Sense of Wonder: Night of the Living Dead and the Riddle of Racism

Night of the Living Dead Jones and Hardman fighting
Racial subtext? I see no racial subtext!

While posting “Anatomy of a Horror Film: Night of the Living Dead” yesterday, I was struck by something that has occurred to me several times over the years. In case you have not yet read the article (which was originally published in the printed version of Cinefantasitque magazine – Volume 4, Number 1 – back in 1975), it features a round table discussion with Karl Hardman, Russell Streiner, and John Russo, essentially staking a claim to their share of the credit for the 1968 horror masterpiece directed by George Romero. Among other things, they deny any allegorical aspect to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in regard to the casting of black actor Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben.

[RUSSELL] STREINER: Getting back to the question you asked earlier about allegory in the film. A lot of people have read in some meaning to the casting of Duane Jones, a Negro, playing the male lead in the film. The simple truth of the matter is that he just turned out to be the best person for the part. He would have gotten the part if he were an Oriental or an American Indian or an Eskimo.

Elsewhere in the article, interviewer Gary Anthony Surmacz presses the allegorical issue slightly, asking whether symbolism could have developed on an accidental, unconscious level. Streiner’s reply is: “It could happen but it didn’t happen with this film.”
This has been the party line for decades. No allegory was intended; therefore, none exists, except in the minds of over-imaginative critics. During an appearance at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2001, Romero himself offered a somewhat more flexible variation on this theme. Acknowledging that some unintended thematic content might have emerged in the film, he recalled:

We weren’t actually trying to use NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD as a forum for our socio-political leanings. They simply crept in through the back door. Perhaps there is some back-handed credit due for not shrinking from our views, for letting them show. The lead role of Ben was played by an African-American. This wasn’t a politically motivated choice. Duane Jones was simply the best actor among our friends and acquaintances. Here again, we might deserve some back-handed credit for not changing the script once Duane was cast. The script never defines Ben racially but assumes that he was a white middle-American. It never addressed race at all, anywhere in the story. I take points away from it for that.
During the shooting of our film, I realized that while we were rather proudly ignoring racial differences, we shouldn’t have been, because they existed….

What struck me upon re-reading Anatomy of a Horror Film was that I believe both Streiner and Romero are wrong, although in different ways. What Streiner ignores is that authorial intentions count for only so much; works of art that endure as classics, do so because they are open to audience interpretation, which keeps them fresh from generation to generation. The script for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD may not have intended any racial statement, and the casting of Duane Jones may have been a color-blind decision on the part of the filmmakers, but when the action plays out on screen, with Jones’ calm black man confronting the hyperventilating hot-head Harry (played by Hardman), the racial animus is palpable – and all the more intense for being unstated.
This brings me to my second point – what I see as Romero’s mistaken belief that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD should be dinged for not addressing racism openly. Had the film done so, I fear that it would, today, seem hopelessly dated – an interesting artifact of the radical ’60s, but probably not much more than that. By keeping the subtext submerged, Romero and his team – whether by accident or design – created a riddle that the audience must answer for itself. And the very nature of a riddle demands that the answer not be stated. As Jorge Luis Borges puts it in his short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths”:

… “In a guessing game to which the answer is chess, which word is the only one prohibited.” I thought for a moment and then replied:
“The word is chess.”

Whether intentional or not, racism is the answer to the riddle that is NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The fact that it is not stated openly has made the film more relevant over the ensuing decades, during which racists in our society have learned to cloak their attitudes behind more diplomatic language. For example, President Ronald Reagan never literally said that “welfare queens” were black. More recently, in 2001, when a caller to CNN’s Larry King Live told Senator Jesse Helms that “you should get a Nobel Peace Prize for everything you’ve done to help keep down the niggers,” Helms – a proud segregationist – objected to the word but not to the sentiment, saying, “When I was a little boy, one of the worst spankings I ever got is when I used that word, and I don’t think I’ve used it ever since.”
So, yes, racism is never mentioned in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and Harry never drops the N-bomb (no doubt, his father spanked him when he was young). But that’s the way racism works today, denying its own existence, hiding behind rationalizations – the same way that Harry rationalizes his conflict with Ben, while never admitting the true, underlying nature of his resentment against this black man who is ordering him around.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is far from a perfect film; it is loaded with technical problems (jump-cuts, continuity lapses). Nevertheless, it is a masterpiece. Its greatness as a genre piece lies in its uncompromising depiction of believable, documentary-style of horror; its greatness as a piece of cinema lies in the unstated subtext that allows viewers to make their own interpretations.
You may not agree with my interpretation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but that elasticity is what keeps the film alive today. As Dario Argento said to me, “When you watch a movie, you understand your truth. It’s not my truth maybe, but your truth is okay.”
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD will be “okay” for generations to come, because it leaves room for us to find our own unstated truths.