© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
One could make a legitimate argument that George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the most important horror film of all time. Early films such as Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) might challenge for this honor, because they initiated the entire phenomenon of the sound-era horror film. But their influence was muted when the Hollywood Production Code was fully implemented in 1934, curbing the development of the horror genre in ways from which it never really recovered until the appearance (in the wake of the unraveling of the Code in 1966) in 1968 of Night of the Living Dead and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Rosemary’s Baby, perhaps more than any other single film, demonstrated the aesthetic potential of the horror genre. And that film has exercised an ongoing influence ever since its first appearance, though one could argue that its direct influence on the horror genre was largely supplanted by the huge impact of The Exorcist (1973), which dealt with some similar themes a few years later. Night of the Living Dead, on the other hand, not only essentially founded an entirely new genre of horror film but still remains the most influential film in that genre more than half a century later.
Though Night of the Living Dead never uses the term “zombie,” the film is widely recognized as the first modern zombie film. There had, of course, been zombie films before Night of the Living Dead. But films such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943) featured zombies that had been raised from the dead through black magic, typically of a Haitian voodoo variety. One could also argue that Frankenstein is a sort of zombie film, though Frankenstein’s monster is certainly of a different kind than the monsters of Romero. In addition, Night of the Living Dead was influenced by a number of predecessors entirely outside the tradition of zombie films. One of the most important of these was the notoriously graphic material presented in horror comics of the 1950s, especially those published by EC Comics. The most direct predecessor to Night of the Living Dead, though, was probably Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, in which a lone “normal” human survivor battles swarms of attackers who have been transformed into “vampires” by a pandemic. I Am Legend not only contains creatures who are clear predecessors to Romero’s zombies, but also contains some political commentary that prefigures that in Romero’s film. For example, at one point, Matheson’s protagonist wonders whether a vampire is really “worse than the manufacturer who set up belated foundations with the money he made by handing bombs and guns to suicidal nationalists?” (32). Moreover, the ending of the book, in which the human protagonist realizes that he is perhaps now the one who is a monster, as he is different from everyone else, has strong social and political implications. I have noted elsewhere,
“The social criticism embedded in this turn at the end of I Am Legend, which clearly associates the conformist drive for normality in America of the 1950s with vampirism, may be one reason why the novel was not adapted to film in that decade. But Matheson, in ending the book the way he does, avoids the tendency toward romanticization that informs so many of the post-holocaust works of the decade” (86).
Tony Williams begins the chapter on Night of the Living Dead in his book-length study of the films of Romero by neatly summing up many of the film’s salient features:
“Night of the Living Dead has long been associated with the derogative term ‘splatter movie.’ It is now popularly regarded as the film which introduced gore and special effects into the contemporary horror film, a genre now almost entirely devoid of social meaning and dependent upon gratuitous sensationalism. However, Night of the Living Dead is much more than a mere horror film. As well as being a key work of independent low-budget cinema, it also combines several important cultural traditions such as the grotesque aspect of literary naturalism and the thematic traditions of 1950s EC Comics in terms of a devastating critique upon the deformations of human personality operating within a ruthless capitalist society” (21).
Now widely famed for its social and political critique, Night of the Living Dead impressed earlier reviewers primarily because of the graphic visceral violence that lies at its core. Night of the Living Dead appeared at a crucial moment in American film history when the Production Code had collapsed but the MPAA ratings system that replaced it had yet to go into effect. As a result, it was made during an especially creative (but also chaotic) period when American film censorship was arguably at its weakest point ever, allowing for a variety of new kinds of films to appear in American movie theaters and leading eventually to the full-scale evolution of what would come to be known as the New Hollywood period.
The historical context of Night of the Living Dead was crucial in other ways as well. Kendall Phillips, for example, notes that the film appeared shortly after events such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had put a damper on the utopian hopes of the oppositional political movements, ushering in a new era of skepticism and pessimism. He thus argues that movie audiences viewing the film in the late 1960s must have identified with the doomed plight of the trapped humans inside the farmhouse of Night: “Sitting in movie theaters in inner-cities and near college campuses in the immediate aftermath of this dissolution, the resonance with the desperate and divisive group surrounded by chaos and violence must have been palpable” (Projected Fears 99). In any case, given the historical context of the film, Ben Hervey is surely correct when he argues that, with Night of the Living Dead, “political readings were almost inevitable” (22).
Hervey, meanwhile, adds another element to the historical context of the film, beyond its placement at the end of the glory days of 1960s radicalism. For him, one crucial element of the background of the film, with its paranoid, apocalyptic tone, is the fear of nuclear holocaust that so powerfully informed the peak Cold War years, years that themselves formed a crucial part of Romero’s own formative years. For Hervey, “the claustrophobic scenes in the Coopers’ windowless basement evoke Cold War images of the insular, isolated family” taking refuge in a bomb shelter as nuclear weapons ignite outside (Hervey 65).
In short, the darkness of Night of the Living Dead, with its graphic violence and with its slaughter of all the major characters, can be seen to resonate with a dark turn in the national mood. At the same time, there are certain progressive elements in the film that still reflect some of the utopian energies of the 1960s. The most obvious of these is that the film’s central protagonist, Ben (Duane Jones), is a black man, something that was still quite unusual in American film at the time. Romero has made it quite clear that he did not originally intend for this character to be black, and that Jones was cast in the role simply because he gave the best audition for it. Nevertheless, it is impossible to miss the fact of Ben’s race. Nor is it possible not to notice how positively Ben is portrayed in the film, especially as opposed to Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), a white man who in a sense serves even more than the zombies as Ben’s antagonist, though it should be noted that the zombies themselves are also all white. Ben seems smarter, better educated, and altogether more dignified than Cooper (or, for that matter, the other white characters). Moreover, the film’s sympathies are clearly with Ben in his battle with Cooper, even when that battle leads Ben to shoot and kill his white antagonist.
There is also a clear political charge to the fact that, at the end of the film, Ben is gunned down by a white man who is among the group of rescuers that have come to clear the area of zombies—a task in which they seem to take altogether too much pleasure, to the dpoint that the rescuers seem as monstrous as the zombies. Indeed, the rowdy rescuers come off more like a gang of Southern redneck gun enthusiasts on a drunken hunting trip than true rescuers (even though the film is apparently set in Pennsylvania). More to the point, their behavior and appearance clearly resemble the American cultural memory of Southern lynch mobs—to the extent that, while the film seems to imply that Ben is shot because he is mistaken for a zombie, there is also a certain implication that the members of this mob might not be all that disappointed to discover that they have killed a black human.
Romero himself has been quoted as saying he viewed the zombie horde as an image of revolution. If so, it is a dark image indeed, as the zombies constitute a revolutionary mob almost entirely devoid of positive energies. Indeed, one of their central characteristics is that they do constitute a horde—a mass of undifferentiated individuals who function, however mindlessly as a sort of single force. Such crowds are almost invariably depicted negatively in American popular culture—think of all those hordes of screaming Indians who descend upon small groups of virtuous white people in classical Westerns. And the meaning of this phenomenon seems clear: these negatively depicted crowds function as a signifier of a fear of the masses that has long informed bourgeois society, with its rule by a minority class that feeds on the labor of a majority working class. Meanwhile, by the 1950s, this aspect of American culture was also connected to the paranoid climate of the Cold War, in which Americans—brought into close contact with nonwhite peoples all over the world for the first time, grew increasingly nervous that the teeming masses found in the so-called Third World might be envious of American wealth and possibly plotting to come here and seize it for themselves. I have noted elsewhere the importance of this phenomenon to American Cold War culture:
“Emerging from World War II the most powerful and richest people on earth, Americans suddenly found themselves supplanting the British as the central bearers of the banner of Western democracy worldwide. Thus, Americans were confronted not only with the red menace of the Russians (and the opposed red, white, and blue menace of McCarthyism), but with the red and brown and yellow and black menace of all those Third-World hordes who had formerly been held in check by the global power of the British Empire. Little wonder that Americans felt so paranoid in the decade, and little wonder that this paranoia often found expression in films dealing with alien invasions, which so neatly captured the American sense of being surrounding by foreigners who just do not act and think like we do” (Booker 118).
Of course, the zombie outbreak in Night of the Living Dead is a rather odd image of sixties-style rebellion in that it represents an attack on the living by the dead, which would seem to be an attack by the past on the present, essentially the opposite of the youth rebellion of the 1960s. In fact, this rising of the dead against the living, more than a revolutionary event, might be taken as just the opposite. In this sense, the zombie outbreak can be taken as an image of anti-revolutionary activity, of the ways in which certain conservative forces in society struggle to resist all change and progress. One thinks here of Karl Marx’s famous takedown of the notoriously anti-progressive and dictatorial regime of France’s Louis Napoleon Bonaparte in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). Marx (as he often does) even employs language that almost seems derived from the horror genre in describing the grip that the ideas of the past often hold on the minds of the living: “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (Tucker 595). Viewed through this comment, the zombies of Night of the Living Dead can be read as allegorical representations of the ways in which conservative conformist ideas often seek to prevent innovation and change long after their own time has passed.
Indeed, the undifferentiated nature of the zombies—one zombie is essentially as good (or bad) as another—could be taken as a critique of the conformist tendencies of American society as a whole, as well as of the tendency of capitalist factory production to reduce workers to interchangeable cogs in a giant machine—in much the same plight as Chaplin’s Little Tramp, caught in the gears of the factory machinery of Modern Times (1936). Indeed, the voodoo-style zombies of early films such as I Walked with a Zombie are figured essentially as an enslaved labor force. But the zombies of Night of the Living Dead do no productive labor at all. Rather than work, they consume, with human flesh being their preferred commodity. Moreover, they spread their addiction to consumption like a virus, turning anyone they bite into a zombie who turn pursues the consumption of more human flesh and the conversion of more humans into zombies.
As a result, the prevailing reading of Night of the Living Dead in recent decades is that it is primarily a critique of the mindless drives that animate American consumerism. Interestingly, while this reading is consistent with Romero’s film, it is not all that clearly suggested by it. I would argue, in fact, that anti-consumerist readings of Night of the Living Dead have been retroactively inspired by the very clear identification of zombies with consumerism in Romero’s follow-up film, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which is set largely in a shopping mall that has been invaded by zombies, who one of the human characters speculates have come there because of an unconscious drive related to their pre-zombie conditioning as consumers programmed to congregate automatically in the mall. Meanwhile, the still-human characters who take refuge in the mall, taking perhaps a bit too much pleasure in slaughtering the zombies they find there, seem almost mesmerized by the abundance of commodities they find around them in the mall, seeming sometimes so enthralled that they forget the apocalyptic conditions in which they find themselves. One of the principal points made by the film is that, in many ways, the zombies don’t behave all that differently than they did in their former lives as humans.
David McNally, in a study of the symbolic role of monsters such as vampires and zombies as images of the monstrous power of global capitalism, has noted how recent zombie films (with Night of the Living Dead as the progenitor of the phenomenon) have repositioned zombies as “crazed consumers, rather than producers,” thus offering “biting criticism of the hyper-consumptionist ethos of an American capitalism characterized by excess. But, for McNally, this deployment “comes at the cost of invisibilising the hidden world of labour and the disparities of class that make all this consumption possible” (260-1). In short, while shifting its emphasis to consumerism, Romero might have weakened the potential for his zombie films to serve as a critique of class inequalities under capitalism.
It might be noted, though, that Romero provides something of a supplement here in his fourth zombie film, Land of the Dead (2005), which places class issues front and center. Here, in a post–zombie apocalypse Pittsburgh, evil rich guy Paul Kauffman (Dennis Hopper), shielded from the surrounding world by fences and rivers, has established a sort of personal fiefdom, where he and his cronies live in high-rise luxury while the streets teem with the members of an oppressed underclass, struggling to organize against Kauffman’s domination—which results largely from his control of high-tech military technologies that allow him to send his minions out to scavenge for treasures in the surrounding zombie-dominated territories. Meanwhile, the zombies, like the Pittsburgh underclass with which they clearly have so much in common, are themselves, led by “Big Daddy” (Eugene Clark), beginning to get organized, to resist Kauffman’s exploitation. In the end, Kauffman is killed when his oppressed minions revolt, then head for Canada in their high-tech armored vehicle, while the streets of Pittsburgh become contested terrain, with both the human underclass and the newly-intelligent zombies roaming the streets, possibly moving toward making common cause.
Many commentators have, in fact, noted the radicalism of Romero’s vision, as when Reynold Humphries suggests that the original Living Dead trilogy “constitutes a full-scale criticism of American values” (113). Meanwhile, the focus on class in Land of the Dead is a good example of the way in which Romero tended to add different elements of social critique from one film to the next, gradually building upon the fundamental (and quite radical) insight that American capitalist society has characteristics that tend to produce a population of zombies. Romero’s six zombie films—in addition to other films, such as The Crazies (1973)—constitute a coordinated sequence of works that together conduct a remarkably thoroughgoing critique of American capitalism, racism, and sexism, as well as critiquing American institutions such as the military and the media. What is perhaps even more remarkable is how much of this critique is already contained in the original Night of the Living Dead, even though it is such a short, low-budget film.
However, one aspect of Night of the Living Dead that does not appear to be particularly radical, or even progressive, is its representation of gender, which is marred by a relatively weak collection of female characters. For example, one moment in the film that might prove especially off-putting to white supremacists is the one early in the film when Ben slaps Barbara (Judith O’Dea), sending her into a faint, but the film implicitly endorses this move as necessary to try to quell Barbara’s growing hysteria. Indeed, Barbara is so overcome by events in the film that she is virtually useless in the fight against the zombies, becoming something of a stereotypical hysterical female, though it is also the case that her responses are rather understandable, under the circumstances. None of the other women characters do much better. Thus, as Hervey notes, “if Night has any claim to feminism it is by dint of negativity: it presents masculine power struggles as foolish and destructive and it powerfully conveys the claustrophobia and frustrations of the traditional family unit” (64). In particular, the Coopers are presented as a sort stereotypical 1950s-style patriarchal family, and the unraveling of that family in the face of the crisis posed by the zombie outbreak can be taken as a critique of the functionality of that family model.
In a film filled with so many visceral images of graphic violence, perhaps the most horrific are related to the fate of the Coopers, all of whom are dead by the end of the film. Through much of the film, their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) is shown lying on a sickbed, and one senses that it is only a matter of time until she is reanimated as a zombie. When she is, she gets some of the film’s most horrific scenes, such as the one in which she munches on the body of her father after he is killed by Ben. Interestingly, in a rare example of a zombie killing with a weapon, Karen then kills her mother Helen (Marilyn Eastman) by stabbing her repeatedly in the chest with a trowel. This scene is actually less graphic than it might have been, but is instead merely suggestive. In a motif perhaps inspired by the famous shower scene of Psycho (1960), the trowel is never shown penetrating flesh, and discordant background “music” is used to reinforce the horror of the moment.
It should also be noted that the rather weak characterization of Barbara in Night of the Living Dead is one of the aspects of that film that Romero worked to overcome in his later projects. The female lead of Dawn of the Dead, Fran Parker (Gaylen Ross), is a significantly stronger and more capable zombie-fighter than Barbara had been, even though she progresses into advanced pregnancy in the course of the film. Even more directly, Barbara herself (now played by Patricia Tallman) is reconfigured in the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, directed by makeup wizard Tom Savini, who had done the special effects/makeup for Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead (1985). This remake was based on Romero’s own revision of the original script and was made with his full cooperation, so its decision to make Barbara a much stronger character in this film was surely done with Romero’s approval. In fact, in this remake, Barbara is such an effective zombie fighter that she even survives the film, somewhat in the mode of the “Final Girl” characters that had become so popular in the slasher films of the 1980s.
On the other hand, the elevation of Barbara in this film perhaps comes at the expense of the Ben character, who is now played by African American actor Tony Todd, who would soon go on to horror film immortality as the title character in the 1992 film Candyman, in which the issue of race is overtly foregrounded. That a black actor would also be cast in this remake suggests that the decision to make Ben black was now a deliberate one, rather than an accident of the audition process. On the other hand, because of Barbara’s greater role in this film (she, for example, is the one who kills Cooper), Ben is less central as a character. His death is even made somewhat less poignant in the sense that he does indeed become a zombie before being cut down by the “rescuing” zombie hunters.
Of course, the biggest difference between the original Night of the Living Dead and the 1990 remake is that the zombie film and its associated mythology had become well known to movie audiences by 1990, while that mythology was essentially being invented in the 1968 film. And, while there have been genuine departures from the Romero-style zombie in films such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), that mythology has proved remarkably resilient, remaining largely unchanged in film after film by Romero, but also in films by other directors, as well as other works of popular culture, such as the long-running AMC television series The Walking Dead (2010– ). In fact, the impact of Night of the Living Dead on its subgenre is probably challenged in the realm of horror only by the impact of Bram Stoker’s original Dracula (1897) on the vampire subgenre. And Romero’s low-budget original remains a compelling work in its own right, even in the light of all the zombie films (some with high budgets and big stars) that have come after it.
Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946–1964. Greenwood Press, 2001.
Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Updated Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Hervey, Ben. Night of the Living Dead. Palgrave Macmillan (for the British Film Institute), 2008.
Humphries, Reynold. The American Horror Film: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press, 2002.
Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend.
McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Haymarket Books, 2012.
Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. Bloomsbury, 2011.
Oloff, Kerstin. “From Sugar to Oil: The Ecology of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Vol. 53, No. 3, 2017, pp. 316-328.
Phillips, Kendall R. Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Praeger, 2005.
Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. W. W. Norton, 1978.
Williams, Tony. The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead. Columbia University Press, 2015.
Zinoman, Jason. Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. Penguin, 2011.
 I Am Legend might also have been a bit too frightening for film audiences in the 1950s. In 1964, however, it was adapted as the Vincent Price vehicle, The Last Man on Earth; in 1971, it was more loosely adapted as The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston as Neville and the vampires replaced by technology-hating albino zombies. It was adapted still again under its original title in 2007, with Will Smith in the starring role.
 See Zinoman for an extended discussion of the ways in which innovative horror films such as Night of the Living Dead participated in the larger New Hollywood phenomenon.
 For a view of the film in the light of an even broader historical narrative, Oloff argues that it can be understood within the context of the long-term history of capitalism, and, in particular, in terms of a transition from sugar to oil as the key natural resource of the capitalist system.
 The human characters in Romero’s zombie films are often done in by each other as much as by the zombies. Thus, Kendall Phillips notes of Romero’s first four zombie films that “at the heart of the narrative in all four films is a sense that the inability of humans to cooperate and coexist ultimately leads to their demise” (Dark Directions 28).
 By now, after the huge wave of zombie films that has appeared in Romero’s wake, we have become accustomed to thinking of zombies as having a particular taste for human brains. That motif, however, was introduced not by Romero but by writer-director Dan O’Bannon in his 1985 zombie comedy Return of the Living Dead. (O’Bannon also wrote the script for the classic science fiction horror film Alien (1979).
 This point is made even more vividly in the 2004 British zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead. The zombies of this film, incidentally, were modeled quite transparently on the zombies of Romero’s films. Indeed, Romero himself was impressed enough with Shaun of the Dead that he cast its director (Edgar Wright) and star (Simon Pegg) in cameo roles (as zombies) in his 2005 film Land of the Dead.
 The Final Girl character was first described by critic Carol Clover in an essay first published in 1987, but it became more prominent after the idea was elaborated in Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws. Importantly, for Clover, the Final Girl character does not necessarily survive because of her courage and fighting skills, as does Barbara in the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. Often, she is simply a terrified observer, watching others be killed, thus providing audiences with a point of view from which they can identify. Hervey, meanwhile, suggests that Barbara;s characterization in the remake might have been influenced by the role played by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, the protagonist if Alien (1979) and it sequels.