When George Romero brought "Night of the Living Dead" to the screen 50 years ago, he kicked off a trend for zombie narratives that viewers can't get enough of.
Viewed today, Romero's low-budget fright-fest of brain-munching zombies has a potent undercurrent that is a scathing comment on race. But that's not how the director intended the movie to be received by audiences.
That’s according to Eric Wesselmann and Scott Jordan, professors of psychology at Illinois State University and GLT’s Psych Geeks. Romero cast many of his friends in the film and gave the lead role to the best actor among them, an actor who was black. Even though the film was released during the Civil Rights Movement, Romero denied trying to make a political statement with his film, which has a tragic and ironic ending where the protagonist is killed, not by zombies, but by the police.
The release of the film coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King, said Wesselman, and audiences couldn’t help but interpret the film as a scathing comment on race, no matter what Romero originally intended.
“Romero and many of his colleagues were very liberally oriented,” said Wesselmann. “And they thought they were very progressive by NOT rewriting the script to make race an issue. Definitely afterwards and in subsequent movies, then Romero did start to take those elements and begin to weave them in more directly. He says that he wasn’t trying to make any sort of allegory, although that has been debated back and forth.”
“I love that he cast the best actor he could find,” said Scott Jordan. “It’s kind of tragic how we experience it now, given the events. At the same time, you can completely watch 'Night of the Living Dead' as a political statement.”
Romero set in celluloid much of the brain-eating, virus-spreading zombie lore that we know today. The filmmaker was also inspired by lingering fears of radioactive fallout, said Jordan.
“In 'Night of the Living Dead,' the zombies were brought back to life because of radioactivity from a satellite that came back to earth. You have all your 1950s movies like 'Them!' with all these big monsters mutating because of radioactivity. And then it was like, ‘What if humans were to mutate?’ So Romero is at the cusp of the radioactivity scare, and then after that it becomes the virus.”
Most sci-fi creates some fantastical world where we can safely look at our own inner demons, said Jordan.
“The advantage of picking something like zombies, you have to learn that they’re not human. Research in artificial intelligence looks at how much something can look human and we still like it. There’s this area between 50 percent and 100 percent likeness where we actually don’t like it. So as something comes close and closer to looking like a human and we can tell that it’s not, we actually like it less and less. So zombies hit that sweet spot.”
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