I don’t know what’s scarier, being attacked by flesh-eating zombies or being trapped all night with the Coopers, the 1960s nuclear family who have barricaded themselves into the basement of the house where Ben and Barbra have taken refuge, along with a nice young couple named Tom and Judy. Ben is smart, calm, and resourceful—a good thing, because Barbra’s no help at all. Granted, she’s just seen her brother Johnny die while trying to rescue her from a zombie and barely escaped the creature, but the poor girl’s a basket case throughout the film.
Mr. Cooper likes being addressed as “Mr. Cooper,” the way dads did in those days. He’s used to calling the shots, bossing around his wife Helen. She’s understandably upset about their little girl, who has fallen into a coma after being bitten by a zombie, but the scenes where she lashes out at her husband in Who’s-Afraid-of-Virginia-Wolfe fashion are truly terrifying.
Village Voice critic Elliot Stein called Night of the Living Dead the “first-ever subversive horror movie.” George Romero’s low-budget chiller established most of the conventions for the genre, but the director himself admits that he was only picking up on what was “in the air” at the time. He chose a black actor to play Ben because he was “the best actor from among our friends,” Romero said, but Martin Luther King’s assassination not long before the picture’s release “gave the film much more weight.”
Indeed, Ben has more in common with the nonviolent King than the fiery leader Malcolm X or Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver. He strikes me as the quiet, thinking type of African-American character played by Sidney Poitier: dignified, non-threatening, slow to anger. Nobody but Mr. Cooper seems kick-ass about killing zombies. He launches molotov cocktails out the upstairs bedroom window at the undead with gusto while Ben and Tom are attempting to fill up Ben’s pick-up truck with gas so Tom can go for help.
Killing zombies is just a job to Ben, approached in the same workmanlike fashion as he displays in nailing up the doors and windows of the house. The only time we see him get hot under the collar is when he’s butting heads with Mr. Cooper. Sure, he punches the guy and is eventually forced to shoot him, but it’s totally justifiable, a “they call me Mr. Tibbs” kind of moment.
Really, I was more disturbed by the ending, where Ben gets shot by the cops, who mistake him for one of the undead. Cahiers du Cinema hailed Night of the Living Dead as “a powerful statement on racism.” In the light of last summer’s shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, the film’s ending takes on new and chilling relevance. You can download it for free. For a taste of what’s in store, watch the trailer. Bon Appétit!