Race and Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead was released for the first time 60 years ago, and I went to see it in my local (independent) cinema as they were showing an anniversary screening. I have been aware of the film for its status within the horror film industry; and the film’s tropes loom over modern releases like the ‘un-dead’ creatures it has helped to establish on screen. Its legacy and novelty for the time, means there is no wonder why it has been considered by the Library of Congress of preservation as it has been deemed to be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.

The film follows the plight of a group of strangers thrust together in a farmhouse in Pennsylvania who have to go head to head with the rise of the ‘living dead’. From here we see the establishing of the classic character profiling that we are used to – the heroic man leading the group, and eventual downfall in part fuelled by the two strongest men vying for control, and of course, with some women as collateral damage.

This post looks at the ideas associated with the casting of the black actor, Duane Jones, as leading man Ben. Director, George A. Romero has said publicly that there was no political motivation behind this casting, however, with the civil rights movement taking place whilst the film was being showed in US cinemas and the sense of unrest and change in the world, I think that ideas in this film can’t help but seem to reflect what was going on politically at the time. There are numerous elements that seem to be representing the shift going on in ’60s USA – but for this post I have chose to explore my thoughts about race relations.

Duane Jones, as Ben – drives up to the farm house, where he encounters Barbara, a young woman who has started a slippery slope of mental decline, where by she seems to enter a state of detached hysteria, following narrow escape from one of the ‘undead’ who had just killed her brother. Ben on the other hand is presented as a rational, calm and controlled individual who has a plan of action. He wants to work with, and support Barbara and sees working together as the way to ensure their safety.  He is the only real heroic character in the farmhouse and deals with practical solutions to real problems, whereas Barbara is shown to be childlike in her inability to interact with what is really going on and expects those around her to take charge – she is clinging on the the security that her brother used to provide.

Ben goes on to discover, that 5 others (Harry, his wife and daughter, and a ‘hip’ young couple) have been hiding in the basement of the farmhouse. Ben questions this group as to why they did not come up to the house sooner in order to offer their help – as he levels that they must have heard the noises and struggles up stairs. Ben is of the clear position, that they should have taken the risk to help, we can see here the often used debate between an utilitarian and deontological approach to decision making about who or who not to save.  The plot goes on, and a plan to escape the farmhouse via an abandoned car and a near by petrol pump is hatched, when the car is full of petrol they can seek safety at government run survival centres. This plan is derailed largely by the individual actions of the party going against the plan Ben devised. We can see this as a kind of sabotage when ultimately, the status quo is what the white majority are wanting  –  so in my analysis racial equality can only go so far – but ultimately it has to be on the terms of the white man. Regardless, Ben survives all this, as the members of his party are picked off one by one.

Ironically the ‘undead’ who come and get them are those that the previously were their most loyal, or most loved and familiar. Harry and his wife are killed by their daughter. The young couple are caught in an explosion after the he goes off to get the car and petrol, but his girlfriend chooses not to stick to the plan and follows him out of devotion. Most tragically, Barbara is killed by the zombie version of her beloved brother who she was so desperate to save. What we can take from this, is that the true horror does not come from something ‘other’ but actually the most familiar. We can see the film following a rejection of established family units – perhaps they are not as desirable as we assumed.

However, I consider the real subversive and tragic element horror film is that Ben, our resourceful and charismatic hero who survives the zombies attack on the farm house, is ultimately killed by the group of white vigilante style Americans who have been picking off zombies, when they consider their state can’t protect them – their progress has been broadcast via television and there is a sense of shoot now, think later. When the group of American vigilante’s come across the farm house, they see Ben from a distance stand up and hold up his arms, it looks like an act of surrender, and the gun wielding quasi-army shoot Ben down. What follows in the film is the order to go to the house and drag-out the bodies. We see stills of grimacing faces holding hooks and it leaves you feeling cold. I left the cinema thinking that the ending of the film reflects the idea that once you are already viewed as ‘other’ or the ‘enemy’ then there is very little you can do to defend yourself.

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