‘Night of the Living Dead’: Early Reception and Gender Performances

Film poster for Night of the Living Dead

This guest post by Deirdre Crimmins appears as part of our theme week on Cult Films and B Movies.
George Romero’s 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead is a film that needs to be put into its proper context to truly appreciate it.  With this week’s focus on cult films, which are defined by their reception rather than standing alone as artists’ endeavors, it makes sense to first look at the film’s early history of release before diving into its mainly problematic gender representations.
Night of the Living Dead was a micro budgeted independent film, made by a group of filmmakers who had most of their filming experiences with advertising.  Romero had a life-long love of horror films (shooting one as a child on Super 8 led to a mishap that ended with him getting sent to boarding school), and he knew horror had potential for great profits.  After all, the ghouls (the modern zombie was essentially invented in this film, but Romero only referred to his reanimated dead as “ghouls” because the term zombie referred specifically to Haitian voodoo victims) in his film required very little makeup and were a cheap monster to create.
The film famously had two major setbacks early on.   First, Romero decided last minute to change the film’s title from Night of the Flesh Eaters.  Unfortunately, the copyright declaration on the original title card was not reinstated on the new one, and Night of the Living Dead has been in public domain ever since its initial release.  The second setback was a scathing review by Roger Ebert.  He had gone to see the film when it was playing as a matinée.  In the pre-multiplex era the earlier screening times were typically reserved for young children, and Night of the Living Dead was mistakenly programmed to be shown to a very young crowd.   Ebert lamented:
The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
After this review, other critics began discussing how to handle ultra-violence in film.  The expected suggestions of censorship, and comparisons to pornography were thrown around as the film suffered at the box office.  It wasn’t until Night of the Living Dead gained popularity in European film festivals that critics began to see the film as something truly groundbreaking.

Still from Night of the Living Dead

It is tough to see the film today as you would have 45 years ago, but the film itself really was something special.  To compare it to a contemporary horror film is one way to highlight its distinctiveness.  Rosemary’s Baby was released in 1968 as well, and is an equally worshipped horror classic.  That film, however, is in color, had recognizable actors starring in it, was beautifully scored, and was clearly a big budget production.  With this comparison, Night of the Living Dead was essentially the Blair Witch of its time.  It was set in a farm house and actually filmed at a farm house rather than an ersatz farm house in a studio lot somewhere in Hollywood.  The camera work is imperfect, and the sound is not polished.  The performances are raw and from unknown actors.  The ending of the film is frequently compared to Vietnam War footage, and that is exactly the frame of reference that audiences at the time were bringing to the film.  It felt more real than anything else they could see in the theater, and the effect is brutal.

The film is at its core an outbreak film.  Some sort of other worldly satellite debris is causing the dead in to come back to life and to feast upon the living.  This is very unfortunate for Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner), as they are on their way to a cemetery to lay a wreath. Very quickly they are attacked, Johnny is killed, and Barbra is left to hysterically seek shelter.  She finds a farmhouse which is presumptively safer than the outside, but she is not alone.  Ben (Duane Jones) is a determined, organized, and armed man, who is on the house’s first floor.  In the basement a young couple, Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley) hide from the ghouls along with the Cooper family (Marilyn Eastman, Karl Hardman, and Kyra Schon).  As soon as Harry Cooper emerges from the basement, he and Ben fight about the best way to get out of the house and travel to one of the safe zones that the emergency broadcasters keep urging survivors to evacuate to.

Still from Night of the Living DEad

In terms of gender representations, both men and women are shown as the worst possible version of themselves.  Barbra swings back and forth from being near catatonic and unable to communicate, to wild and hysterical.  Ben even slaps her at one point to get her to snap out of her state.  She is weak and unable to deal with the emotions of seeing her brother attacked.  Barbra would have already been killed and reanimated were it not for the über masculine Ben to save her from the perils that lie outside.
Despite Barbra’s shortcomings, she is not the most negative character in Night of the Living Dead.  Both Ben and Harry’s overly masculine performances are what ultimately lead to the group’s downfall.  They are completely unwilling to compromise or even band together to save all of their lives.  Instead they bicker and insult one another, looking like a pair of Galapagos albatrosses in the middle of mating dance.  It is their pig-headed defiance, which means that they each resort to death before compromising their gender performances.  Had either one of them been more intent in survival over ego, they all may have survived.
None of the characters in Night of the Living Dead are the sort of folks that you would want to grab a cup of coffee with.  Though this was long before the introduction of the slasher sub-genre, Romero was on to something with maintaining characters that you don’t mind seeing killed.  No one in the audience was mourning Harry or Barbra when each of them was eaten by the undead.  Ben’s death is tragic, but more due to the timing of it than his good nature.  In the end the most interesting characters are the ones that are encircling the house, waiting to feast.  And isn’t that a wonderful prediction of the zombie film as we know it today?
nightlivingdeadgirl

Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston with her husband and a non-spooky black cat. She wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero and is a staff writer for http://www.allthingshorroronline.net/.