Night of the Living Dead: Social Commentary in Horror Cinema

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Night of the Living Dead (1968) was hardly the first zombie film—in fact, it was the fortieth, for those of you who like useless trivia facts—but it is possibly the most memorable of the older zombie classics. It’s not hard to see why it has persisted for the last fifty-three years, enduring beyond the renown of such modern zombie sensations, such as The Walking Dead (2010 – Present) and Train to Busan/Busanhaeng (2016). What most modern films and television shows of the horror genre seem to gloss over is their captive audience. Therein lies the opportunity for commentary on the civil rights issues that are still incredibly relevant in the present day.

One notable exception to missed opportunities for commentary being Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017)—but we can get to that one later. For now, we’ll just focus on the message of Night of the Living Dead. As Tom Gunning explained in his essay, “confrontation rules the cinema of attractions in both the form of its films and their mode of exhibition. The directness of this act of display allows an emphasis on the thrill itself—the immediate reaction of the viewer,” (“An Aesthetic of Astonishment”, 122)—this thrill that we get from controversial messages and images on display within films is one of the main reasons we watch horror. Excitement is king.

They’re coming to get you, Barbara!

Johnny in Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A line of undead ‘zombies’ walk through a field in the night

What is Night of the Living Dead about?

At face value, this movie is just a story about survivors of a zombie apocalypse stumbling upon one another, clashing personalities, and finally a begrudging combining of forces to fend off the zombie hoard that surrounds the farmhouse that they each found and decided to hunker down in for safety. One by one, these survivors each ends up dying, until we see the last man standing—Ben, emerged cautiously from his secure space in the cellar of the farmhouse to find that police and other volunteers were roaming around, killing the zombies, and reclaiming their land for the safety of the living.

Unfortunately for Ben, these rescuers are less focused on finding survivors and more focused on mindlessly putting down anything they find that moves. While that might simply be interpreted as bad luck for our main character, Romero’s decision for this ending was actually fairly controversial considering the time in which it had been created. Now you might be asking yourself, where does the conversation of civil rights factor into this? Well, buckle up, buttercup—we’re just getting started.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Movie Poster
Night of the Living Dead (1968) Movie Poster

Controversial Social Commentary

“Curiositas draws the viewer towards unbeautiful sights, such as a mangled corpse, and ‘because of this disease of curiosity monsters and anything out of the ordinary are put on show in our theatres,’” (Gunning, 124). Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) gives us these “unbeautiful sights” in spades. Consider the special effects that were available to directors at that time—the glimpses of a woman with her face eaten off at the top of the stairs and zombies ripping flesh off of bones after an unfortunate accidental explosion of the getaway vehicle were the literal encapsulation of this concept. The intangible concepts within this film are the reflections of society and how little progress has been made since 1968.

Ben giving Barbara slippers in Night of the Living Dead
Ben giving Barbara slippers

Freud pinpoints the appeal of the horror story. He begins by discussing the etymological root of the word “uncanny” in German, a word long associated with the horror genre, demonstrating how both the word and its opposite are very close in definition and usage… ‘it may be true that the uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimlisch], which has undergone repression and returned from it, and that everything is uncanny fulfills this condition.’ … Freud … hit upon the key to understanding the core of the horror genre. Horror is dissimilar from much of [the] science fiction genre in which the threatening ‘monster’ (often created because of the interference of science or technology)—whether it be alien, atomic mutant, or cyborg—is portrayed as the Other which must be destroyed or controlled by science, often in conjunction with the military/industrial complex, in order to save humanity. Horror tends rather to concentrate on another type of ‘Other,’ an ‘Other’ which is very familiar and because of that much more frightening, an ‘Other’ which is rooted in our psyche, in our fears and obsessions.

James Ursini, pg. 4 of the Introduction in The Horror Film Reader

The Civil Rights Movement

From 1954 to 1968 the Civil Rights Movement empowered Black Americans and their like-minded allies. They battled against systemic racism (or institutionalized racial discrimination), disenfranchisement, and racial segregation within the United States. The brave efforts of civil rights activists and innumerable protesters brought meaningful change to the US, through changes in legislation; these changes ended segregation, voter suppression for Black Americans, as well as discriminatory employment and housing practices.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

There were tragic consequences for two of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. With the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, and the subsequent assassination of Civil Rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Each of these losses to the movements provoked an emotionally-charged response; looting and riots put even more pressure on President Johnson to push through civil rights laws that still sat undecided.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968

The Fair Housing Act became law on April 11, 1968. It came just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; too little too late, but it prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, and religion. It was also the last piece of legislation that was made into law during the civil rights era.

Casting a Black Actor in a Non-Ethnic Role

The way the lead character Ben was written originally with Rudy Ricci. Surprisingly, however, when 31-year-old African American actor Duane Jones auditioned for the part, the decision to cast him was unanimous. Even Rudy Ricci was on board with the change in plans, stating that, “Hey, this [was] the guy that should be Ben.”

Duane Jones—the Anti-Ben

Romero recalled that Jones had been the best option when it came to casting the part of Ben, and remarked that, “if there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme.” He even saw fit to mention that he resisted writing new dialogue for the part just because they had cast a black lead. It was assumed that Jones was the first black actor to be cast in a non-ethnic-specific starring role, but that barrier was broken by Sidney Poitier in 1965.

Interestingly enough, the role of Ben was supposed to be a gruff, crude, yet resourceful trucker. His essence was that of an uneducated or lower class person. On the other hand, Jones happened to be very well-educated, with fluency in several languages, obtained a B.A. at the University of Pittsburgh, and an M.A. at NYU. Jones was the one who flipped the script, improvising through the dialogue to portray his interpretation of Ben as a well-spoken, educated, and capable character. Therefore, as originally written, white Ben was a stereotype whereas Jones turned the character into the antithesis of a stereotypical black ben.

So why was Night of the Living Dead so controversial?

Even though Ben is the protagonist, he was never meant to be the hero—in fact, Ben was supposed to represent just an everyday Joe, who “simply reacted to an irrational situation with strong survival instincts and a competence that, though far from infallible, surpassed that of his five adult companions trapped in that zombie-besieged farmhouse,” (Kane). What we would expect in terms of racially heated arguments, we only witness the palpable tension that displays what goes unsaid. What also may not occur to modern viewers as being controversial, is the portrayal of a black man and a white woman being locked up alone in a house together. Segregation may have begun over a decade prior, but racism doesn’t die overnight just because laws are changed.

The “Final Guy”

The tragic ending of Night of the Living Dead was a commentary on real injustices that were happening at the time, as well as a foreshadowing of an issue that has doggedly limped into the systemic racism of the twenty-first century. The world was facing its end of days. The threat of the undead rising from their graves and feeding off of the living was enough to pull everyone together to stay alive—but racism was still alive and well. Unlike most of his African-American male successors of horror, Ben does not fall victim to the black character stereotype by being the first character to die. Ben makes it to the end—the so-called “final” guy—he was able to save himself when the house was overrun by the living dead. Then, after all of his hardship, he ends up dying at the hands of the gun-toting police officers.

Ben was wielding a gun, he was clearly not a revenant, and the sharpshooter who put one between Ben’s eyes could very obviously see this—his death affected not a soul in that situation, his life in plain language was unworthy of continuing in the eyes of the men who were supposed to serve and protect the living, who instead of seeing a human being, perceived a threat. The ending that Romero’s film allowed to linger in the minds of the audience was controversial because it made people think. It made them look at the social and political issues that were washing over the United States all around them; Romero delivered in that two minutes ending, a message that was unforgettable. It has thusly endured through the culture of horror and has continued to inspire modern horror cinema.

Final Thoughts

If classical Hollywood style is posited as the norm, then filmmaking practices that deviate from it risk becoming seen as “primitive” (such as early cinema) or “excessive” (such as genres where spectacle often seems to trump narrative, including musicals and horror films).

Adam Lowenstein, “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film”

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Interested in watching the full film now that you’ve read this article? Well, you’re in luck—this film is now in the public domain and can be watched online for free.

Work Cited

Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, by Linda Williams, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1995, pp. 114–133.

Lowenstein, Adam. “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film.” Representations, vol. 110, no. 1, 2010, pp. 105–128. JSTOR. Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.

Kane, Joe. “How Casting a Black Actor Changed ‘Night of the Living Dead’.” TheWrap, 1 Sept. 2010.

Harper, Stephen. “Bright Lights Film Journal: Night of the Living Dead.” Bright Lights Film Journal | Night of the Living Dead.

Ursini, James, and Curtis Harrington. “Introduction/Ghoulies and Ghosties.” The Horror Film Reader, by Alain Silver, Limelight Ed., 2006, pp. 3–19.

The Iconic Final Girl

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Featured Women in Horror
The Final Girl of Halloween (1978) Laurie Stroder
The Final Girl of Halloween (1978) Laurie Stroder

It has been said that “women in peril work better in the suspense genre … If you have a haunted house and you have a woman walking around with a candelabrum, you fear more for her than you would for a husky man.” (Clover; pg. 77) With this statement, we can almost summarize the entirety of the horror genre’s tilt towards what some might call misogyny perpetuated by the film industry’s propensity for being male-dominated. We can also build towards a much more interesting concept—that of the Final Girl.

Throughout the lifespan of horror, we see that a woman in peril is hardly a new trope within the genre—in fact, the evidence of its existence can be seen clearly in literature such as that of Edgar Allan Poe, where he regularly relied upon the formula to create suspense within his works. His perspective, however, that “the death of a beautiful woman is the ‘most poetical topic in the world,’ does little to help us in understanding where this pattern comes from. We know the Final Girl is rarely, if ever, regarded for her evolution from victim to heroine, but what is less clear is why that is such a rarity.

The Villain: Epitomizing the Slasher

The killer is with few exceptions recognizably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression; his victims are mostly women, often sexually free and always young and beautiful ones. Just how essential this victim is to horror is suggested by her historical durability.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 77 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

The argument goes that men are victims but Clover argues that, “… if some victims are men … most are women, and the women are brutalized in ways that come too close to real life for comfort…” (pg. 77). It’s true too, that the genders are each represented in their reflections on the screen and this encourages the impulse to identify the impulse of committing sexual violence with men as well as the victimization in their female counterparts. While that association isn’t necessarily flattering to the emboldened female of the modern age, it’s been a trope for such a long time that it’s hard to deny its root in historical facts. Cross-gender identification can and has been entertained as a possibility, but only in the sense that the females watching can identify more closely with the male roles.

The Male Role in Horror: The Killer or the Failed Hero

These days, more often than not, the male viewer can only identify with two portrayals of himself—the killer or the failed hero—male parts are more marginalized, with few exceptions, their characters tend to be more underdeveloped and without fail they have a tendency to die early within the film. We see males portrayed as “policemen, fathers, and sheriffs,” who, if they don’t end up as a victim, only have enough screen time, “to demonstrate risible incompetence,” and if they’re not portrayed in this manner, they’re being portrayed as the killer.

The killer, the villain, the slasher, the butcher—he’s the one that competes with the first victim for the least amount of screen time. We barely see him during the first half of the film, but when we do finally see him as more than a silhouette or a brief flash across the camera we see a character that is hard to identify with.

Who is the Final Girl?

Gender and the Final Girl

Horror movies, especially slashers, have a tendency to boast large body counts—after all, excess is the name of the game—and as we’ve learned those bodies are usually females and pretty ones to boot. One thing that we also have a tendency to see within these same movies, is that the one character who does live to tell the tale, that is to say, if anyone is alive by the end, is fated to be female. This is the famous Final Girl that, we can reliably pick out of the crowd of horny teenagers based on her advanced character development.

Once picked out of the crowd, we see that her storyline is really the only one that has any attention paid to it—outside of the killer’s that is—unlike the rest of the female characters, she has been bestowed a more reasonable set of characteristics. If she’s not operating on pure luck, she likely impresses us with her intelligent watchful eye and her ability to stay more level-headed when she’s put under pressure. She’s typically the first one to notice anything is wrong, but this is generally chalked up to a “gut feeling” which shows us that her instincts are significantly greater than the characters that are more disposable. She is the only character whose view, or perspective, of the situation most closely matches our own as the audience.

We register her horror as she stumbles on the corpses of her friends; her paralysis in the face of death duplicates those moments of the universal nightmare experience on which horror frankly trades. When she downs the killer, we are triumphant. She is by any measure the slasher film’s hero. This is not to say that our attachment to her is exclusive and unremitting, only that it adds up, and that in the closing sequence it is very close to absolute.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 79 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

Women in Peril

While women in peril can be found in almost any genre—the damsel in distress is a popular motivation for any male antagonist. However, as Clover points out in her essay on gender within the slasher film, women in peril tend to work better within a genre of suspense. This stems from origins in such serial productions as The Perils of Pauline (1914); the consensus is that if we were to see a male and female wandering around a haunted house (or other precarious situation), we would invariably be more worried for the female than for the male. This perspective is all too accurate, despite the rise in female heroines in action movies and thrillers and has more to do with how much we can identify with gender and less to do with misogynistic perspectives.

Perhaps it’s the range of emotional expression that the genders are each allotted within these storylines, where the men are given the macho aggression or displays of force, women are given the displays of “crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, [and] begging for mercy.” In essence, the feminine reaction to violence, killing, or simply-put terrifying situations, is “abject terror”.

The Evolution of Perspective

We see within the beginning of these types of films that we have a more intimate view of the killer’s perspective; a perfect example of this would be the opening scene of Halloween (1978) where we are literally seeing through the eyes of a six-year-old Michael Myers as he watches his sister, who instead of babysitting him as she was supposed to, is getting it on with her boyfriend. We see him intentionally sneak through the house while his sister and her boyfriend are aggressively cuddling upstairs, and watch as he grabs the biggest sharpest knife available to him. While we don’t want to identify with this perspective, even though we are forced to see through this lens, we do experience the waxing anxiety that comes with him padding up the staircase and stabbing his breast-baring sister to death. To be quite frank though, it’s not necessarily the perspective that is really disturbing, it’s the moments where we hear the killer’s breathing or heartbeat.

This forced perspective links us, albeit unwillingly, with the killer during the earliest parts of the film, we know him before we know any other character of importance to the storyline. We know his perspective before we even know what he looks like, or in most cases, who he is and what his story might be. We know him before we know our Final Girl—this is done intentionally. Although in Final Girl (2015) we see the pattern flipped, so we see and know who the Final Girl is before we know who the bad guys are (and oddly almost want to identify with them right before they are taken out by our heroine). Aside from the minor outliers to this pattern, the progression of the film leads our shift of perspectives from the killer to the Final Girl. As Clover cleverly stated, “our closeness to him wanes as our closeness to the Final Girl waxes—a shift underwritten by storyline as well as camera position.”

By the end, point of view is hers: we are in the closet with her, watching with her eyes the knife blade stab through the door; in the room with her as the killer breaks through the window and grabs at her; in the car with her as the killer stabs through the convertible top, and so on. With her, we become if not the killer of the killer then the agent of his expulsion from the narrative vision. If, during the film’s course, we shifted our sympathies back and forth, and dealt them out to other characters along the way, we belong in the end to the Final Girl; there is no alternative.

Carol J. Clover, pg. 79 – Her body, himself: Gender in the slasher film

Final Thoughts on the Final Girl

Ultimately when it comes to the Final Girl, I don’t see mysogynistic screenplays, instead I see simple tropes in horror that were stumbled upon by writers who ultimately understood the value of a character that everyone could root for. It’s a human condition to thrive off of excess, this is true for, “sex, violence, and emotion [as they] are fundamental elements of the sensation effects of [pornography, horror, and melodrama],”—we grasp for the gratuitously violent, the gratuitously sexual, and the gratuitously depressing because of the effect they have on our bodies (Williams; pg. 3).

If we were to try to label the reason for the existence of these “heavy doses of sex, violence, and emotion,” we would have to face the fact that they are there for no other reason except to excite us into reacting. Therefore, when we see this Final Girl and her implicit androgyny, her assumed virginal state, her intelligence, and her eagle-eye for understanding the situation that is unfolding before her and we say, “Yep! That would be me if I were in that situation!” We think to ourselves that we would never be the first one to die, we would run out of the house instead of cornering ourselves upstairs, we would never look back while we were running and would therefore never trip over our own feet—and we would never ever utter the phrase, “I’ll be right back.”

Work Cited

Crow, David, et al. “The 13 Best Final Girls in Horror Movie History.” Den of Geek, 30 Sept. 2020.

Kendrick, James. “Slasher Films and Gore in the 1980s.” A Companion to the Horror Film, by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex, 2017.

Lentini, Lori. “5 Horror Movies Where Females Took a Big Bite Out of the Bad Guy.” Puzzle Box Horror, 27 Apr. 2020.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 1991, pp. 2–13.