Criterion of the Month: ‘Night of the Living Dead’

night of the living deadSpine #909


“Zombies, man! They creep me out.”

These are the words uttered by Dennis Hopper’s character in Land of the Dead, the third official sequel to Night of the Living Dead. It is a bit of a departure from the usual zombie movie rules where the word zombie should never be said out loud (despite it also making it into the original Dawn of the Dead).

I say official sequels because there was a rights dispute between zombie godfather, George Romero, and his producer on the first film, John Russo. That led to Romero’s …of the Dead series, and Russo retaining the catchier term, “Living Dead,” for the Return of the Living Dead. For the record, the first two Returns are pretty fun and a good amount of people like the third (I could take it or leave it). The Return franchise’s big addition to the zombie rules: the repeated phrase “BRAAAAAAAIIIIINNNNSSSS!” Thanks Dan O’Bannon. 

Well, it’s October. ‘Tis the season for horror, and the Criterion has a better amount of good horror than you’d think. Horror is just one of those genres that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves in the artsier crowds. It’s nice to see a company like Criterion really appreciate some of it. You can’t go wrong with the most influential piece of zombie cinema that ever existed. Plus I don’t know how many people will keep reading if I keep doing old Swedish films like the first one of these. (At least try French New Wave cinema, it’s basically Tarantino).

I was going to explain some of the history of zombies, but Nerdwriter does it so much better. Check it out here:

I technically knew about the voodoo roots of zombies, but I never really considered them synonymous. The Romero style zombies have simply become so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget. But as Nerdwriter implies, there is a racist undertone to the pre-Romero zombie movies. They are about a fear of an alien culture of dark-skinned people that were hypnotizing “regular” people into their slaves. A deep seeded fear of karmic justice if I have ever heard one. This makes an aspect of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead that is already highly lauded even more special. 

Horror comes with it a cliche about black characters always dying, often times early on. I know it in regards to movies produced after Night of the Living Dead. I’d be hard pressed to name a movie that features that before Night of the Living Dead. But then again, Night of the Living Dead was made in 1968, and my movie knowledge pre-1970 is a hell of a lot more limited than post-1970. Night of the Living Dead doesn’t do that cliche though. Romero cast a black actor, Duane Jones, as the hero, Ben. Ben is everything you want out of horror protagonist. He is confident, brave, and resourceful. He is clearly scared but not paralyzing so. Sometimes he might be short with people because time is a factor, but he seems to care that they are scared and panicky. However, if you give him shit, he’s going to give it right back to you. 

This was revolutionary at the time because you simply didn’t cast black actors. Not just for this kind of thing, but barely at all, unless it was to make a statement of race. Romero instead, as the story goes, chose the best person for the job and simply didn’t care about his race. As Guillermo del Toro said, “We can’t be fooled by George’s modesty…George had the bravery to say “We’re going to do it.” George being the great guy that he was said “Eh, it’s not a big deal.” But it was a big deal.” He didn’t intend to take a stance, but that’s just how it shook out. And he did it by redefining a genre that has long been based on the fear of dark-skinned cultures.  

Romero didn’t even want to take a stance on the genre. He infamously doesn’t love being considered the godfather of zombies. He’d rather his films stand on their own than some sort of foundation for which more movies were built on top of. He doesn’t even like the term. He still prefers “dead neighbors,” which is telling. Saying Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism is easy, but what is Night of the Living Dead about? “Dead neighbors.” What was going on before it was originally released back in October 1968? “The Long Hot Summer of 1967.” Cincinnati. Detroit. Newark. Milwaukee. 159 race riots that summer coinciding with their filming that lasted from June – December of 1967. It never really slowed down. 

In April of 1968, a number of riots happened in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, and a few months before the movie was released, there were riots in Chicago after the Democratic National Convention. RFK. The Tet-Offensive. The Manson Murders. The national tone was bewilderment in the face of chaos, and Night of the Living Dead captures that so perfectly. Who are the villains? Normal community members warped by violence. How do we fight them? You can’t. You are outnumbered. This movie even accidentally leans into the conspiracy heavy times by never properly addressing what causes the dead to rise. That’s what made it a hit (It made 250x its budget), but it is also what makes it still relevant. 

I’m going to end up repeating this a lot, but watching older movies has taught me one thing: things are not changing as much as we think.