Punk Before Punk: An Appreciation of Night of the Living Dead
Image by Evan Johnston
by Nicholas Rombes
It was my first time ever teaching a film studies class. I’d been hired at the University of Detroit Mercy as a professor of early American literature (my specialized field). Small English department that it is, faculty wear several hats, and a hat that I had hidden away in my office desk drawer was one that read “Film Studies” (that’s what it was called back then), a hat which the chair of the department must have discovered, leading him to ask me to teach the film class for the coming semester. Although I’d published on film, I’d oddly never formally taught a class in the subject. Romero saved me.
There are some texts–books, films (yes, we called films “texts” back then, in the heyday of high theory!)–that manage to teach themselves, unless you screw it up royally (this is possible, trust me) and I chose Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead not only for that reason, but more importantly because I loved the film deeply and felt connected to it in ways that I barely understood then and don’t understand much better today. Most of all, I wanted to share it with my students for so many reasons: its DIY aesthetic and the idea that with talent, tenacity, and luck you don’t need to go to Hollywood to make a film, the shocking immediacy of the camera work and movement, the unintentional racial subtext  that holds the film together like invisible thread, the way that the war in Vietnam is the real zombie in the film, how it illustrates that genre in endlessly reinventable and reflective of the anxieties of its era.
Back then I’d teach the film class under less than ideal conditions. There was no projector, no dedicated class for showing films. Instead, in a big room on the third floor of the library, they’d wheel out two carts, each with its own bulky television set and a VCR hooked up to both. There was no separate audio; the sound came straight from the TVs. VHS. Tracking was a bitch. And the TVs were old, their tubes almost blown, so the picture had a sort of eerie green to it. Despite everything conspiring against it, Romero’s film worked, worked brilliantly, rising above the technical limitations. In preparation I think I had the class read a chapter from Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, Linda Williams’s feminist take on horror “When the Woman Looks,” an interview with Romero, and an article about how the violence of the Vietnam War had crept into Americans’ living rooms in the late 1960s.
As sometimes happens when things are clicking, we saw the film not just through our own eyes, but through each other’s. The students–most of them born in the mid-to-late 1970s–noticed and picked up on patterns I never would have detected, drawing connections to the films that had shaped them as young adults, such as of course the 1990 remake, as well as Pet Sematary, Jacob’s Ladder, Army of Darkness, Dead Alive, and Candyman. They wondered about Barbara’s silence. Some of them took an ironic view of the movie, which I had not, wondering if the characters knew all along that they were “just” in a movie, as in the preamble cemetery scene with John play-acting something zombie-like with his sister Barbara, as if to say, This is what this movie will be about, and we all know it. As with all works that stand the test of time, Romero’s film is an open, rather than closed, film, allowing for the viewer to activate and interpret it, making it a living thing (zombie-like), always anticipating, always arriving. In fact, the film never arrives, which is its beauty.
Night of the Living Dead, The Walter Reade Organization, 1968
For some students in the class, Night of the Living Dead opened the door to an angle they had not considered before: that a film could be political without being “political.” More to the point: the most ideological films are the ones where ideology remains, on the surface, invisible. I’m not sure if we read Robin Wood’s potent essay “George Romero: Apocalypse Now” in that class or in a future one, but at some point in one of those classes we circled round to Woods’s claim that what the film is really about is subversion, the subversion of basic norms of bourgeois society. “The young people,” Wood writes, “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.” This is the reading of the film as subversive and progressive, in line with most film theorists’ own politics.
But the horror genre is notorious for biting back and for being wonderfully resistant to narrow political readings. In fact, you could say that far from suggesting a progressive vision, Night of the Living Dead is a conservative, even reactionary piece of work, a film where the very hope of a progressive, multi-racial future ends in violence, with a gunshot. Zombies know no politics. They are driven by unnameable, mindless desire. Through this lens, the film is yet another variation on the age-old fuck-and-die archetype, except here the codes are racial rather than sexual. For daring to “take charge” of whites in defense of civilization–for this transgression–Ben must die.
But Night of the Living Dead has never died, managing to stay relevant and a touchstone for understanding the New Hollywood cinema of the late-1960s and 1970s, indie film in the late 1980s and 1990s, the Dogme 95 movement pioneered by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and, later, Harmony Korine, and finally the zombie resurgence prefigured by 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead. Although its legacy up to this point has largely rested on the powerful ways it disrupted and changed the course the horror genre, its other, less-commented upon legacy involves its DIY production and aesthetic. It was punk before punk. Dogme before Dogme. It wasn’t afraid of mistakes. It wasn’t afraid to fail. It was homegrown. It was fun. It was anarchic. It imagined NO FUTURE. It was stripped down. Much of the dialog was improvised. It was produced on its own label, Romero’s self-founded production company Image Ten.
This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band.
Night of the Living Dead.
 In a 2014 interview with Electric Sheep, Romero reiterated that, while the racial aspect was not intentional for him or other involved with the film, it resonated with Duane Jones, who played Ben: “Right when we finished the film,” recalls Romero, “we were actually driving the first answer print of the film to New York, and that night we heard on the car radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. So, obviously, it then resonated that much more. When we were working on the film with Duane Jones, he was sensitive to it. We were all saying: ‘Come on, it’s 1968, we don’t have to worry about that’, but he was conscious of the fact that putting a black man in a role that wasn’t written for a black man was unusual. He thought it was bold, and we never recognised any of those issues, except only in conversation with him.”
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series (Bloomsbury) and Cinema in the Digital Age(Columbia UP). His film The Removals was released in 2016. Rombes is a columnist and contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine, and teaches in Detroit, Michigan.