Posted on March 26, 2020

Night of the Living Dead in the Time of Confinement and the Coronavirus

Guest Post

George A. Romero’s classic zombie trilogy, Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985), is the ultimate example of the zombie as a social metaphor. Countless articles have been written about each film, especially the racial undertones of the first film. In the age of the Coronavirus and confinement, Night of the Living Dead suddenly warrants a re-watch. When survivors are trapped inside a farmhouse, the social equilibrium is reset–and the film mirrors some of the worst aspects of human nature during a societal breakdown and confinement. Even the (anti)hero, Ben (Duane Jones), commits heinous acts that he most likely would not have otherwise. Yet, the film also shows a few of humanity’s bright spots.

Though shot outside of Pittsburgh, Night of the Living Dead is a film that could take place anywhere, which, again, makes it all the more relevant during this global pandemic. As of the time of writing this, COVID-19 has impacted every state and nearly every country. Cities have been hit the worst, specifically New York City, but the virus knows no boundaries and has started to spread through rural pockets of the country, more evocative of Romero’s setting. The radio and television reports that speak of the growing outbreak in the film have an eerie parallel to our current moment, as each day brings more grim news.

In her 2015 article, “Social Commentary Via Zombie: Night of the Living Dead (1968),” Elizabeth Erwin gives a close reading of the opening graveyard scene and how Romero establishes the setting as anywhere, USA. She writes, “The film starts off by setting up a point of equilibrium for the audience. From the image of the American flag flying over the graveyard to the two well-dressed, white characters who first appear on the screen, Romero establishes a universe to be read by the audience as Anywhere, USA.” This is also important, she adds, because it signifies a break between the past and present, which then leads to social disruption, especially once the characters are trapped in a farmhouse.

The social disruption is even more apparent once Ben reaches the house. The racial norms of the 1960s are reset, as Ben, a black man, takes charge. The scenes within the house also serve as a reflection of some of humanity’s worst and best traits during a crisis. For instance, Harry (Karl Hardman), exemplifies humanity’s most repulsive and selfish traits. Initially, he hides in the cellar with his wife, Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and their infected daughter, Karen (Krya Schon). He flatly refuses to help the survivors, which makes Ben question, “How long have you guys been down here? I could have used some help up here.” Eventually, Harry schemes to undo all of Ben’s plans, pointing a gun at the protagonist at one point and refusing to accept his leadership. Prior to that, Ben is nearly devoured by the horde because Harry refuses to help him and instead retreats to the cellar. Ultimately, Harry’s refusal to work with Ben ends in his death, after he’s shot in the gut because he tangles with Ben over control of the weapon.

Harry is a prime example of the type of xenophobia that worsens during a crisis. The hatred towards the Other is again resurfacing during this pandemic. A spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans has already been documented. This problem is only exacerbated by the president’s insistence on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” even rewriting parts of his speeches during daily press briefings to refer to it as such. Harry harbors the same type of prejudice so evident now, only this time, it’s directed at Asian Americans.

Another survivor who is burrowed in the cellar, Tom (Keith Wayne), is a contrast to Harry and exemplifies some of humanity’s better traits. He doesn’t harbor the prejudice that Harry does, and he sides with Ben regarding a plan of action. Furthermore, Tom takes the bold step of risking his life to refuel Ben’s truck and get everyone to safety. The plan goes awry when the truck catches fire, but even in that tragic scene, Tom tries to save his girlfriend, Judy (Judith Riley). It is unlikely Harry would ever attempt such an act of bravery.

Before Tom’s demise, Ben was positioned as the anti-hero, and this role is even more pronounced once Tom dies. As the film progresses, and as the situation in the house worsens, Ben commits several despicable acts, including violence against a woman, Barbara (Judith O’Dea), murdering Harry, and threatening to keep food from a child. Erwin notes that the violence against Barbara is the most shocking because he doesn’t just slap her as a means to snap her out of her hysteria, he knocks her out. Yet, we root for Ben, Erwin continues, because he’s the only one taking the lead and taking any action that makes sense.

Initially, the end of Night of the Living Dead poses the possibility that the social norms that were reset in the farmhouse could remain, since Ben beat the odds, hid in the cellar, and emerged into daylight. There is, for a brief moment, the possibility that the black man could remain the lead and leave that farmhouse a survivor. However, that hope is soon dashed when he’s shot in the head by a white vigilante mob. The violence continues during the end credits after the mob is pictured using hooks to drag his body and toss it on a fire with the other corpses. These black-and-white end credit scenes are similar to some of the most famous pictures of the Civil Rights area when violence was unleashed against non-violent protestors. Night of the Living Dead concludes with a restoration of white patriarchy and prejudices.

We don’t yet know how COVID-19 will impact society at large, but its outcome will no doubt be felt for years to come. It’s unclear yet if it will bring people closer together, as evinced by Ben, Tom, and some of the other survivors who show open-mindedness in a time of crisis and a willingness to work together. There’s also the real possibility and perhaps likelihood that marginalized communities will suffer most of the economic and health shock waves, especially in the United States where not everyone has access to quality health care and unemployment largely impacts minority communities.

Night of the Living Dead, like all of Romero’s zombie movies, casts the humans as the real monsters. The survivors trapped in a farmhouse, seeking shelter from hordes of flesh-eating ghouls, showcase humanity’s best and worst traits. Right now, we’re in a situation where what we do and how we act will shape our foreseeable future. Hopefully, we come out on the other side of this more humane and with a better understanding of our interconnectedness.

You can stream Night of the Living Dead on Amazon:

Brian Fanelli is a poet and essayist whose works has appeared in The Los Angeles TimesWorld Literature Today, The Paterson Literary ReviewSchuylkill Valley Journal, and elsewhere. His latest collection of poems, Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), won the 2017 Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. Brian has an M.F.A from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from SUNY Binghamton University. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Lackawanna College. He blogs about literature and horror movies at

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