The Night of the Living Dead rightly remains as one of the horror classics. The movie stands out from others of its genre for it contains scenes explicitly showing dead people coming back to haunt those who are alive. Directed by George A Romero in 1968, the movie was not a product of any of the major studios of the time. Classified by members of the film industry as a B Movie, it has now attained a status that supersedes that of mainstream movies. Shot at a shoestring budget of $100,000, the production team could not afford to cast big stars. Hence, its lasing success is attributable to the tight script, imaginative screenplay and directorial excellence. The plot of the movie is quite simple. Barbra and her brother Johnny travel to rural Pennsylvania to visit their father’s graveyard. Unfortunately for them, through a strange paranormal phenomenon, the dead and buried come back to life. These ghouls or zombies could only survive by consuming the flesh of live humans. This situation sets up the horror, suspense and intrigue that follows. While American audiences are not unacquainted with horror movies, this is the first time that they were exposed to the horrors induced by the ‘living dead’. The thrill and suspense are amplified by the ambiguity between those who are actually alive and those who are zombies.
The movie is also radical in another respect. Of the people who take shelter in the deserted farmhouse, Ben (and African American character played by Duane Jones) is shown to be the most cool-headed and sensible. While others in the farmhouse (who are all white) are shown to lose their minds in the fear and gore surrounding them, it is Ben who tries to take control of the situation in a rational and collected manner. Given that the film was shot and released in the year 1968, it is indeed a brave decision on part of the production team to cast a black lead character. There are two ways of perceiving this. Firstly, one could argue that this small symbolic measure of black emancipation is a reflection of the real and substantial civil rights that the community is winning over during these years. Or alternatively, the director George Romero is deliberately (but diplomatically) supporting the political cause of black Americans (who were still being referred to as Negros back then) by showcasing one member of the community as the hero. Either way, the director and the producers will have to be given credit for taking a risk of critical and political reprisal.
If the civil rights movement happened in the 1960s, then women’s rights movement gathered strength during the 1970s. It was during the 1970s that a new wave of feminists (including Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, etc) emerged in the cultural scene and introduced radical, new ways of seeing women’s role in society. But the character of Helen in the movie clearly gives away the traditional patriarchal mindset prevalent in the 1960s. She is married to Harry and has two children. She is shown as timid, dependant, subordinate and easily frightened and manipulated – a characterization that was typical of most female characters at the time. The same observation could be extended to the character Barbra, who shows a subordinate disposition toward her brother Johnny. Such depictions would have drawn sharp criticism from feminists had the movie been released in the 1970s. Hence, in conclusion, the movie The Night of the Living Dead offers value beyond mere thrill and entertainment. One can learn about the broader (or a lack of) socio-political currents sweeping the United States toward the late 1960s.