Civil Rights-era horror classic 'Night of the Living Dead' still resonates

Spoiler alert, just in case you are concerned with that sort of thing: "Night Of The Living Dead" ends with its main character, a black man named Ben (Duane Jones), surviving a night battling zombies and arguing with a bunch of selfish, hysterical white people who all eventually turn into zombies and devour each other, only to take a bullet to the head at the hands of armed, patrolling quasi-police who thoughtlessly mistake him for one of the undead when they see him from afar.

Even if you haven't seen this 1968 OG zombie classic, you're undoubtedly already familiar with most of its plot machinations, ethical quandaries, and unleavened portrayal of honky cowardice that come before the movie's unsettling conclusion because it has been riffed on or just plain ripped off countless times. Basically: Dead people are coming back to life and craving flesh, turning more and more people into the wandering, cannibal corpses, and it's up to those who are still alive to hack, slash, and hide to survive.

Look beyond the recognizable stuff that so many other zombie movies have remixed, mashed-up, or outright stolen and you'll realize that "Night of the Living Dead" is a fascinating, singular, politically loaded straggler. It's a horror movie but its roots lie as much in politically radical, unabashedly didactic off-Broadway living theater happenings as in, say, 1932's "White Zombie" and 1943's "I Walked With a Zombie." "Night of the Living Dead" stylistically echoes the film version of Leroi Jones' play "Dutchman" the most. Made one year before "Night of the Living Dead," also in grainy black and white, and similarly fueled by a fascinating mix of theatricality and amateurism, "The Dutchman" concludes with a white person in power murdering a black person mostly because they "feared for their life," as the saying goes.

Even if you're one of those horror geeks who would prefer not to consider racial politics in your genre fare, you're well aware of the trope that black characters almost always get killed off first in horror. That seems like a particularly perverse legacy since the genre ostensibly began with "Night of the Living Dead" which positions a black man as its sole survivor (nearly). And put this movie next to "The Walking Dead" whose protagonist Daryl is pretty much a racist biker bro (and whose spinoff "Fear the Walking Dead" faced online backlash for how often it killed off its black characters first) and you're staring down a truly reprehensible regression of tradition given the socially-conscious precedents laid down by director George Romero. Really though: Modern horror has really done Romero, its godfather, dirty. Italian schlockmeisters such as Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi ran with "Night of the Living Dead's" violence and turned death and dismemberment into an aesthetic experience during the '70s and early '80s that resulted in some rhapsodic gore. But for the most part, we've been privy to clueless and ugly (both ethically and aesthetically) excuses to show death and dismemberment that only occasionally nod to Romero's still-seething, not-so-subtle subtext. And usually these movies lack other hallmarks of the horror innovator's oeuvre—his rust belt sincerity and working-class camp.

Romero would go onto construct similarly socially-cognizant sequels to "Night of the Living Dead" in the '70s and '80s wherein zombies were reified as a shifty, mixed metaphor for whatever was most prominently haunting American culture. The Pop Art commercialism satire of 1978's "Dawn of the Dead" turns mallgoers, brain dead by capitalism, into literal zombies and reflects the era of the soft batch Democratic dullard Jimmy Carter and, hey, kicks off with a housing project overrun with zombies and observes police in riot gear capitalizing on the chaos by shooting people of color who aren't zombies just because (it now recalls the 1985 MOVE bombing and post-Katrina New Orleans). In the militaristic burlesque of 1985's "Day of the Dead," a bunch of Reagan-esque warmongers scream, shout, blow things up, and bully a bunch of brainy liberal scientists who suggest that they'll never destroy all of the zombies and should perhaps try and reeducate them and understand them.

Which brings us back to Ben getting one in the brain by a white guy in this movie's final moments. It is 2016 and the country is in the midst of what appears to be an epidemic of white cops shooting people, especially unarmed young black men. Then the tragic shooting of "Night of the Living Dead's" Ben evoked the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., but now it recalls the murder of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Laquan McDonald, along with many others who died in police custody such as Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland. So the template for gritty DIY horror starts with "Night of the Living Dead" and continues on, but Romero also packed the schlocky, self-invented subgenre with a sly seriousness that it hasn't ever reached in quite the same way.

"Night of the Living Dead" directed by George Romero plays at the Charles Theater on June 9.

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