American Pessimism and the Cultural Implications of “Night of the Living Dead”


George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a film that, upon its release, flew almost entirely under mainstream audiences’ radar. An independent production with characters played by no-name actors, the film opened gradually in drive-ins and rundown theaters after being rejected for distribution from AIP  because it “lacked a romance and had a down-beat conclusion” while Columbia Pictures declined to distribute it because of its grainy black and white style (Merritt 237). Though the film was written off the mainstream map before it was even unleashed, its impact within American society was felt as the film connected with audiences and film scholars alike through various aesthetic elements and symbolic cultural implications upon its release. Through its newsreel and cinema verite-esque visual associations as well as its depiction of a group of “normative” and societal “others” thrust together in an ill-fated apocalyptic setting, Night of the Living Dead represents both the countercultural movement and atypical 1960s culture as self-implosive entities within a hopeless era of American pessimism.

The countercultural movement in the United States arose as a byproduct of the suburbanization of 1950s American culture. Initiated as an “opposition to the war in Vietnam and embracing tolerance, free love, and common property,” the countercultural youth revolution of the 1960s functioned as a rebellion against normative cultural standards established in postwar American society (Phillips 82). The anti-establishment social climate of 1960s counterculture stemmed from a “generation that grew up, largely, in the protected and isolated environment of 1950s suburban culture…” where “…the desire for liberation and experimentation became almost an obsession” (Phillips 86).  Night of the Living Dead stages a narrative which mirrors the countercultural societal climate within which it was produced, depicting a massive and fear-inducing challenge to “normative” life in the form of an assault by “ghouls.” In the case of the film, this is overcome by simply surviving as one of the “living” (not subdivided into “minorities” or “others” just yet) and not assimilating into the group of counter-normative monsters.

The social dissolution and hopeless social mentality which pervaded 1960s American society is codified in Night of the Living Dead first through a scene which depicts a young woman named Barbra fleeing from a ghoul and stumbling upon a secluded house in rural Pennsylvania where other survivors have taken refuge. The scene reflects the notion that the film is essentially a parable about Americans consuming themselves (Merritt 238). As Barbra enters the home (which is prim, tidy, and well-kept in terms of its décor) the mise en scene drastically alters to reflect increasing social anxieties in 1960s society concerning the traditional American household. A deafening score mirrors Barbra’s anxieties as quick-paced shots juxtapose her progress with that of the ghoul’s pursuit. But, as Barbra enters the house the score immediately cuts out, replaced by the stark silence of the stagnant, seemingly empty home. The lighting setup shifts from the brightly-lit exterior shots (ironic because the supposed threat exists “outside”) to a chiaroscuro effect, highlighting the foreboding interior atmosphere which eventually facilitates the deaths of everyone inside. The American home, typically represented in 1950s media (such as “Leave It to Beaver,” etc.) as facilitating healthy familial relations, is instead ominously alluded to through the foreboding and moody mise en scene as a trap for interpersonal conflicts.

In Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond, Robin Wood describes horror films as generally representing a normative society threatened by a monster which results from the repression or oppression of certain aspects of the Self (66). Wood indicates that the repressed/oppressed entity of the Self is often represented, in horror, as the “Other,” or “that which bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with…” (65). The “Other” is often represented by women, ethnic groups within the culture, and children (Wood 66-67). In Night of the Living Dead, the group of people Barbra encounters in the house is comprised of a mix of “Others” (a black man named Ben and a single woman named Barbra) as well as people who fall in line with what Wood would describe as “boringly constant” normal societal institutions (a heterosexual couple named Tom and Judy and a nuclear family, the Coopers, comprised of a father, mother, and young daughter) (71).

In order to facilitate the group’s survival, Ben takes on the role of barricading the house’s doors and windows with wooden boards, hoping to keep the ghouls from entering the house. In a scene that literally and figuratively deconstructs traditional societal notions concerning the familial living space, Ben disassembles a dining room table to use in the barricading process. A long shot shows Ben entering the room, which the mise en scene indicates was once used as a traditional dining space (seeing as the table is adorned with an elaborate tablecloth on which a serving dish delicately rests) for the family who once lived there. Ben proceeds to systematically deconstruct the table, first removing the tablecloth, moving the chairs away from it, flipping the table over, breaking the legs off, and tearing it to shreds. The camera alternates between medium shots of Ben, hacking away at the table, and Barbra, who clings to the discarded tablecloth as a child clings to a blanket. This symbol of the “safe” haven of the American family, which she rubs over her neck and face, provides Barbra with comfort in the midst of a grim situation; she clasps the blanket as if grasping the only connection she has to the now tarnished “normal” life which preceded the ghoul invasion.

As the group eventually finalizes a plan for escape which involves Ben and Tom exiting the house to pump gas into a getaway vehicle (a truck stationed just outside the house), Judy expresses her concerns for her boyfriend’s safety as he is about to embark. For Judy, Tom represents her “normal” half, seeing as she is part of a heterosexual couple. If Tom should die,  Judy becomes the “Other” without him to complete their heterosexual union. Women were already condemned by Harry Cooper, who speaks of them with contempt when discussing their escape plan. He notes that the group has three anchors weighing them down in the form of “two women, [with] one woman out of her head.” Because Judy does not want to be left alone as a single woman, she decides to go with Tom as he runs out of the house. Her decision ultimately leads to both of their deaths as the truck catches fire and explodes, leaving their bodies for the ghouls to devour in graphic detail. While heterosexual couples are generally a stable normative societal institution and not a part of Wood’s list of “Others,” it is the second of such social institutions (“Other” or otherwise) to meet a grim end in Night of the Living Dead (the first death being that of another social institution, Johnny, a heterosexual male). The fact that the heterosexual couple meets such a gruesome end before the “Others” mirrors the violent happenings (such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, etc.) in an increasingly pessimistic 1960s America (Phillips 81).

The violence and brutality that is present throughout Night of the Living Dead also has cultural implications beyond the scope of its own narrative context. In Projected Fears, Phillips discusses the shifting attitudes of the American counterculture from peaceful opposition to violent rebellion, stating that “…in the face of the long list of assassinations and escalations, the movement became violent and divisive. Violence, indeed, became an almost defining characteristic of what had been a largely peaceful cultural revolution” (89). Since both representatives of normative social institutions (such as Tom and Harry) and social “Others” (like Ben) resort to extreme acts of violence in the face of their slow-moving foes, Romero shows his audience characters who are united by their dominant expressions of self-preservation instincts which manifest in acts of violence. Scenes that exemplify this include one towards the beginning of the film where Ben, after stating that there are only two ghouls outside, ventures outside to beat them repeatedly. Tom also hacks away at a ghoul’s hand as it reaches through an already well-barricaded window, knocking off fingers and flesh in the process.

Images of violence were not foreign to the general American public as a result of the Vietnam War. Romero’s use of a filming style reminiscent of newsreel films shot with hints of cinema verite style connects Night of the Living Dead to the vast amount of wartime images that circulated in the United States during the Vietnam War. Films shot in color were no stranger to the film industry by 1968. The fact that Night of the Living Dead is filmed on black and white stock aligns it with wartime images from the Vietnam era, most notably those which depict graphic realities of the violence occurring during the war. According to Caroline Brothers in War and Photography the Vietnam War brought countless shocking images of the realities of war (most notably in the form of news motion pictures) into the homes of millions of Americans, giving a wide audience “access to scenes of combat and [the media’s] vivid representation of it…” (202). Often the media broadcasted photographs or video documentations of the war in black and white, similar to images that show the conflict overseas (a photo showing General Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Vietcong soldier in the head) to the horrors unfolding as a result of countercultural war reactions on homeland soil (including photos depicting the shootings at Kent State war protests).

Night of the Living Dead employs a visual style similar to the grainy, black and white news documentation of the violent atrocities occurring as a result of the Vietnam War. Romero ultimately utilizes key characteristics of cinema verite style in a fictionalized context, most notably in the form of the static camera which lets events unfold directly before the viewer as if they were there (Pramaggiore 289). The images shown to the public on news stations broadcasting coverage of the Vietnam War were often explicitly violent and gruesome (similar to the shots of Ben’s body at the end of Night of the Living Dead), assaulting the audience with the realities of war and sparking a cultural opposition to the United States’ involvement similar to Romero’s use of shocking and assaultive violence in his film. While not a true cinema verite film, Night of the Living Dead’s visual style aesthetically aligns the picture with news documentation (photographs and motion pictures) of the war occurring at the time of its production.

By the film’s end, each of the original survivors (including Barbra, Ben, and the Cooper family) have succumbed to the ghouls’ attacks. As the core group of characters has died (the “Others” as well as normative social institutions such as the heterosexual couple and the patriarchal family led by Harry Cooper), the film cements itself as a reflection of and increasingly violent society where “the hope of a peaceful future seem[s] lost” (Phillips 86). While the majority of the film is spent observing the group’s interpersonal displays of dominance and assertion (generally on the end of the males) over one another despite their “Otherness” or complacency within their normative social role, the end of the film presents the audience with a void where each of the characters once existed, eradicating any point of familiarity with the fictional space, therefore implicating 1960s American society as one where hope for a better future was lost in the midst of social rebellion, war, retaliatory acts of violence, and a youth reacting against suburban confinement.

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Brothers, Caroline. War and Photography: A Cultural History. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Merritt, Greg. Celluloid Mavericks: The History of American Independent Film. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth, 2000. Print.

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. 1968. DVD.

Phillips, Kendall R. . Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Print.

Pramaggiore, Maria, and Tom Wallis. Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Laurence King, 2008. Print.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.

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