The Zombie, or the living dead, has long been used in cinema as a symbolic representation for some of the human race's most glaring flaws. Ideas of rampant consumerism, political malaise and the disillusionment of individuality have all been regularly depicted in the zombie/horror niche, ever since its emergence some five decades ago, and more often than not were ideas borne from the mind of American director George A. Romero - the original zombie auteur if you will.

With a career defined by the consistent artistic employment of zombies in order to accuse the modern human of essentially being a mindless consumer, Romero has carved out a respected position as the goriest social critic working in film today. In Dawn of the Dead (1978) he saw fit to set the apocalypse in a shopping mall, and have his characters picked off one by one in a manner that would eventually spill into reality and come to resemble a 'Black Friday' sale. Whilst in Land of the Dead (2005), much of the sub-textual content came in the shape of the perceived class gap between survivors.

Today's focus film however, does not once use the term 'Zombie' to describe its creatures, though it has largely come to be recognised as the genre's defining moment. Arguably the first film of its kind, Night of the Living Dead (1968) remains a landmark in both horror and independent cinema circles, and laid out the template for the use of the living dead, or 'Ghouls' here, as symbolic representations of the human race's most primitive and obvious downfalls.

A true product of its time, the film dedicates its thematic content to the numerous anxieties of 1960's America, and does so largely in the space of a single room in a rural Pennsylvanian farmhouse. So Instead of the usual single scene format of this column, it seems more appropriate in this case to separate the different subtexts, and explore how Romero conveys the fears of the American citizen through his imagery and narrative, and also how he created a truly scary film by drawing on legitimate sources of paranoia. The below then, is a deconstruction of how Night of the Living Dead plays on fears of racial tension, social division and historical context, and why zombies were the perfect tool to utilise in conveying these ideas.

Race relations


Night of the Living Dead is particularly notable for its insight into race relations at the time of its production, with much of the civil rights movement taking place just before or around the time of its release. Male protagonist Ben happens to be a black American, and his inclusion here could potentially be interpreted as a reaction to the chaotic and turbulent environment the black community found themselves in during the 1960's, with the film mirroring their seemingly hopeless struggle against a mass of mindless racists.

Educated, well-spoken and an effective leader, Ben's presence in the house is taken as a threat by one of the other survivors, Harry, the middle-aged white male with whom he frequently clashes. Their initial meeting is one characterised by mistrust, fear and bubbling racial tension. Ben asks why they had not come out to help him secure the house, and Harry presumably lies to save face and not look cowardly by telling him they hadn't heard the noise.

Harry undermines the clearly resourceful Ben at every opportunity, only grudgingly accepting his strategy when encouraged to by his more reasonable wife. At the films climax we see the zombies about to break through the barricades, as Ben frantically beats the zombies away from the door before dropping his gun. Harry picks up the rifle, initially aiming it towards the door, but soon turning it to Ben asking him "You want to stay up here now?" in reference to their previous argument over whether to stay upstairs or retreat to the cellar.

Here we see a man perfectly willing to ignore his own impending doom to revive a racial issue and act on his overpowering prejudice instincts. If Harry had listened, Ben would more than likely have led him to escape, however, he is overpowered and shot by Ben soon after.

The colour of Ben's skin plays a prominent role in the relationships between certain characters, most notably between Ben and Harry, though previously we had seen the young white female Barbara perceive him as a threat when seeking refuge, terrified by his presence and screaming when he bundles her to safety. However, Ben and Barbara come to be the closest within the house, which happens to lead nicely into the second major subject.

Gender & Class


Social division is explored in a number of ways, and appears as a recurring motive for characters throughout the film. Firstly, the social division between different classes is explored, in the sense that the two main characters, Ben and Barbara, are both from the city, and find themselves trapped in a rural environment. They bond over the fact that they both hail from an urban environment because they perceive their current setting and its inhabitants as being evil, dangerous and isolated.

Our initial introduction to Barbara is a scene of her and her brother driving two hundred miles out into the country to deliver a wreath of flowers to their father's grave. Her brother, Johnny, bemoans the rural isolation and the distance from the city, leading him to essentially insult his father's memory by revealing his reluctance to even come in the first place.

In this scene he is attacked by the reincarnated corpse of a local, a man from the area who kills him and begins to chase Barbara soon after. The country-folk are depicted here as savages, literally eating the flesh of the city dwellers and becoming their main threat. However, the social division here is two-fold, and the second major dimension of the idea of social difference is between man and woman, as the zombie begins to apparently force himself on Barbara, as do many of the male zombies in the film.

"They're coming to get you Barbara" goes the famous quote, but it is never specified exactly who 'they' are, and the ambiguous nature of the term implies that their stalkers and their attackers could literally be anyone who is not from their specific gender, class or skin colour.

The Cold War


A TV news bulletin towards the end of the film shows a group of government scientists discussing an exploded space probe recently returned from Venus, and the radiation it has emitted into the Earth's atmosphere. One scientist claims that there is a definite link between the radiation and the outbreak, refusing to skirt around the issue and citing it as a catalyst for the end of times.

This is Romero's work at its most explicit, and the idea of radiation and a manmade catastrophe draws largely on the cold war that had sparked into life again six years previous, and was quietly raging throughout 1968 with the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia kicking off another period of widespread anxiety.

By including these obvious nods to the constant danger of radiation, atomic warfare and real sources of fear, whilst combining them with visuals of rotting flesh, cannibalism and the descent of civilisation into chaos, Night of The Living Dead was able to build on an already very possible scenario with further horror, manipulating its audiences established fears, and effectively exploiting then current events for their weight in horror.

>em>Night of the Living Dead is still probably one of the better examples of the zombie film done right and though others have tried, and Romero himself continues to develop an already extensive zombie filmography, there are few who have combined visual scares with terror drawn from reality quite so effectively since. The re-emergence of the genre in recent years has seen the zombie once again become a popular TV and film antagonist, but they are largely used as fodder and simply as a source of danger, whereas here, Romero used them as symbols and representations, running with the fact that they are essentially human, albeit embodiments of the species worst elements.