As George A. Romero’s seminal zombie classic Night of the Living Dead reaches its 50th anniversary, Neal Damiano remembers why it remains an indelible entry in the genre.
Marking its 50-year anniversary, theatres are screening the George A. Romero seminal classic Night Of The Living Dead. A story of six strangers trapped in an isolated farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania in a dire attempt for survival from flesh eating zombies. The film is noted as the first modern zombie film that spawned a cultural phenomenon. But the film is so much more than that, touching on themes of fear in human nature. Let’s look beyond the “scary movie” and break down the meaning and impact that the film has had on society. Perhaps the zombies represent us, when pushed upon fear and paranoia, will we turn on ourselves? The notion of greed and status all represented here in a clever narrative.
The most evident social representation in Night of the Living Dead is that of gender roles and stereotypes; under dreadful situations we will do anything to survive. At its core is the shallow emptiness of the zombie, who lives and dies by specific conditions, but has no internal motivation beyond pure consumption. Perhaps Romero was communicating a specific backlash against the Vietnam war symbolising the zombies as killing machines. Maybe it’s a message of an older generation’s disgust at the youth. One thing is for sure, the humans can be more dangerous than the undead. There’s a profound nod to an era of civil rights and social unrest too: the hero being a black man who survives the night only to be shot down by a bunch of country folk and lawmen.
The film also broke some boundaries in storytelling, for one it did not have a happy ending, the hero dies and authority continues to rule. The zombies have no cure and cannot be stopped. And a child, although undead, still commits murder. Beyond all the gore perhaps the most frightening aspect is the scene of the 11-year-old girl, who turns and devours her father’s dead body, literally killing off the patriarchal society of the time. The influence Night of the Living Dead has had on culture is immeasurable; five decades later and the film still influences all aspects of pop culture from film to television and music. It’s often imitated but never quite matched in its ferocity.
In the last ten years, zombies have become mainstream with the popularity of shows like Walking Dead, Z Nation and IZombie. Whatever you get from Night of the Living Dead, one message is clear that society was headed for a downfall.
Words by Neal Damiano
Mill Creek Entertainment released a 50 Year Anniversary edition on Blu-ray in the US recently.