Zombies are a staple in today’s roster of horror movies and have become synonymous with the late George A. Romero. While they have been around in pop culture for decades, Romero truly defined the horrors of the living dead by going beyond the typical voodoo lores and scientific experiments. While most people perceive zombies as monsters that crave nothing but human flesh, Romero has always used them as tools to address social issues. Night of the Living Dead marked the first of his series of satire.
The opening scenes of Night of the Living Dead are forever etched as one of the most iconic in the horror genre as the audience follows siblings Johnny and Barbara’s drive to visit their father’s grave. Once they arrive, Johnny mocks his sister, scaring her with the iconic line “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!” as a mysterious figure approaches them. The movie takes its first twist by killing off Johnny, leaving Barbara to run and fend for herself.
The heroine is left alone to survive, running into a man named Ben and finding refuge within a farmhouse where they are joined by a group of other survivors. Throughout the film, the audience is terrified to see what happens to them. The film ends on a bleak and hopeless note as none of the protagonists are left alive.
The picture is memorable for its portrayal of zombies whose unknown origins leave the audience in the dark. Still, it has also been iconic for Romero’s satirical portrayal of social issues taking over the country in the 60s. The director wanted his film to reflect the reality of the Civil Rights protests and the Vietnam War. However, one of the audience’s biggest takeaways was the casting of the unknown stage actor Duane Jones as Ben.
In a time when African-Americans were finally given rights, it was Jones’s presence as the leading man that genuinely marked a change in films. Romero has often stated that race was never an issue with his casting, saying Jones was simply the best actor. The decision was controversial as it portrayed a black man in an unconventional role which sees him hitting a white woman and shooting a white man. Regardless of how the audience took it, Jones taking the helm as the leading man truly marked a change in film.
While zombie films have been around longer than most people expect, it was always grounded on either the enslaved corpses of Haitian folklore or some Frankenstein-esque plot with a mad scientist using his wits to create life. George A. Romero moved away from the traditional roots and instead sought to create a narrative that reflected the social injustices occurring at the time. The monsters were no longer some foreign being from another world. They were the average, everyday man or woman that people encountered on the streets of their neighborhood.
Night of the Living Dead sparked a movement in horror, and George A. Romero showed that the genre could go beyond entertainment and carry a more profound, underlying meaning. More directors followed in his footsteps, and Romero continued creating more satirical films, creating sequels that tackled issues like class divisions and overreliance on technology. Regardless, none of his other works made as significant an impact as Night of the Living Dead.