Today, horror film fans all over the world are weeping at the loss of the great George Romero, myself included. Inventor of the modern day movie zombie, Romero’s first feature length film, Night of the Living Dead (1968), is a classic in the horror genre. You can’t claim to be a horror fan if you’ve never seen Night of the Living Dead. (If you haven’t seen it, luckily it’s available on YouTube for free, so stop whatever you’re doing right now and go watch it. Plus there are spoilers below. Come back here when you’re done. I’ll wait.) I can’t even begin to list all of the reasons this movie is so important, but I’m going to do my best to touch on as many as I can in this post.
While zombie movies did exist before Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, they were mostly depicted as reanimated human corpses, or, as in White Zombie (1932) (which is considered the first zombie movie ever made) as mindless, unthinking human bodies controlled by magic or some other force. Romero was the first to give zombies their cannibalistic appetites, and the first to make their only weakness be destroying the brain. Now, these are standard rules of every zombie movie, in fact these two are the few rules established by Night of the Living Dead that are not broken nowadays. Even though, the word “zombie” is never mentioned in Night of the Living Dead, (“those things” or “ghouls” being the movie’s preferred terminology) fans quickly began to refer to Romero’s undead as zombies, and no zombie film has been the same since.
Romero’s film didn’t just give us zombies in the form that we know them today; Night of the Living Dead also provided future zombie movies with a blueprint for character types. Barbara serves as the helpless traumatized victim, Mr. Cooper as the belligerent and selfish problem causer, and Ben is the capable, coolheaded hero. These characters reappear in film after film, hitting many of the same beats and causing the same problems over and over again. Night of the Living Dead also introduced the terrifying idea of a child zombie murdering and devouring her own parents. Nowadays, we recognize all of these tropes immediately when watching a zombie movie but in 1968 Night of the Living Dead was the first to present them.
In addition to creating these long-lasting tropes, Romero’s film is also one the first horror films to cast a black actor as the lead and hero of the film. While Romero always maintained that Duane Jones was cast as Ben because he gave the best audition, it’s impossible to ignore the implications of such a choice in 1968 when black actors were rarely cast in lead roles, especially in films with an otherwise all-white cast. Not only is Ben a black lead character, he also outlives every other character hiding out in the farmhouse, which as horror fans know is remarkable in itself for any black character in a horror film. Unfortunately, Ben doesn’t survive the movie, but his death is shockingly poignant.
After surviving the night by fighting off zombies and narrowly avoiding death by human error, Ben comes up from the cellar in the morning just as a group of local militiamen come through sweeping the area and disposing of the ghouls. Without even checking to see if there are any survivors in the house, one man raises his gun and shoots Ben directly in the head, assuming he is one of the reanimated corpses. It’s a harrowing and unsettling final scene. To think that Ben survived such a terrible night only to be killed just as the undead crisis was ending is heartbreaking. It’s not at all uncommon for the hero to die in horror films, but I’ve always found Ben’s death to be quite upsetting, as it seems so easily avoidable. Undoubtedly this ending was powerful back in 1968 but it’s taken on a new significance in light of recent similar tragic incidences in real life when a white man with a gun immediately assume that a black man is a threat without hesitation. Romero may have never intended to make a horror film with such a biting racial commentary, but it exists nonetheless and it is just becoming more relevant.
Without Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the zombie films of today would not exist. There would be no The Walking Dead, no World War Z, no Resident Evil, no 28 Days Later. While the merits of those series are debatable, without Romero we also wouldn’t have horror films with biting social and racial commentary like Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). So although it will be difficult to go on living in a world without George A. Romero, at least we still have his films to provide inspiration to future filmmakers.
RIP George. We’ll miss you.