I’ll be discussing the original 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead. Because this is an old movie, it’s more of a discussion rather than a review and thus contains some spoilers as I assume that most people have already seen it. But, I won’t be providing a full recap of the movie so you can still check it out if you’ve never seen it before.
Horror movies had been made before Night of the Living Dead but this particular film was significant for both its characters that reflected the changing times as well as its shocking use of gore for the time. Overall the movie is about a group of people who barricade themselves in a house in hopes of escaping the packs of ghouls roaming outside in search of people to eat.
Taking into consideration movies that I’ve reviewed in the past you might be saying to yourself this isn’t a movie about a particular Black person nor does it have a predominantly Black cast. But, it’s in a similar vein to The Walking Dead, where Night of the Walking Dead is as much about the relationships and interactions between the living as it is about them trying to escape the undead.
The film starts with two young people, Barbara and Johnny, visiting their father’s grave in a remote cemetery. While Johnny jokes around about Barbara being afraid a shuffling rather nicely dressed man shows up and begins moving towards them. The two don’t immediately realize that the man is a ghoul until he gets quite close and they come into physical contact with him.
A fight for survival ensues which I admittedly giggled about. On the one hand, we have a middle-aged man dressed in a suit that’s a bit dusty fighting an equally nicely dressed young man who is wearing some very ugly glasses. This was probably considered great acting at the time but the fight scene looks ridiculous. The two men are in a closer embrace at points just rocking from side to side as the camera moves as well attempting to give the impression that they’re fighting. It was pretty cheesy but I look back at old movies and over the top campy acting seems to have just been the style that was most prevalent at the time.
For the life of me, I will never understand how it is that in horror movies a woman can be running at full speed while the monster or zombie is shuffling along. And even in the 10% of cases where she manages to not fall, the zombie still catches up to her. I liked that the ghouls weren’t exactly mindless and were able to use tools that made things more interesting. It’s kind of like in World War Z where the zombies could run quite fast and pile themselves up to get over obstacles.
Barbara manages to escape to a nearby abandoned farmhouse but the ghoul follows her and is joined by a few others. Right when she seems to be a goner, a Black young man, Ben, shows up and helps her back inside to safety.
Barbara had only been in the house for a short amount of time before Ben arrived and was preoccupied with checking its rooms and on the number of zombies near the house. Ben immediately leaps into action and asks about getting gas for his truck, tries dialing out with the phone, and searches the house for resources to aid their escape. He fights back against the ghouls and develops plans for defending the house and themselves when his idea of an immediate escape proves unfeasible.
The character of Ben would go on to be quite iconic in film history and especially within the horror genre. According to the director and screenwriter, George A. Romero, Ben was not specifically written as a Black character. Instead, Duane Jones was the best actor for the role and thus the character became Black. Usually, within horror movies—and arguably most movies—the hero is white. That was the certainly the case up until the 60s and still is to some degree now where even in films about a Black person or events from Black history, there is often a White savior.
Having a Black man be presented onscreen as well-spoken, intelligent, and courageous was a new and different thing. We don’t know much about Ben’s backstory and he seems harmless enough. But, Ben and Barbara are seemingly alone in a house surrounded by danger outside. Traditionally Barbara might have been portrayed and perceived as also being in a vulnerable and potentially dangerous position in the house with Ben. I can only imagine being in a theater watching Night of the Living Dead and seeing Barbara falling apart, slapping Ben, and Ben slapping her back. People probably clutched their pearls and fainted.
Ben spends quite a bit of time boarding up the windows, lighting fires to keep the ghouls at bay, and clearing the house. When he’s pretty much done and Barbara has awoken from her unplanned nap, it’s revealed that other people are hiding out in the cellar. The basement group consists of a young local couple, Tom and Judy, and the Cooper family Henry, Helen, and their injured daughter Karen. Call it cowardice or self-preservation, they heard the raucous upstairs as well as a woman screaming and did not intervene.
An argument ensues over whether the group should return to hiding in the cellar or remain upstairs on the defense. The cellar is strong and only has one point of entry that would need to be defended. But it would cut the group off from the outside and would limit the possibility of escape if the ghouls were able to break in. Above ground in the house would allow the group to listen to the radio for news updates, see out and signal any help that might pass by, or respond to attacks by the ghouls. There are more potential points of entry to defend but there would also be more options for escape.
Tom is the voice of reason who considers both perspectives and tries to mediate between Henry and Ben. Henry ultimately decides that he and his family will remain in the basement and states his plans to take food and Barbara below. Ben is having none of it and refuses to give him food or Barbara, though Barbara is not consulted. The two continue to argue and it becomes increasingly tense and hostile. Ben yells at Cooper and calls him and his plan stupid. Coming from a Black man at this time, Ben’s direct manner of speech would have been viewed as risque.
Tom agrees with Ben that staying upstairs is the best idea and calls Judy upstair before Henry bars the door, but he also doesn’t give Judy a say in the matter. When Henry gets back to the basement Helen presses him for information and then demands that they return upstairs with everyone else so they can hear the news reports. Like Henry, Helen shows that she’s opinionated but is not a person of action.
And with that, the group begins using the whole house as part of their strategy to defend their current position while trying to arrange an escape to a local help station that has been established.
The three young adults venture out of the house in an attempt to gas up the truck so they can try to reach one of the aid centers. Meanwhile, the Coopers remain in the house to provide a distraction and maintain the house’s safety. When their plan fails Henry has a moment of cowardice where he locks himself and his family in safety, abandoning the group outside. Ben is able to break in and re-secures the house with Henry’s help. But, without Tom to intervene, the two factions begin fighting again and end up turning on each other.
Ben is still willing to try to go out to try to find help even if it means walking a mile with Karen on his back. Helen and Barbara aren’t much help as they are alternately consumed with being scared or worrying about their family members. Meanwhile, Henry offers no new ideas and begins advocating again for hiding the cellar. Throughout the film, he pushes to be the leader of the group just because he wants to be in control. But, his plan is always to just hide and he shows himself as being willing to abandon others to the ghouls for self-preservation.
The group watches a news report which explains that the government is no longer just waiting for people to reach local safety and aid centers. Instead, law enforcement has created local militias that are moving throughout the community and eliminating any ghouls they come across. People are advised that they can prevent the wakening of the living dead by lighting dead bodies of fire before they can reanimate. And ghouls can be destroyed with a shot in the head. In essence, it’s realized that the best plan for moving forward is not just to run and hide but rather to defend yourself. Meaning Ben was right.
Everything dissolves into chaos and Ben finds himself fighting for his life within the house as well as against the ghouls outside. He’s ultimately able to regain control of the situation and in a turn of fate has to hide in the cellar overnight for safety. But, the cellar has already been foreshadowed as a death trap. When morning arrives so does the militia and they clear out the zombies. But, as he feared, Ben is cut off from the outside and upon emerging from the cellar he is immediately shot down in a crazy but en pointe plot twist.
The version that I most recently saw showed the militia seeing movement in the house and shooting Ben through an open window. But, I’m quite certain that in the version I first saw a few years ago it showed Ben stepping out the front door relieved to be saved and being shot down. The window version is still a shocker but makes the militia seem simply trigger happy because there’s a curtain blowing and Ben can’t be seen clearly. The front door version was even more impactful because Ben was in full view and walking normally but was still shot down the moment he stepped outside. Given the movie’s undertones, it was especially discomforting because it made it seem like the militia saw him specifically and opened fire.
There’s a theme throughout Night of the Living Dead of Ben being under attack on two fronts. He thus has to save himself from ghouls and also the people who should be his allies.
Early in the film when Ben is trying to help Barbara she attacks him in her state of hysteria and he defends himself. When he ventures outside with Tom and Judy they inadvertently abandon him while he’s trying to put out a fire. He warns them to get out of the truck but they don’t listen until it’s too late. Henry locks the door which puts him in danger when he’s trying to get back inside to escape from the ghouls. Ben reacts to this betrayal by physically attacking Henry to reassert order. But, Henry refuses to capitulate and instead grabs a rifle in an attempt to subdue Ben.
It’s telling that Tom, Judy, and Barbara are devoured by the ghouls while the Coopers all die within the “safety” of the cellar and become the undead. Ever defending the safety of the house, Ben is the one that has to kill the reanimated Coopers.
Ben tried to save everyone even with them fighting him and making things difficult along the way. In the end, he’s left alone and forced into the very place he doesn’t want to be. He finally emerges the next morning after surviving in a death trap. But, again the people who should represent safety and security for him are the ones that kill him.
At one point in the film, Ben tells Barbara that they need to get away from the house and the ghouls to someplace where there are more people. It’s not specifically said but it’s obvious that he means regular living people. Ben sees safety in people and regardless of his experiences doesn’t lose hope in their humanity. Henry is an adversary because he sees Ben as a threat to his authority and the militia is also an antagonist because they don’t see Ben as human. It’s clear by the end of the film that the living will cause him just as much harm as the undead.
Something interesting to note in Night of the Living Dead is that while there are females present they’re are like largely useless. Much of the defense and fighting against zombies and ideas come from the male characters in the form of Ben, Henry, Tom, and the militia as well. For much of the film when the women are onscreen they are simply relegated to being scared and not really helping or participating in any way. Though at one point Judy does show that she has some courage and actually more than Henry and rushes outside to aid Tom and Ben.
Early in the movie, we see that Barbara is in a state of hysteria while Ben takes it upon himself to board up the windows and doors. Tom and Henry venture upstairs from the cellar to see what’s going on when they first reveal themselves. The men come up with the plans both for where they’ll locate themselves within the house as well as where the women will be located within the house. They come up with the plans, they assign roles, and the women don’t really play any kind of a part in the leadership.
And later in the film, we see that the militia in addition to being all white is also all male. Traditionally in situations like this men would be expected to defend against the attackers thus protecting the women and children. And so we see that throughout the film here. But while some of the men are more fleshed out there’s more detail to them. The women just really don’t really serve much of any purpose. They’re just really plot devices.
Also while the character of Ben was not planned to be a Black character, the fact that it ended up being played by a Black actor was actually pretty significant. And I think led to or at least played a very crucial role in Night of the Living Dead eventually becoming a cult classic. I truly believe that had Ben just simply been another young White male, the movie wouldn’t have been as complex. There wouldn’t have been as much to discuss and debate about with the movie. And it really would have just been your typical horror film.
Night of the Living Dead is not particularly great. But there were undertones, implications, and complexity added by casting this one Black actor in the lead role. It really had a tremendous impact on the film and its meaning to cinema as well as the connotations that it brought about within the story of the film.
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