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How 1960s counterculture infected George A. Romero film 'Night of the Living Dead'

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, monsters have always been an important vehicle for social commentary. It’s a legacy that stretches back to the dawn of cinema when films like 1922’s Nosferatu captured the anti-semitic and xenophobic anxieties of Weimar Germany. The film’s vampiric villain, Count Orlock, a spectral demon from a foreign land, symbolised a range of deeply ingrained societal fears, ranging from extra-marital sex to Communism. His monstrosity was representative not of evil in any objective sense but of the ghostly presence of ideas the fractured and war-torn German nation did not yet understand. 

Since that period, directors have repeatedly relied on monsters to personify something unspoken, to shed light on the deeper fears that lay beneath the latex masks and fake blood. Guillermo del Toro’s nightmarish fairytale Pan’s Labyrinth, for example, is a film haunted as much by the spectre of the Spanish civil war as it is by the titular Greek God. But few monsters have been as successful vehicles for societal fears as the zombie. While the first movies featuring the notorious flesh-eaters arrived in the 1940s – with films like I Walked With A Zombie – it was in the 1960s that they really made a name for themselves, a period defined by a cataclysmic upheaval of societal values.

The zombies you’ll find in films like The Last Man On EarthOrgy of The Dead and, notably, George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead are a far cry from those that graced America’s screens in the 1930s and ’40s. Romero’s creatures are similar only in that they are also reanimated. Beyond that, they bear very little resemblance to the beasts of Haitian legend. Instead, they’re more in line with the incognito alien invaders of films like 1956’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and 1964’s Children Of The Damned. In both movies, the alien’s monstrosity is demonstrated not through any physical attributes, but in their ability to transform everyday people into destructive entities. In brainwashing the people of the Earth, these foreign invaders leave American society to cannibalise itself. It’s is easy to see how such monsters reflected America’s cold war-anxieties in the 1950s.

It was these films, as well as Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend – which inspired The Last Man On Earth – that set Romero on the path that would lead to Night of The Living Dead. “I thought I Am Legend was about revolution,” he once commented. “I said, ‘If you’re going to do something about revolution you should start at the beginning.’ I mean, Richard starts his book with one man left; everybody in the world has become a vampire. I said, ‘We got to start at the beginning and tweak it up a little bit.’ I couldn’t use vampires because he did, so I wanted something that would be an earth-shaking change.”

The creatures he came up with were the perfect fit for a film created at a time of rapid change. The 1960s was a period in which a variety of radical movements shook American society. All over the country, a powerful counterculture movement was challenging long-held conservative ideals. To the war generation, young people seemed a different species. They had no respect for authority, government or duty. All they seemed to care about was expanding their minds with hallucinogens and listening to pop music. By 1969, the generation rift must have seemed impassable. Internal communication had broken down completely, leaving the two generations blankly staring at one another from either side of a gaping void. Romero incorporated this nightmarish reality into the script of Night of The Living Dead. Throughout the piece, characters are frequently unable to agree with one another, bickering as their demise creeps ever nearer. Their inability to cooperate leaves them vulnerable and ultimately leads to their deaths. In this sense, the film’s characters are surrounded by two equally cannibalistic threats: the zombies themselves and the gradual deterioration of communication between the group of survivors.

Romero also appears to have used the zombies themselves to adeptly personify the variety of societal upheavals in the late-1960s. The visual impact of that mass of lumbering skin-crawlers appears to reflect the news footage of the anti-war protests, in which thongs of young people took to the streets to decry the US invasion of Vietnam. Then again, it’s possible Romero intended the zombies to represent not the hippies but the establishment itself. Approached from this angle, the structure of Night of The Living Dead seems to reflect the ambitions of the counterculture movement, which sought to fend off the unrelenting march of an unthinking capitalist society.

However, Night of The Living Dead can be seen to reflect more than the progressive ideals of the hippie era. In 1968, the civil rights movement was at its height, and, in that same year, Martin Luther King would be shot dead. Romero had just finished editing his film when he heard the news over the radio. Although it is unlikely that Romero’s decision to cast Duane Jones as his leading man was intentionally political, it has since come to be regarded as evidence for the argument that the film is an allegory for race relations in the US. Romero’s script was indeed progressive in the sense that it did away with conventional portrayals of black characters. Still, Romero had always claimed that he had no intention to make a film about race when he wrote Night of The Living Dead. That being said, it’s hard to ignore the simmering tension between Ben and the white people he is surrounded by, a tension that culminates with the protagonist being shot by a gang of gun-toting white men. Indeed, the film’s final scene – in which Ben is thrown onto a bonfire to burn with the zombies – is nearly impossible to watch without thinking of the brutal lynchings of the KKKespecially when a character calls for his companions to “light the torches,” evoking the ritualised brutality of Jim Crow-era America.

On release, Night of The Living Dead was a roaring success. Romero’s guerilla approach to filming gave the piece a gritty realism that bought the terrifying action into the realm of possibility, combining introspective horror with previously unparalleled levels of gore. And yet, the thing that terrified audiences the most was not the blood but the disturbing realisation that this apocalyptic nightmare they were submitting themselves to wasn’t so unfamiliar after all. Romero imbued his landmark horror with all the societal anxieties and tensions that made the 1960s one of the most turbulent decades of the 20th century. What’s fascinating is that he had no idea he was doing it.

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