Historic Heroes and Legions of Evil in Night of the Living Dead

“Night of the Living Dead” (1968)Written by John Russo and George RomeroDirected by George RomeroStarring Duane Jones and Judith O’DeaAn Image Ten Production

Ah, Valentine’s Day – dozens of roses, heart-shaped boxes of candy, cute little teddy bears, shiny new jewelry, and flesh-eating zombies.

Well, maybe not.

If you do find yourself in need of a little old time horror, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is the base upon which all modern horror movies are built. Released in 1968, this black and white independent film changed the way people think about horror on the screen.

“Night” shows what happens when the recently deceased start rising from the dead with an unthinking urge to consume living things, including humans. Seven survivors find their way to a remote house where they barricade themselves in and try to survive the night.

Any fan of horror movies has seen everything in “Night” before, whether they realize it or not. Just as Universal Studios’ depictions of Dracula and Frankenstein have become part of our culture, Romero’s vision of lumbering, mindless zombies devouring the living and fleeing from fire has been emulated in countless films.

Romero’s dark, quiet and oppressive direction would also become landmarks in horror filmmaking. When compared to the smooth editing, “clever” killers and overblown musical scores of most modern attempts at horror, there’s something particularly creepy about the high-contrast simplicity of Romero’s work.

In 1968, horror films had stagnated and were all but extinct. Since its heyday in the 1930s, horror had lost its bite by following the same old formula time and time again. It took an independent film about mindless zombies to make horror a major force in film again.

After the success of “Night” in 1968, audiences would see “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in 1974, “Halloween” in 1978, “Friday the 13th” in 1980, “Evil Dead” in 1982, and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” in 1984. These movies would come to define horror films for a new generation of fans.

Beneath the obvious story of zombies, the underlying theme of “Night” is a reflection of the political environment of the 1960s. At the height of the Cold War, nuclear war was a constant threat. At any time, death could come from all directions, and there was nowhere to hide. While not a primary concern of the movie, the consensus in “Night” is that radiation from a returning space probe has caused a mutation which reanimates the dead.

Barring nuclear attack, there were also the twin fears of communists and of being branded a communist by overzealous patriots. When the attack does come, it could come from anywhere, and it may live behind the faces of your friends and family. If that doesn’t get you, your own local authorities may brand you a threat and eliminate you themselves. Anyone who doesn’t see the connection here would do well to find the nearest History professor and ask what “McCarthyism” means.

Beyond its historical importance, the social significance of “Night” is not what it shows, but who it stars. Duane Jones stars as Ben, the cool-headed, brave de facto leader of the group. Ben also happens to be black.

Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, starring roles were generally only offered to black actors when a character’s race was an important plot point. “Night” is widely credited as the first popular film where a starring role was given to a black man when it could have been given to an actor of any race. Duane Jones won the role of Ben with his acting skill, not his skin color.

“Night” was followed by two sequels, “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978 and “Day of the Dead” in 1985. “Dawn,” featuring a brightly-lit shopping mall full of zombies, is more of a satire than a horror movie, while “Day” returns to its horror roots, showing a bleak future where zombies are the dominant species and humanity organizes its resistance from underground.

This film is oppressive and depressing, an overall draining experience; horror fans should love it. However, “Night of the Living Dead” is also the easiest way to see where the majority of modern horror filmmakers picked up their ideas, and shows far more imagination than what generally passes for “horror” today.