Night of the Living Dead: Fighting Racism with Mister Rogers

Yes, we don't have to like each other, but fighting TOGETHER is the only way to survive this world.

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Yes, we don’t have to like each other, but fighting together is the only way to survive this world.

It’s 1968 in America. Tension is in the air. The tension is so dense it could snap at any moment. And it did. The Vietnam War is in full swing. Young men and their families fear the draft. It hasn’t officially started yet but it will soon enough. The race wars have been inciting pain, violence, and terror within black communities. The deaths of Martin Luther King Jr.Malcolm X, and many others are fresh in people’s minds. How does America respond?

Word came from Capitol Hill that Congress has passed and sent to the White House…the civil rights act of 1968.

Hud Channel

Baby steps. In order to start running one must first learn how to crawl. This is America’s start to explicit racial discrimination. Now if this Act actually did anything is a completely different story. Instead of waiting for the government to make changes, people started to show equality and take justice into their own hands. 

For instance, Eartha Kitt, aka the first black Catwoman, a singer, an activist, and a countless number of other things confronts President Johnson about the Vietnam War and the effect it was having on children and families during a women’s luncheon at the White House. 

A few months after that, roughly one year after the Fair Housing ActMister Roger’s Neighborhood aired episode 1065 on May 9th, 1969. Within this wholesome 20 minute runtime, Mr. Roger’s showed America a segment of himself in a pool. This small kiddie pool was accompanied by a character named Officer Clemmons and you guessed it, he was a black police officer. 

Keep in mind this is during segregation, back when Black kids couldn’t share the same pool as White kids. This segment is Mr. Roger’s attempt at spreading equality. An intimate act between two people. A pair enjoying each other’s presence regardless of race followed by then casually sharing one towel to dry each other’s feet.

Believe it or not, this calm man, became of fan of George A Romero’s films. And I know this may seem jarring considering his humble presence but in a way, the zombie sub-genre probably wouldn’t even exist. 

George A. Romero’s Scariest Film to Date…

Before 1968 all we’ve had that were close to zombies was Bela Legosi’s White Zombie which were Caribbean zombies but those dealt with voodoo. Romero has mentioned Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend as inspiration but those were vampires. If you think about it the influence is still there, a monster horde attacks a house only to see that the monsters are humans.

So just how in the world do these flesh-hungry monsters and Mister Roger’s correlate? Before Night Of the Living Dead, there was Mr. Roger’s Gets A Tonsillectomy followed by short segments called Picture Picture.

Romero’s first job, which gave him professional credit as well as time to write the script for this film, was all thanks to Mr. Rogers. Romero has even stated that Mr. Roger’s Gets A Tonsillectomy is his scariest film yet but simply because he was scared shitless while filming it. Now let’s take a look at how Romero unintentionally as well as intentionally fought racism with his first full feature.

The Start of a Brand New Sub-Genre Through One Indie Film

The film opens on a lonely road. Dead grass on a cracked path, as a car slowly drives through a barren landscape. A sense of isolation emerges. No one is around. Everything’s dead. The title drops as more empty scenery continues. Only to the right, a fence resembling an abandoned wooden cross lays on a hill. After a few more shots of the car driving through this lonesome road, we get the first piece of symbolism.

Now in 2020 standards, this opening sequence would be considered too long and boring. Too slow for the majority of modern audiences. The first two minutes is this car driving through what I just described.

But what this drawn-out sequence achieves is its sense of isolation. Isolated from the world, and perhaps feeling isolated from America. The next shot is the American flag surround by forgotten tombstones and graves.

From here we meet two characters, Barbra and Johnny. They have their typical family bickering or how Romero puts it in the screenplay:

“Their jibes at each other are not really in anger but are typical of brother-sister annoyance.”

Night of the Living Dead Screenplay

So Romero does something special here. Throughout this first fifteen minutes of the film, we see Barbra literally run from her grave, her turmoils against these zombies, the death of her brother, and how she merely escapes. Up until this point, we imagine Barbra is going to be our protagonist. This badass woman who’s going to fight off a horde of these vicious flesh-eaters. Only it’s the opposite. This is when Ben enters the picture and enters as the man fighting race in horror, cinema, and America.

How George A. Romero Writes A Screenplay

As you know George Romero writes and directs his own films, with the help of John Russo. But it’s always interesting reading a script from the director. They pretty much write whatever the hell they want since it’s not going into the market. What makes this screenplay unique is the amount of detail the writers go into. Keep in mind a screenplay is a blueprint of the story. So typically you want your white space. Script readers typically get turned off at the sight of big blocks of text because it slows down your reading and we’re not reading a novel.

Only this is exactly what George Romero does. He just has huge chunks of text within his screenplay. For example on page fourteen, roughly minute fifteen, we meet our real protagonist Ben. This is what is on the page…

Barbara stops … the corpse is almost skeletal with its flesh ripped from it, and it lies at the end of a trail of blood. Screaming in absolute horror, Barbara almost falls down the stairs. She is gagging … she breaks for the door, unlocks it, and flings herself out into the night, completely unmindful of consequences … she is bathed in light … two headlights are screeching toward camera … the sounds of a vehicle stopping. Barbara covers her face with her arms. Someone rushes toward her …                    

MAN: Are you one of ‘em?

She stares, frozen. A man stands in front of her. He is large and crude, in coveralls and a tattered work shirt. He looks very strong, and perhaps a little stupid. Behind him is an old, battered pick-up truck, which he has driven right up onto the lawn of the house. He holds a large jack-handle in his hand and stands there panting. Behind him, the man at the tree still stands. Barbara is still frozen …

Night of the Living Dead Screenplay

I chose this specific passage because of how Romero and Russo described Ben. We get a clear picture of his physique but there’s nothing about his race.

Even though it wasn’t Romero’s initial intent to create a film about race when hiring Duane Jones, Romero still hired him first. Up until this point, the representation of black men in cinema wasn’t always in a positive light. For people in the 60s, it’s bad enough that Duane Jones is the protagonist, but to then have him mow down white people, well he knew exactly what he was doing even if it wasn’t his initial intent. 

Duane Jones and His Fight

Now for the story in itself, Romero does this great shift in perspective. We start off the film following Barbra and we imagine she’s going to be our protagonist, only upon meeting Ben it’s obvious this story is about him. Barbra is basically useless by this point forward. But as for Ben well there’s plenty of ways to look at this. When boarding up the house we see Ben in a frantic panic.

He’s scared of the ghouls, the zombies, in reality, he’s scared of the people. His first kill with the crowbar, this could be Romero telling us there’s a new kid on the block and he’s here to stay. To fight against the zombies and the social norm. He’s willing to do anything to survive this infested world.

Once we get to our midpoint, the theme really becomes prevalent. Enter Harry, Helen, Tom and Judy with the fight for power. Right off the bat Harry and Ben are in a dispute about whose right, whose wrong, whether it’s safe upstairs or downstairs. Tensions are high, although this isn’t racial just yet it soon turns to it very shortly.

Ben: Man, with all us workin we could fix this up so nothin can get in here … and we got food … the fire … and we got the radio.

Night of the Living Dead Screenplay

So remember our quick talk about the White Zombie style of undead? They represent mindless slaves as they still have their minds intact but no control over their bodies. Ben here is just saying, all we gotta do is work together to fight these things, to fight racism. But of course Harry doesn’t listen and insist and letting it happen and turning a blinds eye down in the cellar.

Now if we move a little further down the story, page fifty-three, Harry wants to take Barbra but the gun as well. The gun is an important aspect of all of this. Just like how the conch represents power in Lord Of The Flies, the gun represents powers here.

Romero states inside a parenthetical for Ben:

His grip is still on the gun, and though he doesn’t point it at Harry we are aware of the power it implies. The argument continues. 

Night of the Living Dead Screenplay

Now in the film, this whole argument takes about eight minutes with the inclusion of one small jump scare, in movie terms, this is a long scene in itself as an average scene typically takes three pages, three minutes. This shows how much importance Romero put into this argument and who holds the power against the zombies and racism.

This argument even goes as far as to imply that Harry doesn’t like the fact that Barbra is alone with this black man regardless of the zombie invasion happening at the moment. And how even with everything happening Harry has a right to eat, a right to live. He still wants to pull his white superiority over everything.

The Most Important Piece of Dialouge in the Film

At the fifty minute mark, Helen says probably the most important quote of the whole film. She says:

“We may not enjoy living together. but dying together isn’t going to solve anything. Those people aren’t our enemies.”

Night of the Living Dead Film

What makes this line more impactful is that this line isn’t even in the original screenplay. So to me, the whole theme is wrapped around nicely to this statement. Yes, we don’t have to like each other, but fighting TOGETHER is the only way to survive this world of racism.

So let’s move to the end of the story. The most impactful scene in this whole film. The hectic night turned into utter chaos. A menacing fight that ended in grueling deaths. But the sun is up. The night and the past are behind the sole survivor, Ben. After surviving a horde of zombies, his demise comes from the hands of humans. A Pennsylvania crew of white cops and farmers who brought matters into their own hands to bring down these zombies.

But who gave them the right? Who gave them the okay? It’s no surprise this crew is extremely reminiscent of the lynching mobs from the ’60s. And the final photos or Ben burning with the rest of the bodies, this is where the true horror lies. The horror of knowing that racism isn’t going to be an easy fight.

The only way to resolve an issue as huge as this must be taken in small victories in order to win the war. As long as everyone does their part well like in the words of Mister Rogers…

A minute like this can really make a difference.

Mister Roger’s Neighborhood

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