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Horror Education of the Week: ‘Night of the Living Dead’

“I looked back at the diner to see if – if there was anyone there who could help me. That’s when I noticed that the entire place had been encircled. There wasn’t a sign of life left, except… by now, there were no more screams. I realized that I was alone, with fifty or sixty of those things just… standing there, staring at me! I started to drive, I – I just plowed right through them! They didn’t move! They didn’t run, or… they just stood there, staring at me! I just wanted to crush them! And they scattered through the air, like bugs.”

George Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead helped modernize horror film from the gothic settings used at the time to create a new fear for today’s world. The familiarity of the storyline produced a terror that felt more real, even if outrageous. Night of the Living Dead examined the human will to survive and keep living, with or without the help of his fellow men – a theme that continues to this day.

Night of the Living Dead was not scarier or gorier than some of the films at the time, but its familiarity is what gave it so much impact. Night of the Living Dead relies on exploiting the fear of the dead, especially the known dead. Family. Its success in portraying this fear in an intelligent way is what makes it stand up so powerfully even today, over forty years later.

Night of the Living Dead touches on countless themes – some blatant, some hidden.

– The films starts with brother and sister, Johnny and Barbara, placing a wreath on their father’s grave. A ritual performed for ages – the worship and reverence of the dead.

– Barbara prays at the grave, which Johnny finds ridiculous as praying is for church. Johnny even admits to Barbara, “there’s not much sense in my going to church.” The day is a Sunday. A secular day, representing the failure of religion.

– The cemetery scene ultimate plays upon the idea that humans fear death and how inevitable it is.

– Johnny’s mocking of his sister’s fear of the dead leads to exactly what his grandfather warned years before – “Boy, you’ll be damned to Hell.”

– The farmhouse is made up of familiar characters we can identify with in our own lives.

– Ben represents the working man – someone who is good with his hands as he boards up and stabilizes their surroundings.

– The Coopers are the everyday American family – each with their own flaws. Harry is arrogant – hoping to hide in the basement until the problems go away. Helen is a bitter woman, her marriage irritating her, yet stays for her daughter.

– Tom and Judy are the romantic hero and heroine – the escape unhappy people wish for full of passion and smiles.

– We see the living dead first as one of us before we realize that they are one of them – establishing some of the most frightening villains in cinema.

– While Ben calls the living dead ‘things’ and the radio calls them ‘assasins’ – Barbara recalls her attacker – the first we see – as a ‘man’.

– Unlike identifiable monsters like vampires and their fangs, the living dead look like human beings leading to the breakdown and realization that they could be anyone – even our neighbors.

– In the end, as we could mistake the living dead as one of us, Ben is mistaken for one of them. The sudden reversal in the expectation of Ben’s survival being toppled is what puts a perfect ending to Romero’s first installment of his series. Ben, after all, was the most human character in the film.




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