Night of the Living Dead is widely considered to be one of the first zombie films and its influences and style can be seen in hundreds of films since. Household names such as Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and Zack Snyder all created films which took Romero’s blueprints and expanded upon them. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg cite Shaun of the Dead as taking place in the Romero universe and that without Romero’s ‘Dead’ series, they likely wouldn’t have been inspired to create their deadpan homage. An aspect of Romero’s films that have been widely discussed is the often scathing social commentary that runs throughout. Night of the Living Dead, for example, is a stark look at America’s racial divisions and the grim obsession with war, all packaged as a grimy horror film. Night of the Living Dead and the subsequent ‘Dead’ series’s allegorical messages are just as prevalent today as they were in the 60s.
Jordan Peele speaks very openly about the connections between Get Out and Night of the Living Dead. In an interview with The New York Times, he described Romero’s debut as a major influence on his film, particularly the parallels between protagonists Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Ben (Duane Jones). Both films trap black men in houses with white people, with strong themes of racial tension running under the horror guise. But what truly links these films is their respective finales.
In Night of the Living Dead, our hero Ben falls victim to being mistaken for a zombie rather than a hero, and Chris who stumbles in front of a police car, is assumed as the murderer, not the vicm. Duane Jones being cast as Ben was another momentous change for Hollywood, as he was the first black actor cast as a leading role in a horror film. Romero claims he cast Jones in the film as he was the best actor for the role and it had nothing to do with making a racial statement. However, that significance was not lost on Jones, who said his role in the film did in fact make a statement, and showed that black characters can be heroes in horror just as much as caucasion characters.
The design of the zombies are not the nightmare fuel that contemporary horror audiences have become desensitised too. However, an aspect of Night of the Living Dead that remains deeply uneasy is the claustrophobic sense of dread that is seemingly never ending. This is an onslaught of nightmarish characters and scenarios with piles of bodies that are stacked in ways macarbly reminiscent of images from Auschwitz and World War 2
This is not a film about hope, or overcoming prejudices to survive. No, another way in which Romero redefined the horror genre was through its bleak ending and its misleading characters. When viewers first meet Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner), the natural assumption would be that they will be the main protagonists. In reality, Johnny does not last long at all, and Barbara, well, she quickly becomes the terrified victim
Thankfully, Ben arrives, bringing a sense of balance and a glimmer of false hope. Their aempts to survive are thwarted at every turn and by the end, none of these characters survive the night. Romero keeps up the sense of oppressive bleak horror right up unl the credits roll. Audiences have become accustomed to seeing the protagonists, despite huge odds, getting out alive, walking away as the world burns. But not in Night of the Living Dead.
That bleak hopelessness still holds up all these years later. It is not just the themes and the casting choices that were breaking the moulds, Romero also re-invented the zombie concept. Previously, zombies were rooted in Afro-Haitian culture where the belief was that in death the slaves would be allowed to return home, but never could and thus remained enslaved for eternity.
Romero came to change this mode. He no longer used the idea of zombies being created by magic or voodoo but by an epidemic that sweeps through the country, infecting all people regardless of race, class or social standing (how’s that for timely!) The blue collar zombie was born, no longer were these creatures based in myths from a far away land, they sit, instead, deeply in the uncanny valley where these creatures still resemble humans; your neighbours, co-workers, your mother, father or even children.
Horror is still a genre that is often dismissed or sneered at, however it remains one of the most defining, or re-defining genres. Capable of documenting and relaying the current socio-political climate, imbalances and injustices being committed in ways that resonate and make audiences sit up and think. Whilst these films may age and lose some of their shine, the core themes still remain. Watching any of Romero’s ‘Dead’ series you get a good understanding of the problematic systems in place at those times.
George A. Romero did not just create a horror sub-genre, he re-defined it all.