George Romero passed away the day before yesterday. He was 77. He will be remembered primarily for popularizing zombies, the undead monsters now found shambling everywhere throughout our society’s cultural output. His three classics – Night Of The Living Dead, Dawn Of The Dead, and Day Of The Dead – are all-time classics within horror itself, and those first two are arguably much, much more than that.
Still, they are older movies, the kind of things that younger generations rightly turn away from. They have their own versions of these monsters – all of them newer, stronger, faster, louder than the ones that Romero used – and they are available in brutal weekly doses on shows like The Walking Dead. Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead are quaint by today’s standards. Sadly, Romero’s attempts to blend his own storytelling with modern expectations repeatedly fell flat with audiences who came to expect more. Romero liked his movies to say something about the broader culture, but newer audiences wanted more and, in the huge horror marketplace, could easily get it. Romero slowly faded into relative artistic obscurity.
So it might be that Romero’s passing will allow us simply to remember the man that created the genre (if not the monster itself). He was grandfatherly within horror and his influence, like his monsters, goes forever on, even if the movies themselves whither with time.
But Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead deserves a bit more discussion, for two very separate reasons: its storytelling and its main character, Ben.
Night Of The Living Dead‘s greatest contribution to horror might have been an accident. Romero was working with $114,000, and because that money had to be stretched to its absolute breaking point, his story was told in the most economical way. The movie takes place in two locations: a graveyard and then a farmhouse. A brother and sister visiting the graveyard are attacked by a zombie. The brother is killed in the attack and the sister, Barbara, flees to the farmhouse, where she encounters Ben. It is then revealed that there are more five more people in the farmhouse. From there, the seven of them – Ben, Barbara, a couple, and a family (including an injured child) – attempt to survive the night. Things do not go well.
This is the Overcoming The Monster story. But Romero took this already simple formula and boiled it down further. Yes, there was an immediate threat, but Romero refused to spend anytime explaining where exactly the threat came from.
In the above, the newscaster hypes the horror itself, “The wave of murder that is sweeping the eastern third of the nation is being committed by creatures who feast upon the flesh of their victims…reports persisted and medical examinations of some of the victims bore out the fact that they had been partially devoured…it has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and have been committing acts of murder…it’s hard for us here to believe what we’re reporting to you, but it does seem to be a fact.”
All of this serves only to heighten the tension within the house. As viewers, we know that the described creatures – the ones just beyond the house’s boarded up windows and doors – are the things being described in the newscast itself. We know what happens should they break through, but none of this serves to explain the how or the why of the ghouls. The only effort to do anything along those lines comes later in the broadcast:
The newscaster floats a theory about a space probe doused in high levels of radiation, followed by an interview sequence in which three experts – a scientist, a general, and a government official – bicker about a possible explanation without offering anything concrete, mostly because they plainly don’t know. And, more importantly, the people in the house do not care about a possible explanation anyway. Knowing would not fix their dire predicament. The situation is of paramount importance, not the mythology.
Modern culture so often inundates viewers with exposition that it almost serves to overwhelm the telling of the story itself. It is as if audiences are not trusted to accept what they are seeing. But curiously, information overload can achieve the opposite outcome, as every new fact introduces one more way for the story itself to fall apart under the weight of it all. Romero’s dodged the problem by simply not dealing with it in any meaningful way.
Ben (as portrayed by Duane Jones) is not only the movie’s ostensible hero – is level-headed and reasonable as the world literally rots around him, and he stays that way despite being routinely undermined by the characters he is surrounded by – but also an African-American. Night Of The Living Dead is often described as one of the first times that a movie’s main character was black without a script calling for such a casting.1 Romero said that Jones was cast because his audition was the best of the bunch. Whether or not Romero recognized what he was doing, Jones’s casting broke significant artistic ground at a time in which America was being consumed by rampant cultural strife.
That alone would have been sufficient, but because the character was written to be the leader, Duane Jones is the leader. That means telling everybody around him where to go and what to do. It means intervening when his leadership is questioned. It also means hitting Barbara, the sister from the beginning of the movie, as she hatches a bad plan to go and find her brother:
There is no sense ignoring the brutality of this scene. The sound effect implies Ben hit a white character with a closed fist, but even then, in the immediate aftermath of having done it, he catches a fainting Barbara and puts her gently on the couch. If Romero didn’t realize what he was doing, it is impossible to ignore it in retrospect. Less than two decades earlier, America was a place where even looking at a white woman could be a death sentence; Romero’s scene presents a black man hitting a white woman, asks the viewer to sympathize with Ben, and then gives us reason for doing so.2 Is it any great surprise that the movie generated immediate controversy, at least part of it resulting from Ben? That article goes further into the thinking behind this scene, in which everybody involved seemed to recognize the inherently controversial nature what was being filmed.
And then, of course, there is the film’s ending: Ben, having survived the night, is then gunned down by a white militia who confuse him for one of the zombies. There is no explicit racial animus in this; the militamen have no apparent understanding that anybody might have survived and thus assume that anybody left is a ghoul. But seeing a black character shot by rural whites, whether intentionally or otherwise, harkened back to that year’s earlier assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.
It is very tempting to believe two very different narratives: that Romero knew exactly what he was doing or that Romero had no idea what he was doing. Both make for very compelling, albeit very different, versions of the man. But the answer does not really matter. What does matter is that Romero created a substantive piece of cinema history, one that continues to reverberate, even after his death, and even if we imagine what the rest of his career might have been, we know what was: that in a world where very few directors can claim to have made a lasting impact on the form, Romero could.
- In other words, other movies had been made with African-American lead characters, but because scripts necessitated it. Romero worked from a script that had a character named Ben, and Duane Jones happened to be the best Ben that was available. [↩]
- There is also no sense in ignoring what is being done with a female character here: she is panicked, unreasonable, violent, and saved from herself by a man. Nobody is saying that Romero shattered every stereotype. [↩]