Bleeding horror of its architecture and romanticism, Night of the Living Dead refuses to shroud death in metaphor, discarding the safety of the exotic and fantastic for a more palpable, localized incubus. Employing the stark and skeletal farmland of Western Pennsylvania as backdrop, creator George A. Romero found antagonism in the ordinary, making monsters of our decaying bodies and prisons of our sanctified homesteads. This betrayal bore an existential strain of the macabre, one wholly separate from the erotic and juvenile, dedicated to documenting human morality and vulnerability in the face of chaos.
Wavering between cruel joke and crisis of faith, Romero set his apocalypse in Spring, orchestrating a cadaveric rebirth at the behest of his indifferent characters. His most apathetic creation is Johnny (Russell Streiner), a pragmatist who figuratively beckons the dead from their tombs with a bitter, graveside indictment of his departed father. Acting as author’s surrogate and polar opposite, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) rebukes her brother’s impious posturing, only to behold his detachment personified in the blank stare and groping arms of a lurking, somnambulist assailant.
The intimacy of the ensuing fight between Johnny and our nameless interloper bears an erratic poetry, each undulation captured in confrontationally tight close-up, channeling the disorder of genuine violence. The score shares in this complicity, employing repetitive horn and string to echo every blow and amplify the piercing clatter of broken glass, imparting menace on the agonized stupor of a torpid antagonist.
Isolation acts as a fitting bedfellow for the growing horde of hungry deceased, epitomized by the spartan decor and desolate chill of Barbra’s farmhouse refuge. Busts of wild boar and the tinkle of music box nod respectively at a gothic past, but Romero’s eye treats domesticity like a contemporary tomb, representing confinement through shards of natural light and flat monochrome. His most artful glance finds Barbra momentarily safe, but solitary, the fading sunlight peeking through a kitchen window, accentuating her shape against the emptiness.
As days fades into the inky void of night, the absence of illumination symbolizes an American homestead stripped of its soul, bearing the heaviness of foreshadowed dread without conspicuous cultural annotation. The text has been argued as a criticism of racism, mass media, and foreign policy, but its impact lies in the display of animalistic instinct, reflected in the perseverance of Romero’s mortal guinea pigs. Ultimately, cooperation will be the saving grace of these sentient prisoners, but paranoia and pride drive a wedge between the ever-expanding survival party, generating a sort of Sartrian dilemma out of failed compromises and human folly.
Acting as pro tem leader of the lucid leftovers, Ben (Duane Jones) plays perfect foil to Barbra’s hysteria, allowing logic and strategy to extinguish feelings of bewilderment and inadequacy. As he vigorously battens down broken windows and splintered doors, fighting off desperate hands and gnashed teeth, he drifts into memory, painting a picture of pandemonium that Romero can’t illustrate on camera, aligning the illusion of a zombie onslaught to man’s impotence in the face of his own mortality.
Ironically, Ben’s physical and emotional barricades are first broached from the inside, penetrated by the cynicism of his Type-A counterpart, Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman), who uses bluster to conceal cowardice and ensnare his counterparts in the mausolean cellar. Romero channels Dracula’s Renfield in each of Cooper’s fevered ultimatums, smirking back at his shocked spectators as he feeds this egomaniac to his vampiric, newly-reanimated daughter. Yet, any sense of karmic satisfaction gained in Cooper’s final moments are fleeting, as our hero is stranded amidst a sea of staggering “ghouls,” left to ponder if suicide or patience is his best chance for a dignified demise.
As night drifts into day, the stillness of morn provides false hope for the endurance of Romero’s homegrown resistance, only to see the noble few immolated by the torches of an angry mob. It’s a grim, but prescient, meditation on dehumanization, evocative enough to mirror the Vietnam War, media sensationalism, and racially-motivated lynching, but bold enough to obscure its intentions and refuse sentimentality. Whether taken as political statement or exploitation, Night of the Living Dead succeeds in its ability to shock without monster or manifestation, terrifying simply by the glimmer of our own reflection.
Night of the Living Dead (Image Ten, 1968)
Directed and Photographed by George A. Romero
Written by George A. Romero and John A. Russo
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