By Film M.A. Thesis Student, Stephanie MacDonell
Night of the Living Dead envisions the anxieties of 1960s United States through a B-list monster movie narrative. The film takes place in an isolated house containing a microcosm of US social relations with characters of different class, kinship, race, and gender. The characters must defend themselves from the presence of zombies while also confronting their own political and social divisions.
The narrative leads to the death of the lone survivor, Ben, an African American man, by white police officers sent for a search and rescue, and to execute the zombies. Through the figural presentation onscreen, Ben is “mistaken” by the officers for a zombie and shot dead. Upon Ben’s death, the film transitions from filmic time and space to photographs. The film ends with a found footage collage of photographs that depict the disposal of Ben’s body.
Right now I’m working with Night of the Living Dead for my thesis. I’m doing an indepth analysis of the film’s use of found footage in the ending sequence for my first chapter. The thesis is going to look at found footage in narrative film arguing that the incorporation of found footage is a political act by creating a dialectical unison of past and present in order to shock or provoke the spectator by challenging the perception of the film. I’m still at the proposal writing stage for my thesis so this is a simplification of what the final project will be and my argument will most likely go through some changes as I research. Long story short, found footage is the aspect I engage with while I watch the film.
Night of the Living Dead was made on a low budget, released as a B film, and had two successful runs as a midnight movie at the Waverly in 1971. The film’s aesthetics and form reflect the economic conditions of these. I teach this film in my Cult Cinema course and always bring up the question of how the film’s form (art and/or technology) creates meaning within the film. Basically I try to start conversations about how the low budget quality influences the viewer’s perception of the film. I don’t think it’s useful to consider how well the film was made but what the film form is doing. For me, the form creates an uncanny resemblance to the graininess and imperfections of newspaper images and footage that were proliferated during the 1960s in the U.S. I would say that the film shows the “image-ness” of the image.
Night of the Living Dead definitely falls under George A. Romero’s auteur. It was the initial film in his Zombie Trilogy that includes Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). He’s considered to a definitive director of the modern wave zombie, or the post-colonial zombie, in film studies. I’ve studied his films in a lot of previous classes too. His films create an allegory to US relations in terms of civil rights, war, social relations, capitalism, and biopolitics. Romero’s body of work expresses the anxieties of the generation or time when the films were made. There’s also a lot of focus and question around the body as object and body as subject. The zombie is a figure of Otherness that represents a crisis within social and economic relations. For my thesis, I’m specifically looking at this representation in terms of race and blackness within Night of the Living Dead’s found footage sequence – for instance, the way white America views bodies and police brutality. I see the incorporation of found footage as a cultural function to link Night of the Living Dead and historical events: both past and present.