The Night of the Living Dead, which premiered 50 years ago, reinvented the horror film as a genre that relayed contemporary social anxiety — specifically about race. Now it is rereleased as a Criterion Blu-Ray DVD to celebrate Black History Month.
The film imagines corpses being revived by radioactivity as a result of the U.S. space program’s technological progress. Once reanimated, they are prone to devour living folk, from whom they are virtually indistinguishable. The crux of the film’s social critique is based on the annihilation of its lone black hero, Ben (played by actor Duane Jones), fighting for his life amid white ghouls.
Yes, the film is that blunt, that crude; but scholars from Robin Wood to Richard Dyer have noted its sophistication, which now appears superior to Hollywood’s current politically correct racial alarums — the meretricious product of today’s rampant racial self-deceptions. It might help to examine the reasons why.
Director George Romero consciously evoked racism’s rapacity and America’s horrific history of racially motivated lynching. Although Romero’s premise (co-written with John A. Russo) inspired the zombie genre that has become newly popular this millennium (it is a contemporary symptom of our subconscious social anxiety), his film, for all that, was not ahead of its time. In other words, it did not anticipate the insipid movie Get Out, which has become a favorite totem of self-congratulatory liberals intent on defending themselves against the stigma of racism. In that useless process, they make a mess of the millennium’s racial consciousness. Romero’s conceit has been misappropriated and transformed into the paranoia of victimhood, which reverses the lessons that Night of the Living Dead taught and trivializes what makes the film still fascinating, still unnerving.
Working outside the Hollywood film industry as a Pittsburgh-based veteran of industrial films, commercials, and political spots (such as for Republican John Tabor’s 1969 Pittsburgh mayoral campaign), Romero perceived the discontents that Hollywood largely ignored in ’68.
Consider that the film first appeared alongside the socially conscious Uptight (Jules Dassin’s ghetto remake of John Ford’s IRA classic The Informer) and Sidney Poitier’s pioneering romantic comedy For Love of Ivy — movies that showed Hollywood’s conscious response to America’s restless black presence. Nineteen sixty-eight was also the year of echt R&B (the alternately hopeful, despairing, and defiant “You’re All I Need to Get By On,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”) and, ultimately, of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Although these connections in hindsight do not weigh upon Romero’s movie, the fact is that Night of the Living Dead edged beyond mainstream Hollywood liberalism; it was part of the same cultural ferment as those films and songs. It stands on its own as a surprisingly stark, unpretentious depiction of panic and compassion.
The scenes of Romero’s mobilized vigilantes hunting down zombies uncannily resemble the black-and-white TV-news footage of marauding southern whites in the civil-rights era.
The scenes of Romero’s mobilized vigilantes hunting down zombies uncannily resemble the black-and-white TV-news footage of marauding southern whites in the civil-rights era. Romero flips our cultural perception to force a simple but disturbing point about America, then on the verge of collapse. Ben’s life is caught within the slight, slippery distance between homegrown terror and homegrown self-defense. At one point, Romero’s narrative, which already included snippets of TV and radio broadcasts, folds in on itself and becomes surreal. It climaxes with a shocking series of stills of Ben’s dead black body, being grappled by white men carrying stevedore hooks, then thrown upon a pile of corpses — a one-man holocaust montage.
This cautionary filmmaking stings, largely because it shares in the media’s modern spectacle of annihilation but lacks today’s maudlin platitudes and arrogant gloating. (Fifty years ago, cinema was at its artistic peak, producing great works of social and psychic consciousness, such as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Godard’s Masculin Féminin, which featured a brief reenactment of LeRoi Jones’s play Dutchman, an intelligent, provocative precursor of both Night of the Living Dead and Get Out.)
Romero’s crudely effective technique gave his topical issues the inexorable compulsion of a nightmare like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), another evocation of frightening, unpredictable Americana. These movies are as terrifying as they are unpretentious. I never bought the idea that they are cathartic; their shock and psychological resonance result from the demonstration that when such racial fears are raised, there’s nothing to laugh about.
Not only is Get Out a poor example of the horror genre. Its generic mishap — combining fear and comedy to supposedly meaningful purpose — fumbles Romero’s (and LeRoi Jones’s) insight. Writer-director Jordan Peele reveals a lack of seriousness about both his subject and the history of politicized filmmaking. In 1970, Brian De Palma advanced from Romero and made his first great film, Hi, Mom! — a satire on activism and the media. Its climax parodied both avant-garde theater and Public Television reality, in an extended skit titled “Be Black, Baby!” that combined black racial anger, white racial fear, and the cultural establishment’s pretenses. In 1973, De Palma went further, with the horror film Sisters, another mixed-genre tour de force spotlighting an interracial liaison (Lisle Wilson and Margot Kidder) on a TV game show titled “Peeping Toms,” combining transgressive voyeurism and miscegenation.
Get Out fans probably don’t know these precedents. As victims of our disconnected culture’s amnesia and miseducation, they ignore Romero and De Palma’s once-countercultural experiments and investigations into racial anxiety, but then they fall for the mainstream media’s manipulation of social fears.
If the election of Barack Obama (labeled America’s first black or African-American president) was truly progressive, why did race relations fall apart — marked by crime, poverty, protests, and killings, as if making Night of the Living Dead a reality — in his second term? Get Out doesn’t answer that question but merely exploits it. Acclaim for Get Out is how Obama-entranced liberals justify their advantages — by holding on to old fears and uninformed resentment. It’s self-flattery without risk: The survival of Get Out’s black protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), avoids the pain of Ben’s fate but cheats the audience by appealing to its vanity and inexperience.
Revisiting Night of the Living Dead answers the Obama question by returning us to what’s been politically repressed in snarky pop culture like Get Out. It reminds us of the difference between 1960s race relations and modernist film art, and contrasts both to this century’s racial bewilderment, the confusion Obama left behind.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.