Meme Series: Night of the Living Dead as an Allegory for the Events of the Civil Rights Movement



January 11, 2021 | Amplifying Social Justice, Amplifying Student Voices

Kai Pena-Chavez is a 2nd-year student majoring in Liberal Arts – Social Science & Humanities. “Fear is a universal emotion, one that reflects our cultural values. My submission aims to examine Night of the Living Dead (1968) as a racial allegory that encapsulates the violence and social tensions in America during the Civil Rights Movement.”

My final project examines how horror reflects cultural values, specifically how the movie Night of the Living Dead (1968) illustrates racial fears and values in American culture. Fear is a universal emotion, one that reveals our morals. Horror movies are the modern Greek tragedies––it is how we achieve catharsis and purge our feelings of fear and anxiety about the world around us. Night of the Living Dead is an excellent example of this. It demonstrates the social and political climate revolving around race in the United States at its release during the Civil Rights Movement.

Night of the Living Dead was the first zombie movie to popularize the concept of the flesh-eating undead truly. The film tells the story of a motley group of people in Pennsylvania, who under various circumstances barricade themselves within an old house to try and survive a sudden surge of zombies. The cast is entirely white, except for Ben, who is played by African-American actor Duane Jones. The group struggles to survive and conflict with each other throughout the film, often violently and to the detriment of the group’s safety. Each member is killed off throughout the movie, except for Ben, the hero. He alone survives until rescue comes, only to be brutally killed by one of the sheriff’s men before he can be saved.

In American movies, the hero is never killed by the good guys. Writer-director George Romero and co-writer John Russo said the film was not intended to be about race (Kane, 2010). However, it is impossible to deny that Night of the Living Dead has become an American racial allegory. Duane Jones’ role as Ben defied black stereotypes––he was competent, well-spoken, and did not accept mistreatment from characters. Ben was able to become a hero for the black community instead of a stereotype for white audiences. The late 1960s was when the racial tensions among Americans were at their highest––the film was released the same year as Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Night of the Living Dead symbolizes the American racial hierarchy and oppression of African Americans; it teaches us that monsters are terrible, but humans are worse.


Works Cited:

Kane, J. (2010, September 01). How Casting a Black Actor Changed ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Retrieved January 03, 2021, from dead-casting-cult-classic-20545/

Meme 1

Meme one references the scene where Ben is boarding up the house to protect against zombies and Barbara, unable to come to terms with the situation, reverts to a child-like, hysterical state. She is paralyzed by fear and does not offer any significant assistance. She stays this way throughout the entire movie. I would argue that her lack of action mirrors the complacency of many white people during the Civil Rights Movement.

Meme 2

Meme two is about the exchange between Cooper and Ben, after Ben finds out that Cooper and another man have been hiding in the cellar the whole time and ignored Ben and Barbara’s early fight with the zombies. At first, Cooper tries to avoid blame by saying that he could not hear them, but Ben quickly finds out that he is lying. Cooper, frustrated, says “You’re telling us we gotta risk our lives because someone may need help?” To which Ben replies, “Yeah, something like that.” This connects to the moral obligation we have to fight against the oppression of others and support their cause, specifically when it comes to racial oppression. The dynamic between Cooper and Ben continues to shed light on these opposing ideologies and values, which mirror the conflict during the Civil Rights Movement.

Meme 3

Meme three talks about how Ben takes charge after Cooper and he argue about whether to hide in the cellar or the main house. Cooper wants to hide downstairs because he think it is safer and easier to only have to fortify one door. Ben, on the  other hand, fears that they would be trapped if there is only one door. Ben says that it would be easy to get the house ready if everybody helped. When Cooper insists on staying in the cellar, Ben says, “…you can be boss down there … but I’m boss up  here!” Although Ben tried to ban everyone together for a common cause, Cooper focuses on the chances for his survival alone. This mirrors the fracturing of solidarity between black and white Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, as well as demonstrating Ben’s authority, who is seen as a leader while Cooper is not.

Meme 4
Meme 5

Memes four and five reference Cooper’s belief that he would be able to control the situation if he had the gun and was able to take control of the group. He discusses with his wife how he doesn’t like that Ben has the gun and how he should have it. He only considers his own safety as demonstrated by him ignoring the sounds of struggle.  I would argue that Cooper’s belief that his having a gun and being in charge would fix the situation is similar to how many white people felt that their authority was being threatened during the Civil Rights Movement, and sought reclaim control through violence and the threat of violence. This is further supported because there is a point in the movie where Cooper locks Ben out of the house while the zombies are attacking, basically leaving him to die.

Meme 6

Meme six refers to the ending scene in the movie, where Ben is the last survivor and peaks out the window to see if rescue has arrived, only to be shot by one of the white rescuers. In the movie, when the rescue team are getting ready and heading out into the woods, they look very similar to a lynch mob. It is incredibly significant that  Ben, the only black character, is brutally and tragically killed right when hope had seemed its brightest. The film demonstrates how monsters are terrible, but humans are the worst of them all. Earlier in the movie, the radio spokesperson described the zombies, saying they are “Things that look like people but act like animals.” The association to how black people were dehumanized is very strong, in addition to the image of black men killed by white cops throughout history and during the Civil Rights Movement.