4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Director: George A. Romero
Screenwriter: George A. Romero and John Russo
Heroes aren't supposed to die, right? Isn't that the agreement viewers made with filmmakers a long, long time ago? Well, back in 1968, first-time director George A. Romero and screenwriter John Russo broke that agreement.
Throughout Night of the Living Dead, Ben (Duane Jones)—the lone black man inside a farmhouse full of scared white folks—is the voice of reason. He's calm, unafraid to fight the undead, chivalrous towards the nearly catatonic Barbara (Judith O'Dea), and an all-around good guy. When the zombies finally enter the house, Ben's the only one resilient, and lucky, enough to make his way into the basement. Down there, he's safe. The hero has survived.
The next morning, though, Ben hears gunfire outside. It's a bunch of police-sanctioned, armed men clearing the area of its reanimated corpses. Ben slowly exits the basement, inching toward the window with his rifle. Outside, one of the hunters tells his superior that he's heard a noise. Without taking a second to investigate, the superior tells him to shoot whatever's inside the house in its head. Boom, Ben's dead.
What follows is an end credits sequence with still-frame images of the hunters removing Ben's body from the house, tossing it onto a pile of shot-down zombies, and setting his lifeless body on fire. Keep in mind that Night of the Living Dead was made in 1968, a time when black actors didn't get leading parts. The film's ending evokes lynchings and mobs, right down to the sight of white men proudly disposing of an innocent black man. Romero certainly wanted to make a scary movie, but he also wanted to spark much-needed conversations. —MB