George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is a model of the successful, low-budget, independently produced horror film.
The film was the director’s labor of love filled with a cast of non-actors and intended for drive-in theaters. As an independent filmmaker, Romero’s freedom from the studio system granted him much greater latitude to break genre conventions and screen taboos. Although the film contains some scenes of graphic violence, including cannibalism, Romero, for the most part, is not so interested in staging spectacular scenes of gore in the manner of other exploitation filmmakers such as Hershel Gordon Lewis. Instead, Romero achieves a significant amount of terror by subverting the established conventions and formula of horror films that audiences had come to rely on for comfort.
In the article, “George Romero: Apocalypse Now”, Robin Wood points out several of these instances of subversion:
The woman who appears to be established as the heroine becomes virtually catatonic early in the film and remains so to the end; no love relationship develops between her and the hero. The young couple whose survival as future nuclear family is generically guaranteed is burned alive and eaten around the film’s midpoint. The film’s actual nuclear family is wiped out; the child (a figure hitherto sacrosanct) not only dies but comes back as a zombie, devours her father, and hacks her mother to death. In a final devastating stroke, the hero of the film and sole survivor of the zombies (among the major characters) is callously shot down by a sheriff’s posse, thrown on a bonfire, and burned. (Wood, p.102)
When the audience is able to anticipate who will live and who will die, a significant amount of suspense is drained from the film. The viewer can use these expectations as a shield to protect himself/herself from feelings of terror. For example, in the contemporaneous exploitation horror film Blood Feast (1963), each time a female would-be-victim is shown, the audience is made keenly aware that a gruesome murder is about to happen. However, in Night of the Living Dead, the audience is denied these predictable conventions and is consequently thrown off balance into a state of uneasiness and dread. The viewer must confront the fact that anything, even the most horrific and unspeakable action, is possible within the world of the film. This unease is augmented by Romero’s choice to locate horror within the ordinary world of the banal and the everyday, continuing the trend of Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). This is most obvious in the setting for the film— a plain and unremarkable farmhouse in a typical rural American town. This commonplace setting is devoid of gothic or expressionistic styling, contrasting sharply to the grand Victorian mansions and castles of earlier horror films. This farmhouse could essentially be anywhere in the country. Furthermore, the characters are all ordinary people with human flaws caught up in an extraordinary situation. The film suggests that horror can no longer be contained in some faraway place –it is at home and can even infiltrate the nuclear family itself, epitomized when the child Karen becomes a zombie and kills her mother. The close proximity of the horrific makes it much more terrifying.
Romero’s shattering of horror film conventions can also be linked to his dissatisfaction with the traditional social order. In “George Romero: Apocalypse Now”, Wood argues that the living dead represent the violent resurfacing of “the suppressed tensions and conflicts—the legacy of the past, of the patriarchal structuring of relationships (Wood, p.103)”. For Romero, Americans live a zombie-like existence, mired in dominant societal patterns that are ultimately oppressive and stifling. Significantly, the hero of the film is an African-American, a radical decision for 1968 when America was in the midst of the civil rights movement. Although Ben’s race is never alluded to in the film, his skin color marks him as different from the other characters and identifies him with a population that was actively fighting to change the status quo. In fact, Ben seems to be the most intelligent, collected, and capable person in the entire film. Unlike the others, he is entirely independent and is not bound up in a relationship that may impede his personal survival. Furthermore, it is Ben who is able to take charge and rise above the stifling social norms even if his efforts ultimately prove futile when he’s shot down by the all-white sheriff’s posse. This posse is able to temporarily suppress the symptoms of the failing social order (the zombies), but is unable to cure the disease. The posse’s mistaking of Ben for a zombie may reflect its inability to recognize the true problems plaguing society. It is merely trying to piece back together the white-male dominated status quo.
Robin Wood, “George Romero: Apocalypse Now”