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George Romero didn't mean to tackle race in Night of the Living Dead, but he did anyway

Without the late director’s groundbreaking zombie movie, we wouldn't have Get Out.

An image from Night of the Living Dead
Beware the living dead.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for July 23 through 29 is Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is available to stream on Amazon Prime or digitally rent on YouTube, Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play.

In interviews about his smash horror hit Get Out earlier this year, Jordan Peele cited the 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead as one of his biggest influences. It’s no wonder. Without the movie — and its director, George Romero, who died on July 16 — we wouldn’t have Get Out or many other classic social thrillers (like Rosemary’s Baby and The Silence of the Lambs), which use the devices of fear and horror to make biting social critiques.

We wouldn’t have The Walking Dead, World War Z, Shaun of the Dead, or Zombieland, either — in Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, Romero invented the rules that guide our modern ideas about zombies: They’re reanimated deceased people who move slowly and have an insatiable desire to eat the living.

A new theatrical release of Night of the Living Dead, the movie that started it all, was already being planned when news of Romero’s death broke. Last year, the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Foundation worked from the film’s original negatives to create a 4K restoration, from the film’s original negatives, which means the projected digital image will be richer and clearer. The new version will premiere in October at New York’s Film Forum before expanding to other theaters.

Night of the Living Dead is relatively simple in its execution, and it was cheap to make when it was produced in the late ’60s, with a budget of only $114,000. The story follows a woman named Barbara (played by Judith O’Dea), who travels with her brother to visit her father’s grave, only to be attacked by a man in the cemetery who kills her brother. She flees the scene and arrives at a farmhouse, where she ends up hiding with several people, including a man named Ben (Duane Jones).

Duane Jones plays Ben in Night of the Living Dead
Duane Jones plays Ben in Night of the Living Dead.

The group discovers via news reports that the bodies of the freshly dead are being reanimated, perhaps because of radioactive contamination from a space probe that recently returned from Venus. And, well — it doesn’t turn out particularly well for anyone.

But the real drama isn’t in fighting the zombies; it’s in what happens inside the house as the still-alive people disagree vehemently about what they should do in the face of the “living dead” outside. That’s why some critics and scholars have interpreted the film as a critique of Cold War politics, American society in the 1960s, and, especially, racism.

Jones, who played Ben, is an African-American man, and though Romero always said he hadn’t intended to make the film about race — insisting that Jones simply gave the best audition — it’s impossible to escape that this is a film about a black man trapped in a house with white people who can’t seem to fend off the danger themselves. But after managing to survive the zombies, Ben is shot by a white sheriff.

Talking about Night of the Living Dead’s Ben and his own film’s black protagonist, Get Out’s Chris, Peele said:

Theoretically, their racial perspective is the very skill that helps them. You could write an interesting essay about how the lead in “Night of the Living Dead is a man living in fear every day, so this is a challenge he is more equipped to take on than the white women living in the house. Chris, in his racial paranoia, is onto something that he wouldn’t be if he was a white guy and there was a similar thing going on.

That Romero didn’t initially realize that the film — whether or not he intended it — works as a critique of racism in America has had long-reaching effects in the zombie genre; as Matt Thompson wrote for NPR’s Code Switch blog in 2013, the video game version of The Walking Dead also features a black protagonist named Lee, which adds power to the storytelling. “When non-black characters in the story decide whether or not they trust Lee (trust being the most essential human currency after the zombie apocalypse),” Thompson writes, “the racial difference between them stands out as a generally unspoken consideration.”

Romero’s long career of filmmaking (which included serving as a producer on several remakes of his own films) established him as a master of horror. But Night of the Living Dead started it all. It didn’t just provide a template for social thrillers and zombies; it also inspired a subtle and important way of integrating race into those stories. His first, searing foray into the world of zombies — and the inadvertent casting choice he made — truly secured his legacy.

Watch the trailer for Night of the Living Dead: