the meaning, so some of that crept in.” Specifically, the film was written to “draw a parallel between what people are becoming and the idea that people are operating on many levels of insanity that are only clear to themselves.”
Historically, critics and film buffs have debated whether Romero meant to examine and criticize America’s racism by casting Duane Jones, a black man, as the film’s lead. On this point, Romero has claimed, “We had no preconceived notion as to the role being a black role, Duane came in, he looked right, he read well, so we used him. We never took any further note of it.”
That may very well be true, but it’s a little disingenuous of Romero to claim that they didn’t consider the implications of putting a black lead in their film about “anger and attitude.” Night of the Living Dead refused to turn away from discomfort and challenge, and race is certainly part of that equation for American audiences. As Guillermo del Toro said about the film, “George went to the Id of America.” In so doing, his film became an important snapshot of the anxieties and fears rampant in 1960s America.
As J. Hoberman observed in The New York Review of Books, Night of the Living Dead, “suggested a beat poet’s characterization of the evening news.” As he put it, “Never has social breakdown, individual regression, or the return of the repressed been more luridly visualized: scores of corpses rising from the grave to feast upon the living. Catastrophe within catastrophe, the movie pits black against white, child against parent, hawk against dove—and that’s just in the besieged farmhouse that provides the movie’s main location.”
And while the zombies in their 1968 context may have reflected that time, the beauty of this film is that the zombies can mean anything. They take on our fears, whatever they may be and whoever we associate with them. Regardless of our time and station, we project our political, sociological, cultural, and economic anxieties onto zombies—immigrants, political change, cultural shifts, consumerism, just to name a few—so that we can more clearly confront the source of our latent terrors.
Because of this, Night of the Living Dead will always be relevant, and we should never turn a blind eye to it.