- A Point of Little Hope:Hippie Horror Films and the Politics of Ambivalence
On 4 April 1968 director George Romero and producer Russ Streiner, members of an independent Pittsburgh filmmaking collaborative called Image Ten, packed their newly finished horror movie into the trunk of a car and headed for New York in search of a distributor. The two were optimistic that their film, soon to be titled Night of the Living Dead, about reanimated corpses who feed off and zombify the living, would find an audience. But their hopes were crushed when they heard on the radio the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. The filmmakers worried that the brutal murder of the film's putative hero, Ben, played by black actor Duane Jones, by a white vigilante posse that mistakes him for a zombie would now be considered too racially volatile by potential distributors. On a more profound level, the assassination made the filmmakers worry about their country. Romero realized, "All of a sudden you really [didn't] know. . . . [I]t certainly shatter[ed] your faith in [what was] going on at the top . . . [and gave you] a sense of the fragility of things; not just your life, but the nation's life" (qtd. in American Nightmare). The horror film in the trunk seemed to foreshadow this concern.
Night of the Living Dead focuses on a small group of people who seek refuge from zombie attack in an abandoned farmhouse. Over the course of a single night all the people are killed, and the film concludes with Ben's murder. As Romero explains, the film "opens with a situation that has already disintegrated to a point of little hope and it moves progressively toward absolute despair and ultimate tragedy. Nobody comes riding in at the end with the secret formula that will save us all. The ghouls, in essence, win out" (qtd. in Russo 7). Romero enhanced the intensity of the plot with naturalistic cinematographic techniques (i.e., natural lighting, hand-held cameras), giving the film a documentary feel. He also did not cut away from the extreme violence and gore of the zombies as they devour flesh, a stylistic revolution for the horror film genre at that time. The bleak narrative and innovative filmic techniques combined to give the film an overriding hopelessness, where "the real horror," writes R. H. W. Dillard, "is that there is nothing we can do that will make any difference at all" (28).
Because of its groundbreaking despair and brutality the film has been exhaustively interpreted for its supposed radical political meanings.1 As the Hollywood Reporter notes, shortly after it opened "French critics seized on the overt political agenda at the heart of the film" (McIntyre 17). More recently, director Adam Simon's Independent Film Channel documentary, American Nightmare (2000), makes explicit the connection between horror films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Night of the Living Dead, and the era's radical politics. Yet members of Image Ten maintain they had no "overt political agenda." Romero contends, "The allegory which is assigned to the film's message was not at all in our minds as we worked" (qtd. in Russo 7). Indeed, he insists that he "never meant to preach anything" and claims that there are no "new thoughts, certainly no solutions, and not even any new questions in my films" (qtd. in Gagne 5).
What explains this disparity in the interpretations of Night of the Living Dead? To answer this question, I argue that the identity of its youthful filmmakers, who were part of the predominately white, middle-class, and politically leftist hippie counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, was integral to its "meaning." This film helped redefine the horror film genre through a cinematic formula characterized by conflicted character types, the depictions of worlds in which people rather than fantastic creatures are the monsters, and realistic graphic violence.2 These [End Page 42] formulaic elements can, indeed, be read as politically radical, but I also interpret them as politically reactionary. In this way, Night of the Living Dead is a politically ambivalent film with simultaneous and contradictory political attitudes...