Studies in the Horror Film: Night of the Living Dead

Jerad Walters and Marco Lanzagorta (eds),
Studies in the Horror Film: Night of the Living Dead.
Lakewood: Centipede Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-933618-32-6
US$125 (hb)
(Review copy supplied by Centipede Press)

Centipede Press’ Studies in the Horror Film series shows little signs of losing the momentum propelling its rigorous dedication to the genre with the release of this volume on George A. Romero’s canonical Night of the Living Dead (USA 1968)[1] . Sitting alongside companion tomes in the series dedicated to Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922) and Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983), and with one on The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) slated for release later in 2010, with the exception of the Tim Lucas-penned Cronenberg title, the series compiles a range of articles that survey critical treatments of these significant films.

Night of the Living Dead presents a logical addition to Studies in the Horror Film, as its crucial position in horror film history – not to mention that of American cinema as a whole – confirms its status as one of the most important genre films ever made. The film’s release in the United States coincided with the peak of tensions surrounding the Civil Rights Movement: legend famously holds that on the evening Romero drove the finished print of the film to New York City from Pittsburgh, he heard the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination over the radio.

Even today, the sudden and irrational murder of the film’s African-American protagonist Ben is still deeply shocking. The final newspaper-style montage of his dead body, as the hooks of the white zombie-hunting vigilantes pick up and throw his corpse on a fire, inescapably recalls the brutal imagery of racial violence during this period. Ben’s death marks a violent rupturing of the comfortable ignorance of the past beyond race: there is no longer the luxury of assuming a happily-ever-after in the face of other assassinations like those of the Kennedy brothers, or the rapidly encroaching realities of the Vietnam War. But even beyond American history, Night of the Living Dead presents a crucial shift in the zombie subgenre. Before its release, zombie mythology was drenched in the ideologically problematic remnants of the colonial demonization of Haitian Voudo practices. From White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932) until the release of Night of the Living Dead, with the exception of a handful of titles the specter of this particular mode of racism marked a majority of zombie films. Until Night of the Living Dead, zombies were presented less as flesh-decaying cannibals than as brain-dead somnambulists acting under the wishes of a controlling (white male) force. That Romero does not use the word “zombie” in the film is significant: he initially considered the film to be about ghouls, an altogether different kind of monster to what is now readily identified as the zombie. But, regardless of their title, there is little doubt that Romero effectively liberated these creatures from the dubious shackles of their racist pasts: from Night of the Living Dead onwards, zombies act on their own agency. The desire to eat brains transcends all.

Containing fourteen separate essays and three interviews, there is no absence of diversity to the critical approaches contained within the book, and the contributing authors read like a “Who’s Who” of Cinema Studies and cultural commentary: R.H.W. Dillard, Jonathan Rosenbaum and J. Hoberman[2] , Greg Waller, Barry Keith Grant and Robin Wood to name a few.  Critical approaches range across formal analysis, production histories, symptomatic analyses, exhibition, gender, genre, race, and auteur studies, and many pieces (particularly near the end of the book) expand their analysis to incorporate later additions to Romero’s Living Dead franchise, including Dawn of the Dead (Italy/USA 1978) and Day of the Dead (USA 1985).

The book itself seems to be a continuation of an issue of[3]  edited by this volume’s co-editor, Marco Lanzagorta, celebrating the film’s 40th anniversary. Indeed, many of the papers in this Studies in the Horror Film volume appear in this excellent online collection, which raises two questions in relation to this otherwise solid volume. Firstly, with much of this material freely available digitally, the book (which is not cheap) is primarily only a must-have for libraries or hardcore collectors for whom the material ownership of such a document transcends the value of the information contained therein. Secondly – and more problematically – the issue exposes the issue of how male-dominated the writing in this book is. While gender tokenism is far from recommended, it is unclear why the very excellent essays by such renowned horror academics as Linnie Blake and Cynthia Freeland were not included in the book version (particularly as both of the essays by these writers tower in terms of quality and originality over some of the book’s weaker pieces). It may simply be an issue of copyright or that Blake and Freeland were not interested in being involved, but that this Studies in the Horror Film volume so unblinkingly presents Horror Studies as such an unequivocally male critical domain is an issue that it is difficult not to take personally.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas,
La Trobe University, Australia.


[1]  Night of the Living Dead is in the public domain, and as such is available to watch in its entirety online at
[2]  Hoberman is not identified in the Table of Contents or at the beginning of the article itself as Rosenbaum’s co-author. The latter clarifies this on his website, and states that the book includes “a reprint of the chapter on George Romero in Midnight Movies, the book I wrote with J. Hoberman, a chapter erroneously credited only to me. But I’ve since discovered that this is a print-on-demand book and Jim Hoberman will be properly credited in future copies”. See:
[3] This issue is available online here:

Created on: Monday, 23 August 2010

About the Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

About the Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a PhD student in the Cinema Studies department at Latrobe University. She is a regular contributor to a variety of publications, and teaches Cinema Studies at Latrobe and Swinburne University. More information can be found all posts by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas →