George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, one of the most definitive movies of the zombie genre, focuses on a group of people trapped inside a farmhouse while the living dead encroach on them in all directions. The grieving sister, the lone wannabe leader, the father, wife, and daughter, and the couple, all attempt to bond together in the face of the catastrophe. However, they find themselves trapped and isolated, no way out through the flesh-eating hordes that surround them.
The concluding sequence of events seems to support the Museum of Modern Art’s assertion that the film suggests that “death is random and without purpose. No one dies for the greater good or to further the survival of others. Instead, people die to feed faceless, ordinary America.” By the end of the movie, everyone in the farmhouse is dead; the grieving sister is dragged into the horde by her own, now-zombie brother; the mother is killed by her zombie-daughter; the father is shot because he is thought to be a danger to them all; the couple explodes after the truck catches on fire.
None of these deaths mean anything in the scheme of things. With every person that passes on, the odds that the others will survive does not increase. Rather, in some cases, particularly with the destruction of the truck, the odds decrease. They do not die so that the others can live; they die attempting to save themselves and then fail in that attempt. For example, the father is so terrified of dying, so determined that he knows what is best for everyone that he fights tooth and nail against the rest of the group, trying to convince everyone that they will be safest in the cellar. Still, when faced with the option of saving another member of the group or potentially endangering himself, he lets the others suffer and die, bordering up the doors and windows, refusing to take any amount of risk for the benefit of others. His disloyalty to the group is regarded as dangerous by the other members and as a result, he is killed. Yet, this death doesn't mean anything, doesn't change anything for the other survivors. They were in as much danger prior to his murder as they are afterwards. Though they may think him to be a danger and think they are justified in killing him, they all still end up dying and therefore, his death, like all of the others, does not "further the survival of others."
This is further seen in the death of Ben, the self-appointed leader-figure of the group. After the zombies overrun the house and kill everyone else, Ben manages to escape to the cellar. As it is the most fortified part of the house, he survives through the night (ironic, as this is the very place he so desperately fought against the father not to get everyone trapped in). The team of military and police officials meant to be killing the zombies arrive at the house around the same time that he leaves the basement to explore. They see him moving around inside the house and in the final moments of the film, mistake him for a zombie and shoot him.
This death is particularly senseless. He managed to live through the night and yet, was shot by the very people sent to save him. Their fear, their “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude, results in the death of an innocent, a death that has no effect on the continued survival of the nation. He was not a threat, was not dangerous. With his resourcefulness, it is possible that he could have even been a great ally in the fight against the dead. Yet his life, his night of torment, his struggles to survive, were all wasted because someone was too hasty in pulling the trigger.
From this death though, another aspect of faceless, ordinary America is revealed. All of the other characters were quite literally fed to a symbol of faceless America, straight to the zombies. However, Ben's death feeds the Americans that are still living, adding to the commentary that runs throughout the movie. The police that have arrived at the house are looking to protect their families, but at the same time, are asserting their superiority over the dead that surround them, as shown through the careless way they shoot the shambling creatures. The death of Ben adds not only to the sense of security that these men are trying to recapture but also contributes to the amount of control that they are trying to regain in the wake of such an insane catastrophe. At this point in the film, the military-type men are more concerned with killing everything they can than making sure that everything they are killing actually needs to be cleared.
Through this, it becomes clearer that the film is stating that we are essentially destroying ourselves, that America is devouring America and all of the good that is still left within it. Ben isn’t a zombie, is actually one of the people that the men are meant to be saving and protecting. However, he is killed. In this particular case, he is representative of the good in the nation and the fact that the American people are able to just carelessly remove it from existence. Piece by piece, the innocent are being exterminated, just as the innocence, as American values were being lost across the country during this time.
Also among all of these senseless deaths is Barbara’s brother, Johnny. When the first zombie seen in the movie grabs Barbara he leaps to her defense. He doesn’t hesitate when he sees that the man has his sister, doesn’t do anything but try to help her. As a result of this, he hits his head on a tombstone and dies.
At first glance, it seems his death has more of a purpose than most of the others. He died to save his sister, died protecting her. His sacrifice allowed Barbara the time to flee from the scene and make it to the farmhouse. Whereas the other deaths in the film had no positive effect on the survival of others, his death prolonged Barbara’s life.
However, this one positive is later negated in the film. It is his death that renders Barbara all but catatonic, his death that makes her nearly unresponsive when the zombies attack, and ultimately, it is his zombie-self that drags her out into the mass of flesh-eating creatures and kills her.
Therefore, though his death did save her at first, it was pointless in that it killed her ultimately, contradicting and cancelling out the initial sentiment behind it. His sacrifice was for nothing, did not end up saving anyone, just as is stated in the quote.
Another aspect that relates to this quote is the fact that the deaths of many of the other characters are only barely acknowledged. The moment the characters die those that remain move on, still struggling to protect themselves. They do not take the time to grieve. It becomes more of a “down goes another one” situation, a brief visual, a quick word about them and then life must carry on. Each person seems to be more concerned for their own life than the lives of the others and as a result of this every-man-for-himself attitude, the deaths come across as even more senseless than the already are. It becomes that a person in one moment can be gone and forgotten, nothing positive resulting from that, nothing much resulting from that at all. Specifically in terms of the couple, after they die, the rest of the group goes on trying to protect themselves, board up the windows, the doors. They don't spend time eulogizing or lashing out emotionally. They are simply dead and gone, taking the car, the one potential form of escape, with them.
The Museum of Modern Art states that this film acts as "a metaphor for societal anxiety, the sight of America literally devouring itself and the representation of the desecration of the wholesome American family."In the midst of the Vietnam War, middle-class Americans were suffering from a great deal of disillusionment, American values and ideals beginning to crumble. The film is very much representative of this. The living people, representing the old America, are literally fed to faceless America, faceless Americans. They are eaten by a mass of people that have little identity outside of the label, “living dead,” faceless in their anonymity. As a result of these things, the country is all but destroyed, overrun. Though there will be survivors, the country itself will never be the same, not in the wake of a zombie attack.
Because of this, the zombies in the film are harbingers of change, wreaking destruction on the nation just as the American people seemed to be doing in reality. By killing American citizens, particularly in terms of the family, the zombies are consuming the "ideals" of America and leaving behind a nation very different than it ever had been before. Therefore, every character death perpetuates the overall destruction of America, making the event more and more difficult to recover from.
However, not only is this destruction of American values seen symbolically, it is also seen in the actions of the living. One of the main pillars of a constitutional democracy is the idea of the common good, the idea that all people are meant to work together to promote the continued survival and existence of the community. In the case of this group though, everyone is out for their own survival. They argue over where to keep everyone, the main floor or the basement. They disobey orders, despite the fact that doing so is dangerous not only to themselves but also to others, as is seen when the woman runs out into the swarm in order to join her boyfriend. The result is that both of them die and the truck, their one means of escape, is destroyed. Had everyone in the group joined together, it is possible that they all would have been able to survive. This disconnect though, the unwillingness to rely or trust each other, leads to the demise of all of them.
As a result of this, not only does the movie show the death of American values through the zombies feast on the living, it also shows it in the disintegrating values of those that are still living. They are willing to do anything to survive, regardless of what that means for others. Truth, kindness, freedom for all, are only words to these people. It becomes more a question of what do I have to do to survive? regardless of what that will mean for anyone else.
As a result of all of this, Night of the Living Dead became somewhat of a manifestation of the pain felt by Americans during the 1960s. The fears that many were having, that America was destroying itself and that American ideals were disappearing, became visual. To the citizens of America, it was uniting in a way, knowing that others saw the same failings in the nation, therapeutic to have these ideas brought out into the open. Because of this, the film probably did “serve as a release." Its ability to expose the growing unrest within the country and the continued corruption of the American people would have allowed the audience to relate to the struggles of the characters and ultimately, to see a possible version of their future within the subtext of the film. From that, the deaths of every character, as senseless and painful as they were, defined the image of America destroyed, completing the commentary on 1960's America and the disillusionment of the American people.