RELEASED this day in 1968, George A. Romero’s epic, groundbreaking classic, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD hits theaters, recounting the tale of a group of disparate individuals who take refuge in an abandoned house when corpses begin to walk in search of fresh human bodies to devour. The pragmatic Ben (Duane Jones) does his best to control the situation, but when the reanimated bodies surround the house, the other survivors begin to panic. As any semblance of order within the group begins to dissipate, the zombies start to find ways inside — and one by one, the living humans become the prey of the deceased ones.
There are few movies out there that represent the feelings of the era in which the film was made as honestly and brutal as Night of the Living Dead. 1968 America was very chaotic, with the deaths of charismatic leaders such as MLK and JFK, post Tet, and the furious antiwar protesters took over in colleges across the nation, including Columbia University in New York. And of lest no forget, Tricky Dick’s infamous call for the GREAT SILENT MAJORITY to stand up and be recognized. Night of the ?Living Dead was very much an subversive answer to the late Presidents speech. And was interesting invoked one of the greatest Civil Rights speeches made, when Dave Dennis stood up in front of those mourning the loss of James Earl Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi, and Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner from New York City, when he said, “I’m not here to do the traditional things most of us do at such a gathering…what I want to talk about right now is the living dead that we have right among our midst, not only in the state of Mississippi but throughout the nation. Those are the people who don’t care, those who do care but don’t have the guts enough to stand up for it, and those people who are busy up in Washington and in other places using my freedom and my life to play politics with…”
Not only does Night of the Living Dead hold historical clout, but also became the predecessor to an entire sub-genre in horror. Think about it. Before Romero, zombies were still in the realm of voodoo witch-doctors and crazed plantation owners, space alien mind control, or even atomic aged ghouls. Not saying those sub-genres aren’t good in their own right, cause anyone whose seen The Serpent and the Rainbow can attest that voodoo zombies are still scary. But Romero created something new, a new monster in the lineup of Frankenstein’s, Vampires, Werewolf’s, Mummy’s, fish people, and the like. Without Romero we wouldn’t have The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Resident Evil, Zombi3, The Beyond, and a laundry list of films that benefited from George’s take on walking flesh eating ghouls.
And besides all this, Night of the Living Dead is a damn fine horror movie. Low budget and gorilla in nature. The story was plausible and the characters felt real: we know these people; they’re us, we’re them. Romero’s take on zombies is fundamentally about the people who are trying to survive and how they react given certain situations. How we ultimately take sides and are not quick to listen to the ideas of others. Our fight or flight response forces us into making poor decisions, instead of working together as a group. And then in the end, much how Ben met his fate, we needlessly die.
One of the best reviews I read on Night of the Living Dead wasn’t really a review, but rather a review on the audience during a screening in 1969. The unknown reviewer noted the following:
“The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying. I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire. Worst of all, even the hero got killed. It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all. I felt real terror in that neighborhood theater last Saturday afternoon. I saw kids who had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.”
Movements are responses born and fed by suffering, injustice, and inequality — the ill paths society inevitably and unfortunately stumbles down. In moments of great change, movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968), confront hypocrisy similar to how the human body confronts dangerous pathogens; through the drudgery of nonviolent civil disobedience, activists uprooted, challenged, and made the world aware of the poisonous “separate but equal” fallacy of segregation. We can argue that The Civil Rights Movement, just as any other large reform movement, did not happen in a vacuum, there was no singular event that fundamentally changed everything; there were series’ of events. However, sometimes certain events transcend our understanding of historic reality. Events that are so powerful, albeit often tragic, they awaken us. Consider the murder of Emmett Till. Surely, not the first negro murder during the dark days of Jim Crow, especially in old south Mississippi, but the murder of Emmett Till and the callousness and brutally of it and how this cruel event was confronted by the courage of a languishing mother, grieving for the loss of her son, who choose to have an open casket funeral so the entire world could see what “those men did” to her child seems to be the sole catalyst that sparked what would later be known as, the Civil Rights Movement.
Emmett Louis “Bobo” Till was born in Chicago on July 25, 1941, to Louis and Mamie Till. Emmett would never know his father. In 1944, Louis was drafted into the U.S. Army and deployed out to Europe as a private. Three years later, Mamie received a letter from the “Department of Defense informing her, without a full explanation, that Louis was killed in Italy due to willful misconduct.” Along with the letter included Louis’ signet ring with the initials L.T. engraved into it. In 1955, Mamie gave the ring to her son, Emmett, before his summer trip to visit family living in Money, Mississippi.
The year before Emmett’s southbound departure from the 63rd Street station in Chicago, America had gone through some rather big reforms. In May 17th, 1954, “The Supreme Court orders public schools desegregated in Brown v. Board of Education. The watershed case overturns the separate-but-equal doctrine, which dated back to the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.” Southern segregationists obviously oppose the new legislation and on July 11, 1954 in the sleepy rural town of Indianola, Mississippi, form the White Citizens Council, a supremacist organization that often used violent and intimidation tactics to keep segregation a reality in what is considered to be the cradle of confederacy.
On August 20th, 1955, Emmett Till arrives at the home of his uncle Moses Wright. Moses, a sharecropper, is able to secure his fourteen year old nephew a job picking cotton in the hot Mississippi sun. Four days later, after putting in a long day at his summer job, Emmett joins a group of teenagers at “Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market for refreshments.” Waiting to purchase some bubble gum, Emmett is the last in his group to check out. Among the teenagers who would later testify remember hearing young Emmett tell Carolyn Bryant (the wife of the store owner) “bye baby.” Some of Emmett’s friends were shocked to hear him “talk fresh” with a white woman, but none of them thought anything horrible would come of it.
During the early morning hours before dawn on August 28, Roy Bryant (Carolyn’s husband) and his half brother J. W. Milam, arrived at the home of Moses Wright and demand to see Emmett. Without consent, the two men shove the terrified teenage boy into the back of their car and take off. This will be the last time anyone sees Emmett alive. On August 31st, “Emmett Till’s [mutilated and naked] corpse is pulled from Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River. Moses Wright identifies the body from a ring with the initials L.T.” The next day, Mississippi Governor Hugh White orders local officials to “fully prosecute” Milam and Bryant for the murder of Emmett Till. On September 3rd, “Emmett Till’s body is taken to Chicago’s Roberts Temple Church of God for viewing and funeral services. Emmett’s mother [forcefully requests] to have an open casket funeral. Thousands of Chicagoans wait in line to [witness] Emmett’s brutally beaten body.” According to the later testimony of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, a few months after being acquitted for the murder of Emmett Till, the pair described how they “brutally beat [Emmett], taking him to the edge of the Tallahatchie River, shooting him in the head, fastening a large metal fan used for ginning cotton to his neck with barbed wire, and pushing the body into the river.”
Lynching’s and other brutal forms of cowardliness murder were unfortunately common during this period of history. Just before Emmett’s arrival at the door of his uncle’s home, two other men, Reverend George Lee and Lamar Smith were both murdered for their participation with the NAACP and local voter registration drives. However, one could argue that under the conditions in which southern blacks lived, the history of segregation being paved with countless corpses of maliciously murdered men and women who dared enough to whisper “Enough!,” the murder of Emmett Till seems to be the singular catalyst that spilled the already boiling pot of discontent. But the movement that was to take shape was not a reactionary violent movement as one might expect. It was a nonviolent movement carefully crafted by the ethos of agape love, a love for neighbor insomuch as to eradicate the poisonous tumor called Jim Crow and segregation that caused ill effects for both the black and white communities living in the United States.
Three months after the body of Emmett Till was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, the Montgomery bus boycott began.
“The Murder of Emmett Till: The Brutal Murder that Mobilized the Civil Rights Movement,” American Experience documentary from the Eyes on the Prize series, PBS. 2003.