• Rose East

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

There is one secret I have as a horror fan. It’s nothing vile or disturbing (depending on who you ask) but it is something I avoid bringing up or addressing when it comes up. Here goes nothing, I don’t like old movies. I typically avoid watching them and have never seen most of the original horror classics. I didn’t like old black and white movies from other genres and as I got older and kept avoiding them, I never sat down long enough to really watch the old horror classics. This year that is changing and this is the first week of that change.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. day, I decided to watch Night of the Living Dead (1968) and subsequently write this piece. I have always been interested in learning about the civil rights era of American history. This movie takes place right around that era and is known as one to have a black character in a leading role not centered around stereotypes, not only in this genre but in general. I want to comment from the start that I truly enjoyed this movie and the nonchalance of the character, Ben’s, race from the other characters and even himself shocked me. Ben is the leading character played by Duane Jones. I went into this assuming that because this is a movie where a black lead had their breakout debut that there would be a lot of focus around Ben being black. This is not the case.

I kept bracing myself for casual or aggressive racism directed towards this character, but it never came. No one insulted him based on race, they listened to him and considered him a leader amongst the group. I thought that Barbara, played by Judith O'Dea had been acting funky because he is black but turns out she’s just funky in general. I expected the two men in the basement cellar to strong arm him and diminish his role due to his race. It’s quite jarring that a movie made in 1968 during the civil rights era had less racism than anything I’ve watched that’s been made in the last 20 years.

For those that say we’re past racism despite the BLM movement and racially motivated police killings on the rise I would direct them to consider how even in 1968 writers, actors, and viewers were able to respect and even identify with a character of a different race without race being the focal point of his character, yet that has been a challenge in recent decades and a criticism of modern movies centered around a mainly black cast. Not only this but this movie is one of the first of its kind and yet 54 years later we are still having firsts when it comes to representing and portraying minority communities in popular media.

The movie itself is entertaining and even from today’s perspective the gore is spot on and jarring. Watching the black and white gore is almost more scary than modern day horror scenes of the same nature. I loved that everything Ben does are things you’d want a main character in a zombie movie to do. He has his head on straight, he can critically think about outcomes based on different decisions they make to survive, and he stands up for his opinion but doesn’t care if people go along with him because he’s going to do what he thinks is best regardless. It is shocking to see him punch out Barbara but honestly, she had been pissing me off too and I can’t say I wouldn’t have done something similar for her to pull herself together.

It is interesting from a 2022 perspective where we have seen a million and one zombie films to see characters and society navigate a zombie-like outbreak without having the prior knowledge of what the heck is going on. It made the fear amongst the characters and newscast more palatable and added necessary tension that most modern zombie movies lack. Rather than the zombies being rotting corpses they look more like sullen people who are brainwashed and that is somehow scarier. They fear fire like Frankenstein and need to be taken out by damaging their head or brain. We get to see the characters learn about these new creatures as they go, and each discovery makes sense for the place in the plot that it is revealed.

It makes sense for these characters to make decisions against their best interest like the family keeping their dying daughter in the basement because they genuinely don’t have zombie knowledge. It’s also not revealed until quite later in the film that recently deceased are also at risk of being infected and should be avoided.

The plan that Ben produces to have Harry, played by Karl Hardman, throw Molotov cocktails from a second story window to divert the zombies while him and Tom, played by Keith Wayne, get into the truck and head to the gas can is genius and not too out of the stretch of imagination. It is a feasible plan that Jonny's girlfriend, Judy, played by Judith Ridley, destroys because she’s needy. I wanted to scream at this lady because the second she left the house and got in that stupid car it became clear this mission would fail. Her dumbass gets her jacket caught in the car causing her and Tom to be blown up and subsequently consumed.

I will also add that the scene of the daughter, Karen, played by Kyra Schon, consuming her mother, Helen, played by Marilyn Eastman, is intense. It’s a clear path from action to consequence for Helen and the fact that she’s not killed by being eaten but rather stabbed with a gardening tool is savage. Now to the ending. Ben survives despite everyone becoming zombies from his squad.

We cut to police and townspeople combing through the countryside where the house stands to take out any remaining zombies and rescue survivors. They get to the farmhouse and Ben goes to the top floor thinking that the noise outside could be zombies. He looks out the window and he’s shot sniper style in the head from outside. The rescue team believes they’ve just killed another zombie and comes inside to check that all the zombies are dead, and no survivors remain.

Oof did this make me yell at my screen. I get it because horror movies typically don’t end happily and even when they do there’s usually one last remaining scene that implies things aren’t as finished as we’ve been led to believe. I still wanted Ben to survive though! He did almost everything right in this scenario and the reward should be surviving, not making it to the point of survival and then getting taken out.

Since it is so close to the ending of the movie it didn’t sting as badly. We weren’t forced to watch the movie without Ben and at least we have a definitive conclusion to his story. The movie is entertaining, gross, and triumphant. I can imagine how mind breaking this would have been from the perspective of someone in 1968 sitting in the theatre. This time and era is interesting not only due to the civil rights movement but everything else going on at the time (the Cold War, societal shifts after the stringent 50’s, and more). The production and reception of this movie is one worth examining. Due to this the movie has received two distinguished honors awards since coming out and has been added to the National Film Registry in 1999 for being culturally significant. I'm glad that I watched this movie and experienced this treasure.


Recommended score: 9/10