The most important horror film since Caligari, Night of the Living Dead transformed our expectations for what horror films could show and what issues they could address. At the end of this post is a full version of the public domain print. A 35mm print is out there, but you have to buy or rent the new DVD to see it.
While it would have been immediately clear in 1968, and the themes are universal as they are specific, one does have to put the film into some context formally and historically. For instance some theaters in inner-cities refused to play the film, not because of the violent content, but because they were afraid the scene where Ben (our Black protagonist) hits Barbara (a white woman) might cause problems. Like Caligari there is a lot of prefiguring of collective anxiety at work in NOTLD, made perhaps most clear by the fact that when editing was finally finished, Romero put the film in his car and was driving home. When he turned on the radio he heard Martin Luther King had been assasinated.
For Romero this was to be a subversive film, not intended so much in racial politics (Duane Jones was the best actor he knew), but in the overall thematic idea of a new culture rising up and overwhelming the older, established consumer class (an idea further elaborated and more satirized in Dawn of the Dead). The youth movement, and the fears of the establishment toward that movement, would later be addressed in another classic, The Exorcist. And while that film had the innocent girl helplessly possessed by a profane and sacrilegious demon (then again are there any other kinds?), in NOTLD we have the 'living dead girl.' The film's dysfunctional nuclear family, led by an heavy handed patriarch who is devoured by what appeared to be an innocent girl who then kills her mother with a garden shovel (interestingly ambiguous because no where else do we see Zombies using tools until Day of the Dead).
Other critics have mentioned the absent presence of Vietnam in the film. Tom Savini, who was to do the make-up but was drafted to fight in the war (but did revolutionize gore in the rest of the series) said that the hooks at the end of the film reminded him of how they would often transport the bodies of dead Veitcong. And Savini has effectively said that his craft, creating gore effects, has essentially been his way of dealing with what he saw in Vietnam.
Romero has subsequently used his zombies to make statements about consumerism and the excesses of the late 70's (Dawn), Reagan-era militarism and jingoism (as well as the relationship between facism and overt sexism; Day), The Bush Administration (Land), and the media (Diary).
The following is from a series of writings I've done on the film, delaing specifically here with the final sequence of the film:
The finale of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is the point at which the film moves from beyond mere drive-in exploitation to embracing and reflecting its contemporary collective anxieties. It is a deviance in narrative storytelling and in continuity editing used to present the events of the films ending, not so much as a twist, but to give the audience a subjective relationship with the dead/dying protagonist so that they may feel the weight of his death, and reflect upon what they are watching.
The scene starts off dissolving from the most claustrophobic sequence of the film, as zombies over run the farm house; the formal language of the film full of sharp angles and thematically related music heightening the suspense. Dissolve to the natural sounds of birds chirping to long establishing shots of spacious fields, from Night to morning (not quite Dawn or Day just yet). This juxtaposition, from claustrophobic mass carnage to serene landscape, is as polar opposite as one could make. A helicopter is heard and then seen coming over the horizon, and as we follow it through a tracking shot of a line of men with guns, the musical score is heard once again (the most artificial motif from the film’s score which is played with a Theremin) and we are back into the world of a zombie apocalypse.
The chopper lands, and out walks the sheriff seen earlier in the film on the TV news. However, here he is in person, as opposed to on screen, and as he talks to a few of his posse, he stops to ask the camera crew where they got their coffee. At this point the TV reporter, also seen on the TV broadcast earlier in the film, says that they will be leaving soon, as “everything appears under control.” This is all told in long and two-shots.
The film then emphasizes the next edit by moving from the stability of the previous sequence to a moving handheld camera frame. The relative quiet of the scene is also disrupted as the audience is given a confluence of angry dog noises, to go with a series of shots of dogs being let out of trucks which is filmed at various angles. Next we see a burst of zombies being shot in a montage as the editing places them in every direction of, and with the posse shooting at multiple directions in. the frame, at times ignoring the 180 degree rule.
At this point the audience still does not know the fate of Ben, the film’s protagonist. Amidst this confusion of space created by editing, the film cuts to a shot of Ben in ambiguous space, covered by heavy shadows, still not identifiably alive or dead. He slowly awakens, and as the film cuts back to more zombies being shot, the film falls back into more traditional paralleling editing, allowing us to see the oncoming collision. Ben approaches the window, and is shot by the posse.
But that is not all. The scene is divided into two parts; the first, described above, which follows continuity editing and uses a rather verisimilar sound track; the second, used after Ben is shot, uses still images to create a montage which also utilizes in shot framing of those still images, to ambiguous and non-continuous sound.
Still images achieve several things formally. They dramatically change the rhythm of the film, frame themselves as indexical to real world images, and aside from the political implications they subtly call attention to the form itself. While Ben is a black man gunned down by a small town sheriff’s posse, he is also gunned down by a posse accompanied by a TV film crew. By showing the carnage in stills, the film both implicates the viewers in their desire to see more, and causes them to reflect on the nature of the film and the scenes of violence they just saw.
While this is an abrupt and distinct shift from traditional continuity editing to collision montage, is interesting in that it still contains aims of continuity editing. The still images provide us with limited information in each shot (analytical editing). However, by using stills it is the edit, not the shot which is emphasized. It is also interesting that Romero uses film language within the still images. These stills are not presented as freeze-frames, or images taken from the film proper and frozen, but rather as photographs looked at after the fact, and we are following somebody’s eye, emphasizing certain elements of the photographs by use of pans, zooms, tilts, and mobile framing.
For instance, in one sequence we start on a still image of a man smoking a cigar. The camera then pans to the left revealing a disembodied hook in a downward direction of movement. The camera then pulls out revealing the entire still image, showing both the man with the cigar, the man about to use the hook to lift Ben’s body, revealing the room to be full of members of the posse, and the Sheriff in between the two men, entering from a door. This is one still image, but the camera work and framing of images within this still image displays a directing of the viewers eye, if not manipulation of their confusion over space. This ambiguity of space is at its most extreme toward the very end of the credits, where we see a strange checkered mass that isn’t anything or anyone recognizable. The film stays on that mass for several seconds, before pulling out to reveal that this is a piece of fabric placed at the end of a torch about to be lit. Then most abruptly, and suddenly, the film is moving again, as we see the man place the torch into the fire, the posse walk away, and a still long shot of the pyre.
The idea of showing Ben’s body, hooked, dragged, and burned, in a series of photographs is an appeal to images which would have been easily transferred by the audience from their real life experience (via the news media, which is importantly featured in this scene) of lynchings. And while this film was made before the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy most audiences saw the film after these tragedies took place. Viewers undoubtedly saw, and continue to see, images from the film as reflecting images and scenes from those traumatic events. One still in particular, of Ben lying on his back, shot, his head facing down frame with a man standing over him looks uncannily like Boris Yaro’s photograph of Robert Kennedy on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel, which has become the indexical image of the assassination.
The scene is also formally related to its psychological significance, but this is where the film deviates from traditional filmic storytelling. A film like Sunset Boulevard can continue with its protagonist’s death in a traditional manner because he continues to exist in voice over or in Citizen Kane where the protagonist casts a looming figure throughout the film. What makes this sequence in Night of the Living Dead so unique is that the protagonist’s death violently disrupts the narrative of the story and this correlates to what is being shown on screen as the film turns to the use of still images, ambiguous space, and ambiguous sounds. Essentially, the death is such a terminal event the film can no longer continue on in normal terms.
The sound, which is natural sounding in the first part of the scene, is suddenly artificial, with the re-appearance of the musical score, and ambiguous off-screen sounds including: dialogue, a police radio, some sort of thuds (perhaps steps), and dogs barking. Where sound usually is used to give the film a greater depth of space or an extension to off-screen space, here it is used to complicate that space. A careful listen also reveals that the sound is not temporally synced with the images. We hear the sheriff telling someone to get the dogs away from the dead bodies as they are about to light the bonfire, while the images are still inside the living room with Ben on the floor. It is of further note that in the case of RFK’s assassination the only live recording of the event was an audio recording from an LA radio station. This audio was played to still images (as in Night of the Living Dead aural confusion juxtaposed against helpless still images of death) to initially present the assassination on television to mass audiences ("What Was Going On?". TIME (1968-06-14). Retrieved on 2008-10-26).
Adding to the distress of the finale is the presence of the credits over the on screen action. Ending credits this long were not the norm. The credits contribute to the ambiguity of many of the still images by concealing the images over which the credits are played. They also add to the audience’s confusion because while the convention of the ending credits tells the viewer that the action of the film, or the narrative of the film has ended, there is still action which contains new information which is going on behind the credits. However, one could argue that with relation to narrative the story ends as soon as Ben is shot, and that this epilogue is not necessary to gather information about the narrative as a whole. What this epilogue does, other than forge a deeper tie between the audience to the protagonist, is force the viewer to try and reflect on death; it is a meditation more than it is narrative discourse.
What makes this such a powerful statement is that this epilogue is the first time that the audience is given an extended connection to Ben as the protagonist. The first few scenes of the film seem to suggest that Barbara is the protagonist, but about a third of the way into the film she is essentially too traumatized to do anything of significance or if she is the protagonist she’s beyond passive, perhaps a catatonic protagonist. Romero could have just shocked the audience by having Ben shot and cut to black. However, this is akin to Hitchcock following the blood down the shower drain, to cross reference this to another protagonist’s unfortunate demise in another seminal horror film. This gives us formal evidence that this is not just used as a twist. Saying “and Ben got shot because they thought he was a zombie,” would have been enough to provide the narrative twist, and would not have needed to describe in minute detail how he was carried away and placed onto a bonfire. Romero is onto something deeper and wants the audience to be notified of that as well. In a film where death is central, we are here finally given time to meditate on the weight and gravity of one death, and then contemplate its connection to the death we’ve witnessed throughout the film.
This sequence works as a philosophical pause. It makes the viewer ask, as Ben is lying right next to zombies, would it have been easier just to give up? Or what did he gain by fighting only to end up dying in the end? This extension and the tracking shot of the dead bodies among which Ben is just one, takes the zombies from the realm of dangerous monster “other” to a sympathetic, or perhaps tragic existential symbol.
Night of the Living Dead was not the first horror film to appeal to indexical contemporary images, or to delve deep into philosophical issues and subtext, and its status as one of the first modern horror films may be in part to the importance and measuring of time (pre/post ’68) by the year it was released. However, it did succeed in combining a deeper discourse to what were then considered the most disposable or low-class of film genres: the teenage exploitation flick, or drive-in horror film. Its staying power is in large part due to its ability to connect to off-screen realities and anxieties, and perhaps the most immediately recognized part of the film to do this is its end sequence.
-Jacob Floyd 2008