Race and Culture in Night of the Living Dead
The 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead is about 1960s counterculture and its opponents. The undead zombies represent the era’s growing societal force against progressive ideological movements. The presence of the character Ben fits squarely into this idea.
Ben exists in the film as a powerful protagonist, and he is also the only African-American protagonist in the film. Director George A. Romero had no agenda when casting an African-American man in his movie, but this action would have been radical and progressive at the time. Having this background knowledge, one can view Night of the Living Dead as a film about United States race relations.
Ben’s racial status is unacknowledged by the other characters in the film. This lack of discussion on race is important, however. Had a character voiced any objection about Ben’s presence, this would have established whiteness as the “norm,” thus reinforcing social constructions and pandering to the dominant white culture. As a result, minorities would be marginalized in the subconscious of the characters. Additionally, it would have lessened Ben’s power as a protagonist.
Instead, the film’s protagonists represent a group that is diverse and integrated in a de facto way. At the time of the film, as with today, integration was a difficult thing to achieve, because many people supported segregationist policies. Romero has unintentionally created an imagined cultural utopia in which diversity exists without objection from anyone. This diversity, of course, is opposed by the zombies of the film, as it would have been by the real-life segregationists of the 1960s.
One of the biggest racially-themed moments in Night of the Living Dead is the famous ending, when Ben ironically gets killed by a police squad rather than by the zombies themselves. Here, Romero is showing that the real danger against the people of the United States lies in the country’s own backyard. In other words, people who claim to be protecting lives are just as capable of committing violent atrocities. A viewer might incorrectly assume that the zombies are the only antagonists of the film, because they represent a kind of “other” that the country is united against. Tragedy can occur as a result of the actions of the “good guys” as well. This rhetoric of “good guys vs. the others” would certainly have been employed by people advocating segregation and socioeconomic status quo. Romero’s use of lifeless still shots when depicting Ben’s death heightens the viewer’s awareness of the era’s rampant injustice.
The politics of Night of the Living Dead are subtle and implicit, but this emphasizes the cultural conflicts and pressures even more. We can see that racism in the United States is systemic and institutionalized because of the subtle way that racial violence creeps into the film. The conflict of the survivors against the growing zombie populace shows the “few vs. many” dynamic of the era’s progressive activists against everybody else. In several almost hidden ways, Night of the Living Dead illustrates the many complicated cultural pressures of the time. A film of this kind definitely relates to contemporary issues, considering how racism still frequently occurs in implicit ways.
Romero, George A. Night of the Living Dead. Image Ten, 1968. Film.