Interracial Tensions in Night of the Living Dead
Lightning, Robert K., CineAction
In discussing Night of the Living Dead Robin Wood find the significance of the black hero's color in its separating him from the norms of the white characters (he is the only non-white in the film)(1). His difference is thus the source of his comparative strength: he is able to survive beyond any of the other major characters. Richard Dyer in his article White(2) reverses the critical practice of deconstructing the cinematic depiction of the Other (as the possible site of stereotypical and/or oppressive images) by focusing instead on the cinematic construction of white images in an attempt to uncover the onscreen "invisibility" of dominant culture, its ability to present its norms as normal and thus becoming the background against which the Other is contrasted and judged. For Dyer Romero's treatment of race reverses the values often attached to cultural stereotypes. Thus, for Dyer, the frequent depiction of whites as controlled and rational becomes in Night associated with rigidity and death (as represented by the dead) and black energy (often associated with chaos and destruction) with life. That some purpose is intended by the casting (beyond a liberal attempt at color blind casting) seems more obvious when considering both the genre (black representation in horror being rare at that time) and the era (a black lead almost always signaled a social problem picture). I would like to consider the film's treatment of race in light of certain cultural/historical/political phenomena that neither critic considers (although I have taken a cue from Dyer's relating the film's fire/light imagery to 60's black rebellion) but also in light of the onscreen dynamics of the relation of white characters to the black hero which reflect historically valid interracial social dynamics.
It must be acknowledged immediately that although race is Romero's primary concern, it is not the only one and a complete reading would take into account other issues. The historical moment of Night's production and release saw the emergence or peak of three radical movements (the youth movement, black militancy, modern feminism) and each finds its representation in Night. One might consider for instance the film's feminist concerns as revealed through the characterization of Barbra, the obedient patriarchal daughter, whose encounter with two "dead" wife figures can be read as a critique of her possible future bourgeois existence: the dead woman (in symbolic terms the lady-of-the-house) at the top of the stairs of the house, as once sinister and homey, in which Barbra takes refuge and becomes entrapped and Helen Cooper, a woman caught in a death-in-life existence through her stalemate of a marriage. Less specifically, Night is representative of a group of late 60s/70s films Robin Wood has labeled the American apocalypse movie. Reflecting the general breakdown in ideological confidence characteristic of the era, these films, transcending genre, depict the utter dissolution of American society and ideology. Thus in Night we have not only the helplessness of individuals to combat the dead but that of the U.S. government itself.
As with several other apocalypse films (e.g. The Wild Bunch), Night ends with the death of all its major characters. Given the failure of the government to combat the dead, order is restored by an armed posse but, given the parallels established between living and dead (representing, among other things, a relentless petit bourgeois consumerism) as well as the connivance of the U.S. government (whose space program is possibly responsible for the horror) the culture restored is viewed as intractably corrupt. Worse still, the film's most disturbing act, the killing of its black hero Ben, is enacted by the restorers of order, the posse. There is no denying, then, the film's predominant tone of despair. Ben's death (in its abruptness, as shocking as Marion's in Psycho), however, refers to a practice the significance of which points the viewer beyond the historical moment, and thus links an era's despair to a fundamental tendency of American culture. …