American Discord & Night of the Living Dead

1968.  A post-civil rights America, still fractured by decades of inherent racial disparity, engaged in a controversial war in Southeast Asia.  The annals of American history are dappled with blood, be it from the patriotic revolutionaries who cut a fledgling nation from the fat of an empire, the thousands of slaves whose deaths formed the foundation of an entire culture, or the souls of children who were unlucky enough to attend school on a fateful day.  It seems that division is unfortunately one of the strongest qualities of America's citizens and George A. Romero's masterpiece is perhaps one of the most important explorations of this truth.  Night of the Living Dead is not only a landmark achievement in the horror genre, it is a cultural institution that revolutionized American cinema and excised the festering malcontent of a nation in distress.

The casting of Duane Jones as Ben, the film’s protagonist, has been hailed as a game changing decision, despite Romero adamantly stating that Jones was chosen due to his stellar audition and not his race.  However, Romero also stated that the Vietnam War was on everyone's mind and that making a statement was part of the dynamic.  

Jones' performance is the centerpiece of the film.  The role was originally written for a truck driver and Jones refused to portray his character as written, wanting his character to be more than a stereotype.  The bulk of the dialogue was ad libbed during production and it is Jones' impeccable embrace of the role that is so resounding.  Ben is smart, charismatic, and good natured - the antithesis of what the white robed forces of fear would have had you think about a black man in 1968.  His early scenes with Judith O'Dea's traumatized Barbara are masterful, playing upon the fear of interracial comingling just through appearance.  

This is the first of the film's many subversive tactics.  Ben views Barbara as a human, as life, and ultimately as something to be protected.  There is no nascent chemistry or supposition, as if Romero is pointing to the viewer's predispositions with devious accusation. 

The theme of racism extends in two crucial scenes.  First is Ben and Cooper's dynamic.  Cooper is introduced as a stubborn family man who puts being right before being moral.  The masculinity of each man is on display, yet the expected tropes are reversed, with Ben embodying courage and decency while Cooper, a white man, is shown to be a domineering coward.  While the idea of a white actor being shown as such wasn't revolutionary in 1968, such an archetype inhabiting the same space as a protagonist black man was and this is part of why it remains an important component of the discussion.  The second instance involves the absolutely shocking finale.  Ben, the only survivor is summarily executed by a posse of lawmen and vigilantes when he is mistaken for one of the ghouls.  The ramifications of this were both provocative and terrifying at the time, and perhaps even more so today.  The symbolism of minorities overcoming obstacle after obstacle only to be killed by authority figures is a specter that continues to haunt social discourse and politics 40 years later.  

It is Romero's exposure of the horror behind the American dream that is perhaps the most important element.  This is a film where beings are literally ripping the living apart, feasting on the bodies with an insatiable hunger.  America is a country known for excess and the fact that the film was released as a matinee where parents and children could freely access it is perhaps the greatest part of the film's legacy.  Thinking films are not historically mainstream affairs.  Most movie goers have their own struggles and challenges and are looking for an escape, not another reminder of the darkness that pervades their daily lives.  This is possibly one of the reasons the initial reactions to the film were negative.  Yet, there is an undeniable mystique to the film.  The cause behind the ghouls is never fully revealed, the characters are all killed, and the situation is not truly resolved.  In essence: The good guys lose and at a time when the country was both engaged in a bloody conflict and socially split, Living Dead was not only the perfect summation of a nation in distress, it was startling reminder that even nobility and courage might not be enough to overcome the darkness.  

What could be scarier than that?

--Kyle Jonathan