Fighting Two Wars:

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as a Critique of 1960s American Society

A. Introduction

Night of the Living Dead is considered to be one of the most important horror films in the history of American cinema and is “widely recognized as the first modern horror movie” (Badley, Body Fantastic 13). It was directed by American film-maker George A. Romero, co-written by Romero and John A. Russo, and stars Duane Jones as Ben Huss, Judith O’Dea as Barbra, Karl Hardman as Harry Cooper, and Marilyn Eastman as Helen Cooper. It was the first film in the so-called Living Dead film series, an important movement in film history. Despite initial criticism because of its explicitly gory content, it became a commercial success due to its cult following and earned critical praise.

Some film scholars[1] argue that this film can be read as a subversive critique of 1960s American society with most of them interpreting the film as dealing with racism, the Vietnam War, a patriarchal society, and distrust of authorities. This article will explore an interpretation of the film’s main protagonist, Ben Huss, played by African-American actor Duane Jones, as “fighting two wars”, i.e. the war at home—racism—and the war abroad—Vietnam. An elaborate interpretation will help the reader understand the film’s social commentary better, which in turn deals with some key aspects of 1960s American society in an authentic way, since the film was released in 1968.

B. From Double-V to Muhammad Ali: The concept of “two fronts”

The concept of “two wars” or “two fronts” for African-Americans during an armed conflict involving the Unites States of America goes back to the “Double V” campaign of the 1940s promoted by black newspapers and black leaders, which “called for a … victory at home over discrimination as well as victory over the axis” (Finkle, “Conservative Aims of Militant Rhetoric” 692). In the 1960s, the war abroad took place in Vietnam, where the American forces fought against the communist North Vietnamese troops and the South Vietnamese guerrilla group Viet-Cong in order to contain the spread of communism. However, this war gradually grew unpopular with the American public and by the second half of the decade the opposition to American involvement in Vietnam had become fierce, ranging from peaceful protests to radical movements. The so-called war at home over discrimination experienced a similar polarization in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement on one side of the spectrum and the Black Power movement on the other. Furthermore, the decade can be characterised as one of achievements, such as the Civil Rights Acts, as well as setbacks, such as the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., for the African-American community. Because of the growing discrepancy between the duties of the African-American population, such as serving in the armed forces in Vietnam, where the percentage of black soldiers surpassed the percentage of African-Americans in the U.S.A. (cf. Higashi, “Night of the Living Dead” 178), and their rights and status within American society, where despite ground-breaking legislation racism continued to be a huge problem, increasingly more African-Americans were unwilling to fight for a country that did not respect their rights, and therefore resisted the draft, such as boxing heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, who commented on his refusal to fight a “second war” by stating that “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger”.

C. “Don’t you know what’s goin’ on out there?”: Night of the Living Dead as a comment on 1960s American society

As already mentioned, many film scholars think of Night of the Living Dead as a subversive critique of 1960s American society that deals with various aspects. Regardless of whether George A. Romero was aware of it or not, the film certainly reflects some aspects through means of film-making as well as storytelling. Night of the Living Dead broke some of the rules of the horror film genre, e.g. by not having the “good guys” win at the end. There is no cure for the infected, the zombie apocalypse cannot be stopped, and Duane Jones is even killed. This can be seen as a reflection of the shattering of 1950s optimism that had been going on since John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Romero’s pessimism shows a “society on the verge of collapse” (Deming, “Night of the Living Dead”) with the monsters becoming even more powerful and with authorities that cannot be trusted and that are too inept to deal with a threat to humanity. One of the film’s most iconic shots shows 11-year-old living dead Karen Cooper eating her father’s corpse, literally killing off the patriarchal society of the time. Furthermore, even its contemporary audience perceived it to have “an urgent coded message on the state of America” (Hervey, Night of the Living Dead 9). Publicity for Night of the Living Dead was based on the assumption that “Night found its core audience among those who were sceptical of the American mainstream, politically and culturally” (Hervey 18). When asked about his film’s reflection of these turbulent times, Romero simply stated that “it was 1968, man … Everybody had a ‘message’. The anger and attitude and all that’s there is just because it was the Sixties” (qtd. in Jones, Rough Guide 118).

I. “Dying together isn’t going to solve anything”: Night of the Living Dead as a comment on Vietnam

Most of the film scholars who discuss Night of the Living Dead interpret the film’s symbolism as dealing with Vietnam. Unlike many other contemporary horror films, Night of the Living Dead was shot in black-and-white and is notable for its gory, unsettling realism which resembles the Vietnam footage that aired every evening on TV. Along with the film’s grainy aesthetic, natural lighting, hand-held shooting, and its use of natural locations, these unusual techniques “gave [Romero's] gorefest the look and feel of a doc” (Stein, “The Dead Zones”). According to Romero, the film’s monochromatic cinematography was explicitly used to give Night of the Living Dead an authentic feeling, since “In those days the news was in black-and-white … It was much more realistic back then” (qtd. in Hervey, Night of the Living Dead 19). Even the language used in the film is similar to the one associated with Vietnam; e.g. when a posse is out to kill zombies near the end of the film, a television broadcast within Night of the Living Dead refers to their mission as “Search and destroy”, which was a notorious Vietnam War military strategy. Another example are the film’s body counts such as “We killed nineteen of them in this area” which are reminiscent of the ones reported during the Vietnam War (cf. Higashi, “Night of the Living Dead” 182f); and when the film cuts to the mob, accompanied by a newscaster played by Pittsburgh-based television newscaster Bill Caudill, we hear the noise of helicopters and walkie-talkies, which the film’s 1968 audience certainly linked to the military in general and Vietnam in particular.

The fact that this horror film plays in Pennsylvania and not somewhere in Europe where most of Hollywood’s horror films up to that point had taken place[2] acknowledges the 1960s reality of having “Middle America at war” (Stein, “The Dead Zones”) in a time of partly violent student protests against American involvement in Vietnam and massive race riots in many cities. Furthermore, this setting clearly demonstrates a 1960s American society “on the verge of collapse”. As Ben Hervey puts it, “Little wonder … that young viewers responded to a brutally violent horror film set here and now, which … pitted Americans against Americans … that its moral ambiguity felt true to them, its refusal to idolise heroes or demonise monsters” (Night of the Living Dead 23f). Even the weapons Ben and the others use to fight the zombies resemble 1960s anti-war protests; equipped with home made Molotov cocktails, they look like militant radicals ready to overthrow “the system” with guerilla tactics.

According to Douglas Winter, “zombies … symbolize the state of conformity” (“Introduction” 6) and due to the film’s resemblance to Vietnam footage, it is reasonable to assume that these conformist zombies are meant to represent soldiers. In their most negative depictions, soldiers are generally presented as mindless killing machines, lacking any individuality, moral values, an ability to question orders and any capacity to feel empathy or love. The 1960s protest movement clearly opposed this blind patriotism and therefore, Ben can be seen as not fighting in Vietnam, but as fighting the Vietnam War itself, because, as Helen puts it, “dying together isn’t going to solve anything”. He fights the conformist zombies and tries not to be “infected”, i.e. drafted, which would mean his joining the other zombies, i.e. the armed forces. This anti-establishment, leftist reading is fuelled by Romero’s own world-view. He stated that he and his friends were “part of that liberal gang—hippies who didn’t want to grow up” (qtd. in Hervey, Night of the Living Dead 27). Since Ben survives the zombie attack, it seems as if he successfully resists his “war abroad”.

However, we must acknowledge that he is killed at the end of the film. It is a senseless death without heroism (cf. Dillard, “Night of the Living Dead” 27). Ben does not sacrifice himself for a greater cause; he is just shot by a mob of rifle-carrying WASPs. If we assume Ben to be in Vietnam, then this mob can be considered to represent American involvement, since their mission is even referred to as “Search and destroy” by a television broadcast. If we prefer to read the film as dealing with the opposition to the war itself, then the mob invokes images of the National Guard firing at peaceful demonstrators at Kent State, the Democratic Convention in 1968, and the violent quashing of the Columbia University protests. Either way, Ben’s being shot in the head and burned resembles two of the most well-known war photographs; the Viet-Cong who is shot in the head by a South-Vietnamese police chief and the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire to protest the Southern regime.

II. “You can be the boss down there, I’m boss up here!”: Night of the Living Dead as a comment on racism

The fact that Night of the Living Dead was one of the first films to feature an African-American hero when the rest of the cast is composed of whites leads many film critics to analyse it as a comment on racism and race relations within U.S. society in the 1960s. Duane Jones survives a fierce zombie attack “only to be killed by a redneck posse” (Stein, “The Dead Zones”) at the end of the movie. According to Mark Deming, this cruel depiction of a hero’s death “had added resonance with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fresh in the minds of most Americans” (“Night of the Living Dead”) and the influential French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma even wanted the audience to see “le vrai sujet du film qui n’est évidemment pas les morts-vivants, mais bien le racisme” (Daney, “Nigth of living dead“ [sic] 65).

However, according to George A. Romero, “there was no racial implication in casting Jones—he simply gave the best audition” (Jones, Rough Guide 118). Nonetheless, Romero “has always said that he shot the posse scenes and the ending with politics consciously in mind” (Hervey, Night of the Living Dead 26). Due to the fact that Romero and Russo had not finished the script when they started principal photography and that the crew, especially Romero and Duane Jones who soon understood his role’s racial implications, talked a lot about the film’s themes while shooting, it is reasonable to assume that although there may not have been an intentional racial statement with Jones’ casting, it emerged with their grasping of the film’s racial reading and was most clearly presented in the film’s ending (cf. Hervey 12; 26), which was even Jones’ own idea (cf. 46). Jones explicitly stated that “it never occurred to me that I was hired because I was black. But it did occur to me that because I was black it would give a different historic element to the film” (qtd. in Hervey 43) and that he and Romero took some scenes’ racial overtones into consideration.

Nevertheless, there is not a single racial epithet in the film, not a single remark about Ben’s blackness. This refusal to “make a point out of the black guy”[3] can be seen as a statement in itself. However, it must have occurred to Romero that viewers would read something into Jones’ being black. Not only because of the all-white mob that kills Ben at the end, proving to be crueller than the zombies, but also because of the Ben-Harry relationship in the farmhouse, which R.H.W. Dillard considers to give “the center of the film its tension” (“Night of the Living Dead” 20). While Night of the Living Dead has been praised for its ambiguous interpretation of zombies, which distinguishes this film from pre-Night horror films with “evil” monsters that threaten the “good” status-quo, some critics[4] point out that there is one dislikeable character; it is the white middle-class patriarch Harry Cooper. Although race is never mentioned, Harry acts according to our expectations towards a film dealing with racism by being a WASP who gives orders and becomes enraged when the “Negro” disobeys. Ben and Harry soon start an argument over where to hide. Harry thinks the cellar is the best place to retreat, whereas Ben sees it as a death-trap. This argument develops into a demonstration of power and a contest for leadership within the farmhouse. Tom, a character that accompanied Harry at the beginning but then refused to go down with him to the cellar, tries to settle their differences. “We’d all be a lot better off if all three of us were working together” he says, but they will not listen. Tom can be seen as the embodiment of cooperation, whereas Harry is unable to cope with not being an authority, i.e. the end of his perceived white supremacy, and Ben acts as if he was a black power activist, even welcoming the newly established division within the farmhouse with the words “You can be the boss down there, I’m boss up here!”.

In a later scene, Ben, Tom, and Tom’s girlfriend Judy leave the farmhouse to refuel their truck, while Harry hurls Molotov cocktails at the zombies. Tom and Judy die due to an accident that causes the truck to explode and therefore, Ben has to return to the farmhouse on his own. His escape from an all-white zombie mob, waving a torch, cannot help but invoke images of Ku Klux Klan lynchings of African-Americans. The horror cliché of a lynch-mob-chasing-the-monster scene, most notably featured in James Whale’s Frankenstein, is inverted; the zombies are the mob and Ben is the monster, his Otherness being his race[5]. Ironically, Ben survives this lynching mob only to be killed by another one at the end of the film—this time consisting of “normal” living people, all-white with police dogs, resembling the ones used against the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, and carrying guns. The film then ends with stills of the dead Ben and his body being burned, which look like archive photographs taken in the 1920s from public lynchings.

Back in the farmhouse after his escape from the zombie mob, the tension between Ben and Harry intensifies. Although they have a common enemy, they are unable to cooperate. More and more, the viewer has the notion that this film is not about people turning against monsters, but about people turning against people (cf. Dillard, “Night of the Living Dead” 21f). In another struggle, Harry grabs a rifle and points it at Ben instead of pointing it at the ghouls that are reaching out for them. Ben manages to get his rifle back and shoots Harry. However, this scene does not convey an impression of self-defence. This is not just an accident, born out of a moment of struggle; it is an expression of hate. There is no need to point the rifle at Ben; Harry could have retreated to the cellar anyway. Just like there is no need to shoot Harry. When Ben shoots him, Harry is lying on the floor, beaten and defenceless. Several seconds elapse with Ben standing over him, staring at Harry almost grinning before he pulls the trigger. Their power struggle is over. Ben not only successfully disobeyed Harry’s orders and convinced the others to follow him despite his race; he ultimately let his rage, his hate overcome his reason, winning his “war at home” by killing the embodiment of his suppression.

D. Conclusion

George A. Romero’s films are known for their social commentary. In the film’s sequels, such as Dawn of the Dead, their respective themes are developed more explicitly, whereas in Night of the Living Dead, it is done in a subtle way, coded and sometimes probably even by chance. However, even those aspects of the film are now part of almost every reading of Night of the Living Dead as a social critique, because they either reflect certain contemporary attitudes or they triggered authentic responses from the film’s 1968 audience with respect to American society.

By interpreting Ben Huss as fighting a war on two fronts, Night of the Living Dead becomes first and foremost relevant to African-Americans and the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the fact that the concept dates back to World War II, it was in the sixties that it became a controversial topic when many African-Americans questioned their duty to fight for a country that in their eyes did not respect them, backed by a New Left that was eager to denounce racism, patriotism and militarism.

Although Ben seems to win his wars, surviving the zombie attack and killing Harry, he is shot at the end of the film by a posse that with its symbolism connects both aspects, Vietnam and racism. In a time of hope for a better future, this scene’s nihilism might seem surprising. However, it foreshadows the response the “silent majority” gave to the counter-culture by electing Richard Nixon a few months later, as well as the fact that it was not the New Left that was about to take over control of society, but an ideological renaissance of the political right, personified by Ronald Reagan. It was Romero himself who acknowledged this origin of the film’s mood by stating that “I think we really were pissed off that the sixties didn’t work, that the world didn’t change” (qtd. in Hervey, Night of the Living Dead 118).

Works Cited

Badley, Linda. Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Daney, Serge. “Nigth of living dead”, in: Cahiers du cinema, No. 219, p. 65, 1970.

Deming, Mark. “Night of the Living Dead (1968)”, in: Allmovie. URL:

http://www.allmovie.com/movie/night-of-the-living-dead-v35311/review.

(Visited on Aug. 1, 2012)

Dillard, R.H.W. “Night of the Living Dead: It’s not like just a wind that’s passing through”, in: Waller, Gregory A. (Ed.). American Horrors: Essays on the modern American Horror Film. Chicago. 1987.

Finkle, Lee. “The Conservative Aims of Militant Rhetoric: Black Protest during World War II”, in: The Journal of American History, Vol. 60, No. 3, pp. 692-713, 1973.

Hervey, Ben. Night of the Living Dead. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Higashi, Sumiko. “Night of the Living Dead: A Horror Film about the Horrors of the Vietnam Era”, in: Dittmar, Linda and Gene Michaud (Ed.). From Hanoi to Hollywood: The Vietnam war in American Film. London. 2000.

Jones, Alan. The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. London: Rough Guides, 2005.

Stein, Elliot. “The Dead Zones”, in: The Village Voice; 2003. URL: http://www.villagevoice.com/2003-01-07/film/the-dead-zones/ (Visited on Aug. 1, 2012)

Winter, Douglas E. “Introduction”, in: Winter, Douglas E. (Ed.). Prime Evil. New York. 1988.


[1] Such as Sight and Sounds‘ Elliot Stein, Cahiers du Cinéma‘s Serge Daney, and film historians Ben Hervey and Sumiko Higashi.

[2] For a detailed analysis on Night of the Living Dead‘s textual and structural elements in comparison to expressionistic horror films such as Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, cf. Dillard, Night of the Living Dead 17.

[3] According to Romero, this was a request from his distributors, which he refused. Qtd. in Hervey, “Night of the Living Dead“ 42f.

[4] Ben Hervey mentions reviews taken from Sight and Sound and French film magazine Positif, cf. Night of the Living Dead 61f.

[5] For a definition of the concept of “the Other“, cf. Higashi, “Night of the Living Dead“ 176f.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rafael Alves Azevedo lives in Germany and has a master's degree in English, History, and Education. Despite his interest in politics, art, and culture, he firmly believes that football is the most important thing in life and supports Benfica Lisbon. However, he is well known for his questionable beliefs, such as insisting that Rocky IV is the best film ever made and that 1980’s Italo pop is superior to every other musical genre.

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