I have to admit something from the start, I am zombie inept. Zombie culture has never really turned me on, in spite of its recent renaissance in the society of the critically acclaimed. I have always struggled to see zombies as scary monsters. They’re slow and stupid — brainless creatures who lurch their way toward dumbstruck targets, who could most likely outrun their predators like an antelope could probably outlast a pack of hyenas that all have four broken ankles.
Watching George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead (#85) didn’t exactly lead me to embrace the undead, but it did enlighten me as to what makes them terrifying. They are driven by one directive, to eat the minds of the living. Their strength is not in their speed or cunning, it’s in their mass numbers and their single mindedness (single mindlessness?). They want to destroy the thinking brains of autonomous humans, and will do so without the squabbles that usually hinder packs of non-undead beings. Zombies do not have power struggles or preconceived notions of one another, they do not suffer from flashes of loyalty to their kind or emotional ineptitude. They surrender to their singular desire, and whether willingly or not, they drag their legs and moan toward their targets in search of what they covet, but can never utilize.
The film opens on Barbra and Johnny Blair, siblings who have driven to visit their father’s grave at their mother’s request. Neither of them appear to be emotionally affected in any way by the task at hand. Johnny complains about the heat and the drive. Barbra is spooked by the setting, in a slightly comical and hysterical way, a fact that Johnny takes advantage of. As the title suggests, the dead come back to life and while Johnny is the first victim in the film, Barbara manages to escape to a farmhouse where she becomes accompanied by a cast of characters, and quickly sacrifices her role as the main character.
Barbara is replaced by the infinitely more capable Ben, who barricades the doors and windows in an effort to keep out the growing mass of undead bodies struggling to enter the property. The house itself is eerily decorated with taxidermied beasts: meaning the walls are littered with majestic trophies of reanimated corpses, who were also hunted for useless parts.
When Ben finds a radio, the noise attracts a group of stowaways who emerge from the cellar where they had been hiding from the enemy. Harry and Helen Cooper (along with their ill daughter, Karen) are accompanied by a teenaged couple, Tom and Judy. Throughout a heated discussion, Harry Cooper and Ben argue about the best strategy for survival. Harry demands that they all retreat to the cellar, which Ben argues that will only put themselves into an inescapable corner — creating a prime time zombie swarm tinderbox.
Here arises the first example of human fallibility in comparison to their zombie brethren. The tension between Ben and Harry causes a rift between the survivors, leaving Tom as the sole male swing vote in the plan. He wavers between supporting Ben, and seeing through his allegiance to Harry as the leader of the pack (who is played masterfully by Karl Hardman, and although NotLD is a black and white film, his high blood pressure seems to raise so high his flushed red cheeks almost tint the screen.) Harry appears enraged by Ben’s insubordination and gumption to question his logic — it seems entirely likely that this is related to the fact that Ben is Black, but more on that later.
What should be the most critical factor that handicaps the zombies, their incapability of critical thought, is the same quality that ultimately hinders the crew of humans from achieving survival. Harry and Ben engage in a power struggle throughout the film, neither willing to surrender control. Tom, and the now (mostly inconsequential) women attempt to make peace from time to time, but mostly look on with distress. Eventually, the crew agrees on a plan to refuel the truck. Without going into the gory and tragic details, the plan goes awry and leaves Ben on the outside of the house looking in with a horde of zombies just as eager to gain entry.
He is locked out by Harry, who is either attempting to get rid of his nemesis and regain complete control, or willing to sacrifice Ben to save himself. Either way, it reveals another flash of how what should strengthen the human contingent is encumbering them. The voice of Jack from Lost kept cycling through my head in his now trite quote, “We can live together or we can die alone.” Ben expects decency from Harry, and a degree of loyalty to be granted to him from a fellow man. Harry does not, evidently, feel that same sense of responsibility to humanity. The situation quickly disintegrates and after a series of tribulations, Ben is the last human standing.
It’s difficult to watch Night of the Living Dead and not contemplate the casting of Duane Jones as the hero of the film, when nearly fifty years after the film’s initial release, Black actors are so rarely cast as leads in movies that don’t explicitly deal with race or criminality. The premiere of the film arrived near the end of the African-American Civil Rights movement, and the parallels to that struggle are evident from the beginning. While it’s never explicitly discussed, it’s impossible to imagine that Harry Cooper’s detestation of Ben is isolated from racial preconceptions. While I’m far from an expert on race relations (and admittedly wary of representing myself as one) many more educate than myself have argued that much of the contemporary racial tension in the United States has spawned from a white fear of the upward mobility of Black individuals, and the systemic efforts of some groups to rob African Americans of their autonomy.
Ben is forced to exist suspended between certain death externally at the hands of the zombies, and the internal human threat of a hot blooded little man who views him simultaneously as a lesser being and a threat to his own power and authority. I have never been a Black American and I will not attempt to define that experience, but watching Ben try to save his life and everyone else’s in the face of dual sided turmoil is an allegory that is poignant and devastating.
The end of the film is stark and alarmingly relevant to modern audiences. After surviving the zombie invasion, Ben is hunkered down in the farmhouse waiting out the final dredges of the attack. Meanwhile, a local militia has been called to shoot down the undead and cull the onslaught of zombies. In a shockingly resonant moment, Ben is able to feel a brief respite from danger as he ventures up the farmhouse staircase. However, he is unceremoniously gunned down by an officer who presumably sized Ben up as a zombie and felt no prerogative to confirm those suspicions. The last scene is a montage of stills, showing Ben and the other bodies being burned on a pyre. Survival was impossible to come by for our hero - he outlasted the undead but he could not dodge the mindless living, hunting for trophies, determine to devour the brains of those who dare to embrace their threatening free will.