When it was released in 1968, Night of the Living Dead brought '60s counter cultural values into the horror movie. Though it was the first movie to do this, it was the only one whose potent social commentary still reverberates today.
Shot in grainy black and white by director George Romero, Night of the Living Dead is a claustrophobic, low-budget, cinema verite horror film about a group of people holed up in a farmhouse as they fend off flesh-eating ghouls. Romero has said in interviews that the ghouls represented a new society overtaking the old one, mirroring the social and cultural shifts that were occurring during the 1960s as a younger generation was rejecting the values and mores of its parents.
This statement couldn't be more truer than in the Hollywood system, a bloated wreck of its past glories that was being dismantled by younger filmmakers, such as Romero, who were introducing new stories and attitudes into the theaters.
Night of the Living Dead takes the conventions of the horror genre and turns them on its head. Unlike other horror films, the heroine Barbara, played by Judith O'Dea, is a catatonic wreck after her brother is murdered by one of the zombies during a visit to a local cemetery. The two middle class characters, Harry and Helen Cooper, represented the older generation, stuck in its ways and unable to cope with a changing society.
But the most progressive aspect of the film was making its leading hero a black man. Played by Duane Jones, Ben was uncompromising and resourceful as he fought off the zombies. What made Ben such a revolutionary character was the fact that in the past black men were always portrayed as cowardly and inefficient, whose bulging eyes and lazy demeanors were counterpoints to the white heroes who came in to rescue the day. While Ben's struggle for survival would turn out to be ill-fated, his battle against the zombies and the belligerence of Harry Cooper, who fought against his decisions every step of the way, showed him to be a man of conscious, decision, forthrightness, and strength.
Ben's death at the end of the film was shocking in so much that heroes in horror pictures almost always prevail against evil. But here, Romero seems to suggest that the heroism Ben exhibits is that most shocking and therefore far more frightening than the zombies terrorizing the countryside.
This last social comment pushes Night of the Living Dead above the usual grind house fare of gore and blood. Night of the Living Dead spelled a dawning of new political and social realities that would overtake American values, sometimes ending in the deaths of those who fought and struggled for those new realities, but opening ways for changes that would redefine America in the coming decades.
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