Night of the Living Dead and the Making of the Modern Zombie

Editor’s note: All throughout October, the vibes get spookier and the nights get longer. It’s the perfect time of year to watch horror movies, whether you’re a year-round horror fan or you just like to watch horror flicks to get into the Halloween spirit. This year at Horror Obsessive, for our 31 Horror Classics Revisited series, we’re giving you one recommendation for a classic horror film each day throughout the month of October. What do you think—is this film a horror classic? What other horror films do you consider to be classics, and what films do you make sure you watch each October? Let us know in the comments below!

Those who fight zombies are those who resist an irresistible change. [1]

From The Walking Dead to Train to Busan and everything in between, we are pretty familiar with zombies in horror films and in our culture. But where exactly do zombies come from? We can attribute the origin of modern zombies to the work of George A. Romero. His classic film Night of the Living Dead (1968) defined the modern conception of zombies by combining disparate elements of existing horror literature and myth. Even though it was not until the second film of the franchise, Dawn of the Dead, that the undead ghouls are actually referred to as “zombies,” this series first gave us the cannibalistic undead that we know and love today.

Night of the Living Dead also notably imbued the original zombie mythos of our era with important social commentary. From their earliest incarnations, zombies have represented our contentions with our biggest societal fears and problems. Over time, however, our relationship with the undead in mass media is continually whitewashed, and the more serious social problems that they portend become diluted into increasingly escapist forms of entertainment.

Romero’s Night of the Living Dead first translated zombie myths into the apocalyptic modern context that we know today. Let’s explore this evolution of zombies from their heartbreaking origin in the sinister institution of enslavement to their first appearances on our screens as hordes of flesh-eating ghouls. What observations about our culture and society did Romero invest in the ghouls of Night of the Living Dead? Are these observations lost in the zombie films that we enjoy today, or are they translated into something new?

Movie poster for Night of the Living Dead from Criterion

Zombie Origins

The concept of zombies first emerged in legends told by enslaved people of Haiti and was later incorporated into Haitian folklore with Voudou influence. Mike Mariani outlines the history of the zombie myth in his 2015 Atlantic article, “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, Haiti was a French colony that imported enslaved African people to work on sugar plantations. The forced labor, physical abuse, and living conditions that enslaved people were subjected to in colonial sugar plantations were notoriously brutal

Enslaved people had high mortality rates due to their inhumane living and working conditions, and they also purportedly had high suicide rates. Death was in many cases literally the only form of escape available to an enslaved person. In his Atlantic article, Mariani describes how enslaved people in Haiti believed that when they died, their souls would be released back to lan guinée–freedom in the afterlife in Guinea or the African motherland. However, if the enslaved Haitians also believed that if one were to take their own life, then they would not be sent back to this peaceful afterlife and would instead be condemned to inhabit the Caribbean plantations for the rest of eternity.

This history of the legend of zombies is emphatically explained by TikToker Tricia Thee Angel (@triciampisi). In her video, she demonstrates how zombie legends are of African and Haitian origin, with the word itself first coming from the Kikongo language. Essentially, the zombie legend is a heartbreaking reflection of the horrors that West African people experienced under enslavement and of their terribly realized fears of losing their freedom forever. Specifically, she describes true zombification as a form of utter objectification in the experience of having your personhood stripped away from you entirely with no hope of redemption in this life:

You go from being a fully formed human being with thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams to being turned into an object that people can use and abuse over and over again, and there is nothing you can do and no one to save you because you’re as good as dead in their eyes. —@triciampisi

Tricia Thee Angel makes it clear that zombies are a poignant and meaningful expression of the atrocities West African enslaved people experienced in Haiti. Zombies should not be considered a mere trope or joke to be culturally hijacked and exploited for mass entertainment. At the very least, we should understand and respect the social history of the zombie myth and its broad cultural relevance. Perhaps one way that we can do this is to recognize the original myth’s vestiges in the modern zombie subgenre.

Black and white depiction of a Black zombie looking upward in a sugar cane field in Haiti.
“Zombie” by Jean-noël Lafargue is licensed under Free Art License 1.3 (FAL 1.3)

Over time and in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, the myth of the zombie became incorporated into Haitian folklore and the Haitian Voudou religion. The tale and its life in Haitian culture can manifest in different ways. According to the 2015 BBC culture article “Where Do Zombies Come From?,” many believe that a Voudou practitioner “can render their victim apparently dead—either through magic, powerful hypnotic suggestion, or perhaps a secret potion—and then revive them as their personal slaves, since their soul or will has been captured.” 

This version of the zombie that is mind-controlled through occult means is the one that was whitewashed and made it through to Hollywood and American culture, originally. The undead, soulless zombie laborers that are created and controlled by a Voudou zombie master were first featured in Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), the first feature-length zombie film.

This was the nature of zombies in film until Romero came along with Night of the Living Dead and combined them with the idea of a struggle for survival amidst throngs of cannibalistic, undead masses in a disease-induced apocalypse. This apocalyptic scenario was first popularized by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I am Legend, which is among the first works of fiction to graft the vampire and zombie mythos with dystopian elements. 

Subversive Ideology in Night of the Living Dead

The irrepressible hordes of flesh-eating ghouls in Romero’s Dead series typified zombies as we know them in film today. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead originated the modern zombie subgenre not only because it reworked the Haitian zombie legends into a dystopian scenario involving masses of cannibalistic ghouls but also, most essentially, because it retained that reflection of important social issues and can be characterized by an embedded, subversive ideology.

Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead (1978) are generally interpreted as politicized commentaries on American life. In the Dead films and their remakes, the zombie apocalypse serves as an impetus for dramatic interpolations of power and control among survivors. Applying an ideological critical approach to a subversive or even Marxist interpretation of Romero’s Dead films and the prevalence of the zombie subgenre can lead us to question the meaning of these dynamics to mass audiences over time.

To explore the possible connection between Romero’s Dead series and an anti-consumerist ideology, we can begin by thinking about the undead cannibals themselves. These flesh-eating ghouls (which are, again, never actually referred to as “zombies” in Night of the Living Dead) are horrifying not only for obvious reasons but also because, metaphorically speaking, they are us—the American populace. In our consumerist society, “our lives are dead and drained of meaning; we are stuck performing unrewarding, unenlightening, minimum-wage labor, which is the equivalent of being a zombie.” [2] As we watch mobs of soulless ghouls stumble about listlessly and, when afforded the opportunity, rapaciously attack and devour any living person, we are invited to compare our needlessly competitive consumerist lives with their behavior.

In a 2005 interview, Romero intimated that his zombies represent societal ills that generally are repressed or ignored. While Romero envisions his zombies as an “external force,” he also indicates that they represent the dangers of repression, negligence, and deliberate ignorance—what Lucy Donaldson describes as the “ultimate internal threat” in her article “Normality is Threatened by the Monster: Robin Wood, Romero and Zombies.” [3]

Donaldson’s underlying argument is that the on-screen presentation of zombie bodies in the Dead films intentionally creates “ideological and material tension” about our own identities and life purposes. By implying that “zombies maintain a strong connection to their living counterparts” through his presentation of zombie bodies, Romero invites us to compare our reality with the zombies’. As everyday Americans are suddenly and inexplicably transformed into monsters in the films, the ultimate suggestion is that our normality is zombie normality.

A ghoul attacks Johnny over a gravestone in Night of the Living Dead

This ambiguous distinction between the living and the living dead is made apparent right from the first sequence of Night of the Living Dead. As Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O’Dea) sullenly and dutifully visit their father’s gravesite in the iconic opening sequence, they perform rites of mourning and remembrance that are meaningless to them. They go through the motions with zombie-like intellectual emptiness.

Presently, we are given our first glimpse of a ghoul in a long shot of him trudging around listlessly among the tombstones. On sight, we have no reason to believe he is anything other than human, and we only realize that something is amiss when the ghoul attacks Barbra. Johnny’s subsequent grapple with the ghoul is screened through a close framing. The closeness of the camera makes it difficult to distinguish the ghoul’s body from Johnny’s. Our introduction to zombies, then, is consistent with Donaldson’s argument for the ambiguous distinction between living and undead bodies. She concludes, 

In Romero’s films, zombies’ actions are centered on revealing what constitutes ourselves, doing so by drawing attention to the body and addressing its boundaries […] evoking physical anxiety over the spectacle of the violent destruction of bodies, and the realization of our own potential emptiness. [4]

Although the presentation of the ghoul’s disposition and behavior can be linked with repression and emptiness in American society, most people draw a more acute political interpretation from the power struggles enacted by survivors in the film. In Night of the Living Dead, Ben (Duane Jones) and Harry (Karl Hardman) compete harshly for dominance and to gain control over the house that is their refuge. Later in the series, in Dawn of the Dead, a band of survivors attempts to hermetically seal themselves in the bowels of a mall and thereby try to retain the social organization of the old normality. Race and gender dynamics are displayed with scrutiny throughout both films.

John E. Browning attributes the creation of the apocalyptic “survival space” in zombie films to Matheson’s I am Legend, but he argues that Romero rehashed and politically charged the survival space by placing within it a group of survivors rather than an individual defender of the space. Browning attests that Matheson receives little recognition for his creation of the “survival space” concept, but “what is unquestionably Romero’s […] [is the] reconfiguring of the ‘survival space’ into a repository for socially turbulent configurations, conservative and progressive negotiation, and hierarchical discourses concerning race, class, and gender.” [5] In Romero’s multiply-defended survival spaces, the survival space becomes American society in a microcosm. The necessity for communal action is always ultimately undermined by some survivors’ irrepressible instinct for ownership, dominance, and privatization.

In Night of the Living Dead, Ben is the embodiment of successful adaptation to changes from systematic normality to chaos. He is depicted as resourceful and able-bodied. He admonishes Barbra, who is unable to cope with the break from normality, yet is tolerant of her delusions. He reproaches and ultimately overpowers Harry, who is selfishly unwilling to participate in the communal necessity of fortifying the house and pooling human resources. 

Harry is determined to confine his family in the cellar. He makes it clear that he is uninterested in implicating himself in any risk to himself, even if for the other survivors’ aid. His fixation on futile personal interest resonates with Browning’s observation of the eschewed necessity for common action, which appears consistently throughout Romero’s Dead films as “the characters, although equipped with no other logical means of survival but to defend and provide for one another, instead prove self-destructive by attempting to reprivatize the shelter around them.” [6]

Ben and Harry fight for dominance in Night of the Living Dead

Harry’s objective represents the exclusive prerogative of the white, male dominant class in normative American society, but there is no room to indulge in this sense of entitlement to privacy and disregard for others when the group is faced with the common, critical danger, such as ghouls trying to pry into the house. Harry is continually reprimanded for his unwillingness to contribute to the group effort for survival. After he locks himself in the cellar with his wife and child, abandoning the cause upstairs, his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) protests, “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything. Those people aren’t our enemies.” Harry’s refusal to cooperate is ultimately one of the major factors contributing to the dissolution of the group and the group’s demise.

This dynamic throughout Night of the Living Dead is a meditation on the harmfulness of the property-rights mentality that pervades normative American ideology. Romero ominously suggests that our cultural priorities are skewed and that there is little hope that we can overcome our arbitrary tendency toward privatization and ownership. It is unlikely that we will be able to collectively combat social ills or engage in common progressivism.

No matter what, because of our celebrated ideal of American individualism, there will always be at least one self-interested guy who lurks in the cellar, like Harry, or crouches in the corner, like Stephen from Dawn of the Dead, who will lurch forward and fervently declare, It was mine first! I want it all!  Like the ghastly flesh-eater, this type of man is devoid of intellectual purpose and wants only to consume at the expense of another’s livelihood. Like the undead ghoul, this man’s base, compulsive desire to possess and consume is irrepressible. 

Zombies Today

There have been many changes inflicted upon the modern zombie since its first appearance in Night of the Living Dead. Zombies are now much faster and more adept than Romero’s ghouls. Most current rehashings of the zombie film remove the strong elements of ideological tension that Romero offered in Night of the Living Dead.

Instead, the zombie subgenre has taken a turn toward indulging viewers’ escapist fantasies about apocalyptic scenarios. In his Atlantic article, Mike Mariani explains that zombie films are now less about holding a mirror up to repressed social ills and more about giving viewers the opportunity to vicariously live out scenarios in which their fight for survival takes on an all-important “infallible significance”:

Hence a bitter irony between the Haitian zombie and its American counterpart. The monster once represented the real-life horrors of dehumanization; now it’s used as a way to fantasize about human beings whose every decision is exalted. —Mariani

Now there are often more detailed attempts to delineate the scientific origin of a zombie outbreak, such as human rabies. Also, zombies have grown more hideous, grotesque, and monstrous, thus diminishing the viewer’s ability to potentially identify with zombies. Attempts to find a cure for a zombie virus or establish a self-sufficient community remove the sense of hopelessness and assured total annihilation that implied the inescapable quality of America’s societal ills.

In previous films and in the original Haitian zombie myth, there was no escape from ultimate zombification—that was the entire concept. This sense of assured annihilation is represented in Night of the Living Dead by Ben, the sole survivor, being mistaken for a ghoul and shot to death by police officers in the morning after his night of protecting his survival space from the undead.

On the other hand, maybe changes within the zombie subgenre over the past fifty years have enabled viewers to grapple with new societal problems like climate change and adapting to life in the Anthropocene. With or without a revised cultural commentary in today’s zombie films, we do ourselves a disservice if we do not attempt to understand the true historical and contextual meaning of the zombies we find in more recent films.

This process of understanding entails uncovering and recognizing the gravity and cultural significance of both the original Haitian myth that zombies originate from and also the original modern zombies in Night of the Living Dead. Next time you watch a zombie movie, ask yourself, what do the zombies in this film show me about myself?


[1] Wetmore, Kevin J., Jr. (2011). Back from the Dead: Remakes of the Romero Zombie Films as Markers of their Times. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

[2] Wetmore.

[3] Donaldson, Lucy Fife. (2011) “Normality is threatened by the monster: Robin Wood, Romero, and Zombies.” CineAction, 84.

[4] Donaldson.

[5] Browning, John Edgar. (2011) “Survival horrors, survival spaces: Tracing the modern zombie (cine)myth.” Horror Studies, 2.1.

[6] Browning.

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Written by Rebecca Saunders

Rebecca is a consulting editor at Horror Obsessive. She is a librarian with a background in literary studies, comparative literature, and film studies.

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