The year is 1968, and Director George A. Romero and Producer Russ Streiner sit in the back of a New York City cab as they search for distributors for their recently completed film Night of The Living Dead. As the pair sit in the back of the taxi, they are informed via radio of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As the story goes, it was only by this coincidence that Romero had realized the strides he would be making in casting a black man as the lead in his film. While black actors had starred as leading roles in the past, they were always stories that revolved around the struggle that the characters faced being black; Night of the Living Dead would be one of the first to star a black man in a "traditional" role. While Night of the Living Dead as well as the late sixties can be remembered for their other numerous cinematic achievements, take, for example, the editing mastery in Bonnie and Clyde, which introduced styles from the French New wave to widely unfamiliar American audiences, or Night of the Living Dead's modernization of the horror genre and popularization of the zombie film, perhaps its most stunning achievement was that it paved the way for other actors and actresses of color to star in films which were not necessarily associated with the struggles of race.
Within the film itself, Night of the Living dead explores racial themes, albeit subtly. The movie by no means focuses on the struggles of African Americans and other people of color; however, underneath its exciting, horror surface, there are certainly themes and messaging which explore the ongoing oppression of minority groups in the United States. One of such scenes is the ending of the film when the seemingly heroic guard comes to rescue survivors from the previous Night's zombie attack; however, once they reach Duane Jones' character Ben, the guard shoots him square between his eyes.
The end to Night of the Living dead explores themes of racial prejudice that were prominent in 1968 and are still relevant in today's society. The end of the movie shows audiences the fear of black Americans who are too often hurt by the people who are supposed to protect them. With the signing of the civil rights act also taking place in 1968, it is no surprise that the note Night of the Living dead ends on is one of caution, showing comfortable white audiences that by no means is this the end of the road as it pertains to racial justice and equality.
To emphasize its point, Romero uses several cinematic techniques to highlight the issues commented on in the film. Primarily is the film's use of setting. The majority of the film is locked away in a remote cabin, surrounded by supernatural ghouls in the dead of night. It is here that all of the characters die except for Ben. Ben's death comes as the sun rises and the ghouls have left. The message of Ben's death in this seemingly safer setting is to show that in America, a black man's greatest fear doesn't come from supernatural ghouls and monsters but from the racial oppression they face daily. The blank stare given by Duane Jones at the end of the film symbolizes the numbness faced by minorities in this country after years of being treated as inferior.
George A. Romero is no stranger to inclusion and diversity in his films; his first two films of the Living Dead series starred black men, while his third, Day of the Dead, was lead by a strong female. His portrayal of minority groups in the picture served to normalize people of color's inclusion in leading roles whether he meant it to or not. In an article by the Washington Post, it is recounted how racism by no means was ended and in some ways may have been heightened by the multiple Civil Rights acts of the sixties; therefore, the film's commentary on continuing racial tensions in America, even after the civil rights act, was relevant and is still relevant to this day. Looking back at Romero's taxi ride in 1968, when he heard the news of Dr. King's passing and for the first time thought of the racial implications his film would have, we can begin to see how actively fighting racist stereotypes and breaking norms and standards can lead to great success as seen by the strides taken by African American actors in leading roles as well as the expansion of the horror genre after the release of Night of the Living Dead.
Kendi, Ibram X. “Analysis | The Civil Rights Act Was a Victory against Racism. But Racists Also Won.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/07/02/the-civil-rights-act-was-a-victory-against-racism-but-racists-also-won/.
Punch, David A. “Night of the Living Dead: Horrors of Reality Manifested in the Flesh.” Medium, Medium, 2 Oct. 2018, medium.com/@DavidA.Punch/night-of-the-living-dead-horrors-of-reality-manifested-in-the-flesh-46722bb15e8a.