Night of the Living Dead and the Rise of Exploitation Cinema


I would like to warn you that this article contains some serious spoilers as it is more of a film-history piece than a review. If you’ve not seen the film, there’s really no excuse as it exists, free for all to see, as a public domain film. You can freely obtain it here and here. In fact, a google serach of “night of the living dead” should result in hundreds of sources. Go to it, it’s one of the best film’s ever made and, if after seeing it you disagree, my case is laid out below.

The modern horror film is an extraordinarily diverse group of texts that epitomize the tangled workings of American popular culture, which is at once business, art, and purveyor of entertainment and ideology.

                                                                                 -Waller 1987

The social, political and economic turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the rise of American exploitation cinema. The simultaneous changes in both American culture and the American film industry created a zeitgeist of distrust for the scientific-military establishment and a media outlet for the expression of that distrust.  This essay will explore the cultural landscape which gave rise to American exploitation cinema and explore the stylistic and thematic elements of it. We will focus on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as the definitive example of American exploitation cinema. It is the contention of this essay that exploitation cinema was more than a commercially opportunistic fad but that the industrial and political climate allowed young film makers to make statements with their work which were impossible to make under the previous restrictions imposed on American cinema.  Before we can understand the thematic and cultural significance of these films, however, we must understand the political and economic climate of both the American film industry and America itself.

In 1948 the paramount decree came into effect, dismantling the major studio’s stranglehold on the production, distribution and exhibition of films in the United States (Osgerby 2). Simultaneously, and over the following decade, cinema attendances plummeted as the popularity of television rose and people became complacent about the thrills on offer from the studio films (Maltby 159). A 1957 survey revealed that only 15% of Americans attended the cinema as frequently as once a week and those who did accounted for 2/3 of the total admissions (Maltby 159-160). Significantly, three quarters of this weekly audience were under the age of 30 and belonged to an increasingly suburban population who had moved away from the cities and no longer frequented the “picture palaces and neighborhood theatres of the 1930’s” which had been the economic bread and butter of the studios (Maltby 160). This neutralization of the studio’s power of exhibition, coupled with the overall downturn in cinema attendances, had a twofold effect. First, because the major studios no longer owned the theatres they had no guarantee that their films would be exhibited. They shifted from the old mode of massive production to the production a few, quality “blockbusters” (Osgerby 2). Secondly, the big budget of these films reduced the overall output of the major studios which created a vacuum of exhibition opportunities which was quickly filled by independent film makers and the smaller studios (Osgerby 2).

The emergence of an exhibition space for independent film makers serendipitously occurred at a time in which American teenagers had more freedom, disposable income and sense of a distinct cultural identity (Doherty 186). It was quickly discovered that this generation of teenagers would attend any film which displayed teen culture and concerns (such as rock music, drag racing and delinquency) and had been, up until that point an untapped market (Doherty 186).  By 1959 the teenage market was estimated to be worth a staggering 10 billion dollars a year (Maltby 169). While Hollywood responded eagerly to this market by producing a number of teen-oriented films (some covertly so, such as the ‘adult’ film Blackboard Jungle which focused on juvenile delinquency and became a favorite of high-school students) their output had dropped so dramatically that they could not meet the demand (Maltby 169). In this regard the independents had a twofold opportunity with unprecedented exhibition opportunities and a captive audience with an insatiable demand which the major studios could not meet.

There are some key distinctions between the kind of films created by the Independents and the Major Studios that are crucial to the boom of independent cinema from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. In the 1930s conservative lobby groups pressured the government to ‘clean up Hollywood’ which was seen as a den of sin and inequity. It was also politically popular to campaign on the basis of cleaning up the entertainment industry because it was a surefire way to win votes from the Christian right. As a result there was considerable pressure on Hollywood to clean up its act or face legislative regulation. Once the studios realized that it would take more than lip service to fend off government regulation (a voluntary production code was introduced in 1930 but it was largely ignored by both the studios and the lobby groups) a new, mandatory form of self-regulation was imposed in the form of significant revisions to the production code in 1934.  The code took a hard-line stance against the depiction of graphic sexual and violent content in Hollywood films and each production underwent constant scrutiny if it was to be released and distributed by major studios. It should be noted that because there was absolutely no legislation relating to the censorship of film in America that compliance with the production code was strictly voluntary, but the independents who didn’t abide by it struggled to have their film shown anywhere. By the time we reach the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, the production code has begun to crumble, cinema attendances are down and there is a youth market which has an insatiable demand for films featuring exciting and illicit content (Doherty 186). In 1968 the production code was finally banished completely with the introduction of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Code and Rating Administration (CARA) which introduced the new R rating for films with explicitly adult content (Waller 5).    

For the first time in American history Independent film makers had a voice and an opportunity to work unfettered by the block booking and production code restrictions of the major Studios.  While the Hollywood studios had begun to loosen the restrictions that they placed on what could appear in their films, many independent directors had come from a background of creating “niche … educational” films with graphic sex and violence which could often only be exhibited as part of traveling carnivals or adult entertainment venues (Andrews 62) and were well versed in exploiting the base desires of an audience. This meant that when this period of extreme demand and huge exhibition opportunity opened up the Independent studios were equipped to quickly and cheaply produce a multitude of films, filled with sex and violence, aimed directly at the teen drive-in market. It is these conditions which created the industrial climate in which exploitation cinema would flourish and by 1968, with the introduction of CARA, the final piece of the puzzle was in place. The true emergence of American exploitation cinema occurred, however, not with the break-down of the production code or the rise in demand for teen films, but with the release of George Romero’s magnum opus of gore-fuelled social commentary, Night of the Living Dead.

The film centers on a small group of people, trying to survive a plague which raises the dead as mindless cannibals. Released at the height of Cold War paranoia and the ongoing disaster of the Vietnam War it is impossible to ignore the historical resonance of this film. Jacovich (83) notes that, by the 1960s, “it was increasingly claimed that the world was a nightmare of regulation” in which the public was largely powerless to determine their own lifestyle or resist such regulation in any way.  The Nixon era had just begun and had inherited the disastrous Vietnam War and rampant anti-communist paranoia of previous administrations. The American youth experienced an unheard of level of disillusionment with the establishment and saw the military as the ultimate representation of its attempts to control and sedate the general populous (Jancovich 85). There is a strong undercurrent of this generational political cynicism throughout Night of the Living Dead and it is this, rather than the unprecedented gore that makes the film significant.

Jacovich notes that, in the modern horror film, disillusion with the establishment is expressed through two symbolic bodies; the military and the family (85). These two entities were traditionally agencies of protection and safety but, beginning with Night of the Living Dead, the modern horror film derives much of its shocking power from applying menace to these traditionally protective agencies. The military is a potent symbolic entity in this respect because, while it once represented a protective force, in the 1960s the military became an oppressive agency that sought to suppress and control the populace (Jacovich 85). This ideological shift towards distrust of the scientific-military establishment is evident throughout the film. As the protagonists gain access to television and radio much of their information about the threat at hand comes directly from the media (which has an obvious resonance with the coverage of the military’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict) it becomes clear that the scientific-military establishment is in “deep crisis” (Jacovich 91). The experts bicker and argue over the cause, but in the end can offer no solution other than a destructive one (Jacovich 91). In effect, the establishment has no answers and has become irrelevant. To make matters worse, it becomes apparent that the cause for the walking dead plague is radiation from a satellite sent into space by the scientific-military establishment. Not only can the establishment offer no answers to the problem, they were the direct cause of the problem.

 We cannot talk about the symbolic weight of the scientific-military establishment in Night of the Living Dead without talking about Ben’s execution at the end of the film. If the defining characteristic of modern horror is its ability to play upon a fear of helplessness, anxiety and a fundamental loss of identity (Jacovich 83)  then there is no more potent an image than that of Ben being dispatched and handled as if he were one of the dead he desperately fought all night in order to survive. All of his efforts to fight the threat, survive and maintain his identity as human being were ultimately futile in the face of a crushingly oppressive and militaristic society.

Where the military stands as a powerful symbol of the obvious threats to freedom and identity in the 1960s and 1970s the nuclear family stands as a powerful symbol of the more insidious cultural and generational threats facing people during that decade.  Night of the Living Dead builds on the fear generated by asserting a distrust of the redundant establishment by showing us that the traditional American familial unit is equally outmoded.  Within the bulk of the film the Cooper family stands as the archetypal, 1950s family. On the surface we have a male protector (Harry), the nurturing mother (Helen) and the sacred child (Karen).  As we spend more time with the Coopers, however, we can see that the integrity of these traditional family roles (and the family unit itself) have become corrupted.  Where traditionally the father acts as a protector, Harry’s protective instinct has been overridden by his arrogance and ego (Dillard 20). Helen’s motherly affection has been overshadowed by her bitterness over her miserable relationship with Harry (Dillard 20). Infuriated at his stubbornness, at one point in the film she screams “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything” at Harry. Ultimately, however, it is Karen who serves as the central symbol of the new order and way of life (literally) devouring the old, outmoded one when she consumes her parents.

This destruction of the redundant, older way of life is central to the thematic landscape of Night of the Living Dead. The dead take on the role of the new generation (of both people and philosophy) which sweep across the nation, devouring (and as a result converting) anyone who doesn’t belong. This new existence is so radically different that the established society has no idea how to cope with it. Harry and Helen are destroyed by their daughter’s conversion and the scientific-military establishment can only understand the situation in terms of reactionary violence. Perhaps most interesting however, is that we can retrospectively see Night of the Living Dead as a metaphor for the industry changes which allowed exploitation films to flourish.  The stagnant older generation (Hollywood) had begun to disintegrate under its own mode of operation. This created an opportunity for a new generation (exploitation film makers) to enter the world and set the standard for the new mode of operation.  As we see in Romero’s later films (such as Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead) Night of the Living Dead is only the beginning and, in the Romero mythos, the dead never really disappear. Exactly the same is true of American exploitation cinema.  The cheap production, violent and sexual content and thematic undertones of American exploitation cinema were adopted by the commercial auteurs in the late 1970s and, while much of the subtext and symbolism has disappeared, the cinematographic techniques of exploiting the base urges of the audience continues to this day. One could argue that blockbusters and high concept films are nothing but the hallmark sex and violence which exploitation popularized.  When we consider the restrained and repressed morality of Old Hollywood it is no wonder that exploitation flourished when given the opportunity nor is it a surprise that New Hollywood would adopt the very profitable hallmarks of exploitation. Like Romero’s dead, exploitation never left us.  

Works Cited and Further Reading

  • David Andrews: Sex Is Dangerous, So Satisfy Your Wife: Sex Is Dangerous, So Satisfy Your Wife: Cinema Journal 45.3 (2006) 59-89
  • Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George Romero. Perf. David Emge & Peter Foree.  Laurel Group, 1978. DVD. Umbrella, 2006.
  • Day of the Dead. Dir. George Romero. Perf. Lori Cardille & Terry Alexander. Dead Films, 1985. DVD. Umbrella, 2006.
  • Dillard, R.H.W “Night of the Living Dead: It’s not like just a wind that’s passing through” American Horrors Ed. Gregory A. Waller. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1987
    Thomas Doherty. Literature/Film Quarterly. Salisbury: 1984. Vol. 12, Iss. 3; pg. 186, 9 pgs
  • Jancovich, Mark. Horror. London: B.T Batsford, 1992
  • Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema 2nd ed. Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, 2003
  • Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George Romero. Perf. Duane Jones & Judith O’Dea. Image Ten, 1968. DVD. Umbrella, 2006.
  • SLEAZY RIDERS; Exploitation, “Otherness,” and Transgression in the 1960s Biker Movie Osgerby, Bill. Journal of Popular Film & Television. Washington: Fall 2003. Vol. 31, Iss. 3; pg. 98
  • Waller, Gregory “Introduction” American Horrors Ed. Gregory A. Waller. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1987



~ by Morgan on October 29, 2008.

5 Responses to “Night of the Living Dead and the Rise of Exploitation Cinema”

  1. […] post by Wonderbread Filed under: Youth […]

  2. […] Night of the Living Dead and the Rise of Exploitation CinemaThis essay will explore the cultural landscape which gave rise to American exploitation cinema and explore the stylistic and thematic elements of it. We will focus on George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead as the definitive example of … […]

  3. […] Night of the Living Dead and the Rise of Exploitation CinemaAs the protagonists gain access to television and radio much of their information about the threat at hand comes directly from the media (which has an obvious resonance with the coverage of the military’s involvement in the Vietnam … […]

  4. […] of life and a condemnation of the Vietnam War with City of the Dead (1960), The Birds (1963) and Night of the Living Dead […]

  5. […] of life and a condemnation of the Vietnam War with City of the Dead (1960), The Birds (1963) and Night of the Living Dead […]

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