Night Of The Living Dead’s indiscriminate killing spree is a handy metaphor for ’60s society

Night Of The Living Dead’s indiscriminate killing spree is a handy metaphor for ’60s society

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Texas Chainsaw 3-D has us thinking about realistic horror movies.

Night Of The Living Dead
(1968) 
George Romero’s landmark zombie thriller Night Of The Living Dead remains bracing, but nothing could compare now to the way the film was received back in 1968, at a time when even the gamiest exploitation movies were fundamentally goofy and harmless. The grainy black-and-white cinematography and the “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” joshing of Night Of The Living Dead’s opening scene led late-’60s audiences to prepare themselves for a cheesy throwback to ’50s drive-in trash, but George Romero quickly ramped up the intensity, then continued to tighten the screws, in a movie packed with surprising twists and vivid characterizations. It wasn’t just the gore that shocked viewers—although the movie’s rotting, flesh-eating ghouls definitely delivered on the zombie premise as well as any film had before—but also the way that Romero’s assured direction pulled people into his story of a freaky apocalypse and its ragtag band of survivors, before Romero turned mere suspense into outright bloody terror.

There’s an element of social commentary to Night Of The Living Dead that emerges first when Romero introduces a band of hick zombie-hunters, whose indiscriminate kill-spree serves as a handy metaphor for any number of late-’60s social ills. But what’s even more unnerving is the film’s coldly logical and despairing view of human nature. In each of Romero’s zombie sagas, survivors escape into clever little fortresses, until routine dissatisfaction leads them to reach too far and destroy all they’ve built. Starting with Night Of The Living Dead, Romero anchors these tales in the mostly heroic actions of pragmatists, who think their way out of impossible traps. Yet inevitably, even the most ingenious barriers against the undead collapse, and folks get eaten. Romero makes movies about individuals trying to distance themselves from the lunacy around them. But no one escapes the curse of humanity.

Availability: Night Of The Living Dead is in the public domain, so it’s widely available on DVD (and cheaply) from multiple companies, and can also be streamed online or downloaded for free.