Night of the Living Dead, the 1960s horror film that first brought zombies to the forefront of horror cinema, used its relatively simple plotline, novel horrific concepts, and its blunt gore to bring a vast array of social issues to the attention of a wide audience. The film appealed to a large and diverse audience due to its sensational nature. The film does not hide from its gore, but embraces it, causing institutions like certain movie theaters to refuse to show it and Readers Digest to reject it, which of course made the film all the more desirable to see.
The simplicity of the plot in Night of the Living Dead allowed a wide audience to appreciate it. After a race of slow-moving zombies is created by radiation from an outer space probe, a diverse group of strangers end up trapped in a farmhouse as the zombies try to break in and eat them. Among the group is a young woman who lost her brother in an attack by one of the “living dead”, a black man who tries to take charge of the situation, a middle class husband and wife who are nursing their young daughter who was bitten by a zombie, and a frightened teenage couple.
In the 1960s when Night of the Living Dead first debuted, many political issues were at a turning point in society. Racial issues like the desegregation of public accommodations, national tensions like the war in Vietnam and gender equality issues like women’s sexual independence and workplace equality were all on the forefront of the political scene at this time. This film spoke to all of these issues in different ways, some obvious and some more subtle.
Probably the most obvious political statement that this film makes is through the placement of a black man, Ben, as the moral compass and leader of the group in the farmhouse. Many times, he asserts not only his moral superiority over his white counterparts, but also his superior mental ability over the more macho, grandiose male personalities. A specific example of this is the logic Ben presents on the subject of the safest place in the house to be. Harry Cooper, the middle class husband, argues for the basement because of its reinforced door, but Ben presents the correct observation that if the door were to break, there would be no way out. This illustrates Ben’s reliance on intelligence and thoughtfulness as opposed to Harry’s belief in the brute strength of the door. This presentation of a black man goes against many racial stereotypes of the day, making a statement against racist roles in society.
The film also makes statements concerning gender and gender roles, although in a much more subtle and seemingly sarcastic way. Throughout the film, only the men seem to be effective in fighting off the zombies. While Ben and the other men are active, Barbra is quickly reduced to helpless after being saved and made confortable inside the farmhouse. She remains on the living room sofa for almost the entire film. Helen and Judy are more active characters, but undertake only the stereotypical “women’s work” of caring for Helen’s bitten daughter, while the men set about the more productive act of boarding up the house. The women in the film generally provide a kind of backdrop, their feelings and actions largely dependent on the more dominant males. This ridiculously extreme oppression of women’s roles in the function of the farmhouse mirrors their roles in society in general, calling out the extreme oppression and dehumanization of women during this time period.