One of the smartest moves I ever made was becoming a “cord cutter.” Aside from the financial benefit, it has served to liberate my mind from the clutter of contemporary pop culture and media propaganda. Nevertheless, I occasionally indulge in streaming old movies, classics, whenever I can find them.
Vintage horror and monster flicks have always been favorites of mine; the kind that were meant to be seen in drive-in theaters. In all sincerity, I’ll take an archaic black and white Godzilla, King Kong, or Bela Lugosi film any day over the never-ending array of spastic “jump scare” offerings they currently peddle in theaters. There’s pleasure to be had indulging in the creativity of campy, low-budget B-movies whose stories were still original and fresh in those earlier days of cinema.
The apocalyptic fog that has settled over the year 2020 with COVID-19, an economy in free fall, post-Floyd anarchy, and a momentous presidential election makes for the perfect backdrop for a classic zombie movie, so I decided to stream George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (for brevity, NOTLD) over the weekend. Yep, the one that literally gave birth to that genre. I’ll confess that my motivation wasn’t purely for entertainment. I was also looking for some writing material, and Romero’s landmark choice in casting a black man as the protagonist in that film caused quite a stir when it debuted. Consequently, this move is widely regarded as a seminal moment for the civil rights movement and Duane Jones, who played Ben, was the forerunner of actors like Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Samuel L Jackson, and Idris Elba.
I’m going to start off with a few short bios, move on to a brief synopsis, and then wrap it up with a critique of the film by discussing the 1960s reaction to it, and then finishing with a contemporary view from the political right. Before I begin, I’ll confess that this is my first endeavor in critiquing a film, and as such, I can’t claim any expertise or credentials in cinematography or the art of film making. My purpose here is not to evaluate the merits of this movie; instead, I want to primarily speak to its cultural impacts as they resonate still to this day.
George Romero is widely recognized as the father of the apocalyptic zombie genre, one that has gone on to inspire dozens of other movies and multiple television series, including The Walking Dead. He was born in the Bronx, New York in 1940, the son of Spanish and Lithuanian immigrants. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1960, he enjoyed moderate success filming TV commercials and shorts, to include a segment for Fred Rogers and his eponymous Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. After his breakthrough with NOTLD, Romero enjoyed a prolific career in the horror genre that includes later movies such as Creepshow and Monkeyshines. He died in 2017 of lung cancer.
Other than cult notoriety for his portrayal of Ben in NOTLD, Duane Jones did not enjoy the same level of later success in the film industry as Romero. Having said that, his role as Ben, if I’m being completely honest, was quite compelling despite the original screenplay not calling for a black man. I suspect “white-presenting” Sidney Poitier’s role in controversial Jewish director Stanley Kramer’s infamous Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner the previous year played a part in Romero’s choice to cast a black protagonist, if for no other reason than for novelty and notoriety. Jones, like Poitier, was particularly well educated, clean-cut, articulate, and “white-friendly” enough for a late 1960s audience that was tepidly opening up to the broaching of social taboos. Jones died in 1988 at the young age of 51, lamenting that his role in NOTLD was all that had garnered him recognition.
Now a brief synopsis of the movie.
We open up to a sleek, sporty, soft-top car of the era driving down a dirt road. The occupants, young 20-something siblings, have traveled several hours to a graveyard in rural Pennsylvania, at the behest of their mother, to adorn their deceased father’s grave with an arrangement. The brother, bespectacled Johnny, complains to his sister Barbara of the pointlessness of enduring this annual ritual for a father he barely remembers.
Johnny and Barbara are presented as examples of the spoiled, affluent, young, white baby boomer demographic that had emerged in the post-WW2 era. Their characters are easily identifiable, likable, even if a bit immature, naive, and innocent. The suspense level gets a sudden jolt as Johnny’s playful graveyard teasing turns into terror as a skeletal, mortifying zombie emerges from nowhere to attack his sister. In a valiant struggle to aid her, Johnny wrestles with the ghoul, hits his head on a tombstone, and is seemingly knocked cold.
Barbara flees the agile undead creature and manages to make it to the car — keyless, of course. Locking the doors, she puts the car in neutral and coasts down the steep hill leading to the graveyard. In a scene that surely inspired subsequent slasher films such as Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Friday the 13th, Barbara’s assailant gives good chase until she evades her brother’s fate by hiding in an old farmhouse.
Paralyzed by fear, she roams the empty house until coming upon a rotting corpse upstairs. She screams in terror as she flies down the stairs, procures a knife from the kitchen, and makes a futile attempt with a dead rotary phone on a table in the den. This is when we are introduced to our protagonist Ben as he responds to her screams by bursting into the house, locking the door behind him.
The intensity of the movie is brought down a notch as Ben proves himself resourceful, capable, cool under pressure, and possessing a great deal of situational awareness. Something notable to mention: the original screenplay had typecast a rugged truck driver, a stereotypical white everyman, the blue-collar sort who would be naturally handy, good with a gun, and physical. Nothing in the script changed to reflect that the actor who was ultimately chosen was black, and an atypical Poindexter type at that. Nor do the other characters, who we will discuss shortly, behave in a way that reflects any misgivings about an uppity black man taking charge.
As Ben goes about the business of securing the farmhouse with boards and nails, while also locating a lever-action rifle and ammo, aimless “NPC-like” zombies gather and wander around the structure. As the plot progresses, Barbara’s paralysis turns to hysterics which begin to annoy Ben. This prolonged scene is rather uncomfortable, even for more modern eyes, because Ben is given carte blanche to be dominant over Barbara, showing a penchant for violence that culminates in punching her in the face, out cold, when she hysterically slaps him. Even in 1968, such a scene would have been jarring if a white male character had balled up his fist to punch a woman. I can only imagine the white fathers and husbands who sat, clenching their teeth, as this scene played out in theaters.
The following scenes present an escalation of interpersonal tensions as Ben and Barbara are introduced to Harry and Helen Cooper, their preteen daughter Karen, who is injured, and the teenage couple Tom and Judy. The five of them have been hiding in the cellar while the action on the floor level of the farmhouse has taken place. Presumably, the scuffle and noise from Ben and Barbara’s earlier episode alerted them to see what was going on upstairs.
Immediately, the personality of Mr. Cooper clashes with that of Ben. They begin to argue over minutiae with an undercurrent of suspicion and distrust. Again, none of the characters, not even the balding white patriarch Mr. Cooper, seem to recognize or care that Ben is a lone young black man accompanied by a catatonic young white woman. Regardless, the antagonism between Cooper and Ben serves as a symbolic plot device that was undoubtedly used as a metaphor for racism.
Steady zombie activity continues around the perimeter of the house, while Ben and Tom go about the business of boarding up the doors and windows at the protest of Mr. Cooper, who insists that hiding in the cellar is the safest place. Mr. Cooper is presented as a scowling, angry man, and his wife Helen, an attractive woman of around 40 years old, harbors an obvious disdain for her uptight, poor-postured, cowardly, and scheming husband.
These scenes of personality conflict serve to represent, in my mind, the greater social changes that were playing out as a backdrop to the movie. Mr. Cooper is the trope of the close-minded white man of the past, and Ben is the youthful, noble black man, the up-and-coming ascension of people of color. Mr. Cooper isn’t a sympathetic character, and the entire ensemble of refugees in the house seem to side with Ben in plotting to secure the home and plan an escape while Cooper fumes.
At some point, a small television with rabbit ears is discovered in the home and the distressed group gathers around to watch a news broadcast. They learn that NASA scientists and ranking military personnel blame the zombie predicament on a space ship that had been exposed to a mystery source of radiation. It is destroyed in the atmosphere upon its return mission, but the radiation has unfortunately contaminated the earth, creating zombies from recently dead cadavers.
They also learn that law enforcement agencies and deputized volunteers are gathering near the area to shoot the wandering ghouls in the head, which appears to be the only way to eliminate them. Tom is a local, familiar with the area, so a plan is concocted to fuel up an old farm truck and make their escape to the safety of a shelter that they’ve been made aware of through the broadcast.
With each new act of bravado and competence that Ben displays, Cooper’s frustration intensifies. He’s convinced that the cellar is the safest place, but he watches, impotently, as Ben barks out orders and dictates directions to the rest of the bunch.
Judy volunteers to accompany Tom and Ben while Tom fuels the truck and Ben provides cover with the rifle. Tom bumbles things by spilling gasoline on the makeshift torch that Ben is using to ward off zombies, which puts them in jeopardy of the fuel pump exploding. Tom and Judy panic and attempt to drive the truck away from the pump while Ben stays back to extinguish the fire. Tragedy befalls the young couple when the truck bursts into flames and the fire consumes them.
Ben makes a run back to the farmhouse while the ravenous zombies gather around the embers of the truck, dragging out the bodies of the teenagers and tearing at their flesh. Cooper sees these events transpiring through the window, and at this point, he locks the door to prevent Ben from gaining entry. Ben kicks the door open, leaving Cooper with little choice but to help Ben board the door back up as the zombies make their way back to the house. Ben, knowing what Cooper has done, proceeds to beat him repeatedly and ultimately shoots him.
Barbara finally snaps out of her paralysis and helps Ben secure the house further, while zombies are attempting to gain entry. This is when she recognizes her brother Johnny has become one of the ghouls; he pulls her into the mallee outside, only to be ripped to shreds by the other zombies.
Downstairs in the cellar, Helen Cooper finds her daughter has finally succumbed to her wounds, died, and turned into a zombie. Karen Cooper then proceeds to kill her mother with a garden spade and also kills her injured father.
Ben is the last survivor and realizes at this point that Cooper has been correct all along: the cellar was indeed the safest place in the house. He barricades the cellar door, unknowingly locking himself in with zombie Karen, who he then shoots in the head, leaving him safe and secure in the cellar as the horde of zombies who have by now flooded the home eventually disperse.
Exhausted, Ben drifts off to sleep, suddenly snapping to alertness hours later when he hears the sound of gunshots outside.
He cautiously exits the cellar, making his way to a window while dozens of deputized white men with rifles and handguns, led by the local sheriff, make their way to the farmhouse, shooting zombies indiscriminately as they go. The sight of Ben walking toward the window catches the attention of a volunteer, who alerts the sheriff, who then gives him the order to shoot. Just like that, unceremoniously, Ben is shot dead by his would-be rescuers, a bullet to the head. Meat hooks are used to extract him from the house, as they would with the other zombie corpses. Roll the credits.
So, that’s it. The plot devices innovated in this movie are by now standard fare in the zombie genre; this film is remarkable only because it was the first, and because it elevated a black man to the protagonist role. It was an interesting choice by Romero to not make his blackness obviously important, and by not having the characters behave differently toward him with the lone exception of Mr. Cooper. It made the film’s underlying social commentary even more powerful than it would have been had he drawn attention to his blackness through the attitudes of the other characters.
One can easily see this as a pivotal moment in cinema for the civil rights movement. Realistically, however, it was a movie for its time — a more clearheaded 1960s — and I think it unintentionally reveals truths through the current zeitgeist that belie the liberal narrative for which it has been credited.
Let’s go back to the discomforting scene of a black man ball-fistedly punching a white woman’s lights out. The 1960s was a different era, and people were generally more tolerant of the reality of physical violence toward women, even by white men; it just wasn’t acknowledged publicly, and it was almost nonexistent in cinema. A slap to a belligerent or hysterical female to shut her up, possibly, but not a fist punch. My suspicion is that Romero took a little liberty here because the actor was black, and few people questioned the impulsive and violent tendencies of black men back in the 1960s.
Moving on to the introduction of the Coopers and their teenage tagalongs in the cellar. The immediate hostility between Harry Cooper and Ben is believable. Their personality clash could just as easily be chalked up to the male ego instead of racial posturing. I think, however, that the way that the entire group sides with Ben over the more sensible Cooper is as much of an indictment on society at large as it is on Cooper’s flawed, stubborn character. His disloyal wife would have easily sided with just about anyone just to get under his skin. Tom and Judy’s eagerness to allow Ben to lead is rooted in their teenage naïveté and idealism instead of sober, rational judgment and trust in patriarchal figures.
Ben is quick-tempered and stubborn, unable to think more than 2 steps ahead. Sure, he possesses the veneer of confidence and assuredness, but his impulsivity prevents him from backing up his bravado with results. His free-wheeling ultimately gets him, and everyone else, killed; whereas trust in Cooper’s conservative and cautious nature could have potentially kept them all alive.
Perhaps Ben’s most telling flaw is his selfishness. One gets the feeling that he’s only in it for his own survival, totally unwilling to compromise or put the safety of the women and the injured young child, which was Cooper’s immediate concern as a father, ahead of his own ambitions. As unlikeable as Cooper’s character is meant to be, a thinking person will see beyond superficial quirks of personality to reveal his honest motivations.
Perhaps the jarring ending is the most telling of all. For all of his Negro cocksureness, Ben was just another zombie to the sheriff and his deputies. He was indistinguishable from the hordes of flesh-eaters. The bullet killed his brain just as dead as any other. Blacks are not supermen; they deserve no special praise, adulation, or worship.
At the end of Night of the Living Dead, his black life didn’t matter any more than anyone else’s.
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