“It’s like they’re pretending to be alive”- Mike
Isn’t that what we’re doing?”
—Riley, Land of the Dead (2005)
To what do we owe the dead?
This is a question that lingers through the background of all of George A. Romero’s zombie films from his pivotal genre-defining debut Night of The Living Dead to 2007’s new media manifesto Diary of the Dead. It’s one we pose when we revisit events on their round-numbered anniversaries. 1968, the year of Night of the Living Dead‘s debut, turns 40 this year and it’s worth noting that it has stuck with us long after 31 December 1968.
In a way, 1968 never really stopped happening. It never really went away. It just transmogrified, like a zombie, a specter, a ghoul, haunting and informing the future. The revolutionary ideals of that time and the reactionary backlash against them are undead in today’s culture, try as we might to bury the past. Despite the sheath of disambiguation that confounding, deifying, or otherwise reivisionist historicity has covered upon the era, its soul and its memory persist, even as we aim our redneck shotguns for its brain. It’s like we owe 1968 something.
To what do we owe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, both assassinated in 1968 (in the case of King, mere hours after Romero wrapped up post-production)? Both of their spirits are embodied in the Junior Senator from Illinois, who seems to possess King’s capacity to inspire hope and Kennedy’s youth and vitality, though his specific policy initiatives have adapted themselves to the political mainstream and disavowed King’s pacifism.
To what do we owe the P.O.W.? In this election cycle, he’s represented by a decorated veteran who stayed in captivity for over five years, withstanding injury and disease, though as a politician he has frequently been known to sell veterans down the river and create tons of new dead soldiers. He even voted against a bill that would have severed the intelligence community’s use of torture methods.
The grim legacies of civil rights, war, and internment extend beyond the inspirational narratives of the presidential candidates though. They cross over to the dead and dying bodies of Katrina, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. It is that dark patrimony which inscribes itself in our culture the deepest, despite all evidence of our institutional progress. It is perhaps to those dead, the faceless anonymous masses, that we owe the most.
Romero’s career trajectory is a straight arrow towards overtly political allegory, but Night of the Living Dead is very much a shell of a storyline, what Umberto Eco refers to as an “Open Work” or Opera Aperta. The film tackles the complexity of a changing world with a distilled narrative, archetypal characters, and a broad, indefinable threat. This openness allows for a multiplicity of interpretations.
Unlike Romero’s later films, Night of the Living Dead was written with no specific polemic argument in mind. But it did shoulder with it the albatross of rising violence from the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras. Its imagery is evocative without being directly allusive, from the space probe carrying dangerous levels of radiation back to earth to the Molotov cocktails Harry throws out the window at the zombies. Even the film’s much publicized racial subtext is grafted onto the celluloid by years of critical equivocation. Leading man Ben was originally imagined to be a white trucker, but unknown black actor Duane Jones, who gives an electrifying and nuanced performance, wowed Romero in the audition process.
Thus, Night of the Living Dead, much like 1968 itself, is as much about public perception and cultural reception as the actual events that transpired. It’s a film subsequent generations will be able to readily revisit, still finding its subversive content harrowing, insightful, and prophetic.
Set in rural Western Pennsylvania, the film is the story of a group of stragglers banded together in a house where they attempt to protect themselves from a heretofore unnamed menace (the word “zombie” is never actually uttered in the film) that has begun to claim the lives of their friends and loved ones. As a monster movie, it’s oddly absent many of the normal conventions of the horror film, even by today’s standards. Its enemies are lethargic and witless, barely even a threat. They quiver at the sight of fire and are defenseless against hillbillies with shotguns. In fact, it’s exactly the inconsequentiality of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead that defines the film as a true watermark in cinematic history.
Rather than focusing on the pure visceral terror of its villainous corpses, the film turns its cameras on the supposed protagonists for whom a dynamic power struggle begins to emerge. . When Ben and Barbra, who has just witnessed her brother’s death at her father’s grave site, discover the house, Harry Cooper, hiding in the basement with his wife and his infected daughter, ignores the disturbance that Ben and Barbra make in their attempt to secure the site. Harry adopts an isolationist view point.
“We luck into a safe place and you’re telling us that we gotta risk our lives just because someone might need help, huh?” Harry asks Ben, who is incensed by Harry’s lack of altruism.
“Something like that,” Ben replies acerbically.
Harry and Ben spar with one another immediately and start struggling for territory. Harry claims the downstairs, where there’s only one door to defend. Ben prefers the upstairs, where he can scour for supplies and plan an exit strategy if need be. Their quarrel is more about control than survival. “If you stay up here, you take orders from me”, Ben shouts to Harry at one point.
Tom and Judy, a young couple who have been hiding with Harry and Helen Cooper in the basement, side with Ben and take refuge upstairs. Tom helps Ben board up the house to keep the zombies out, but in doing so, it soon becomes clear that they’re also fencing themselves in. Trapped in a space with no exit, it doesn’t take long for them to discover that hell is indeed other people.
The breakdown in communication is a running theme throughout all of Romero’s work. In Night of the Living Dead, Ben and Harry won’t let the very real task of escape and survival interfere with their constructed social hierarchies. Barbra, after an initially courageous escape, is rendered catatonic by both the trauma of seeing her brother killed and, not unimportantly, her powerlessness. In the face of a patriarchal power structure that renders her and the other females in the house ineffectual, Barbra panics and slowly loses her mind. Despondent and petrified, she voices a desire to be let outside so she can save her brother. In the process, she smacks Ben, who retaliates and strikes her back, his fists rendering her practically mute for the rest of the film.
Ben’s aggression and its intimation of domestic violence, makes him a complex and three dimensional protagonist, perhaps moreso than most films today, which tend to unrealistically deify African-American heroes. He is a decisive and well-spoken leader, poised and responsive to the changing demands of his situation, possessed with a sense of chivalry, but unable to control his aggression (which later leads him to first assault and then shoot an increasingly belligerent Harry).
At the time of the film’s release, images of black nationalists like the Nation of Islam militants responsible for Malcolm X’s assassination and those in the burgeoning Black Panther Party were horrifying whites like Harry and Helen, who sought safe haven, stability, and isolation from the racial tensions of America’s cities in the suburbs. Though desegregation and other civil rights laws slowly trickled traces of tolerance into mainstream society, the fear of black militancy still permeates throughout society today.
In 21st Century America, unconscious prejudices are legislatively ascribed to crack downs on gang violence, penalties for drug abuse, and capital punishment policy. In electoral politics, the fiery rhetoric of Barack Obama’s former pastor, the confoundingly misinterpreted “terrorist fist jab”, and a manufactured news story on a missing lapel pin have painted the current Democratic presidential candidate as anti-American and hostile in some above-ground circles, while Sarah Palin’s separatist husband and open advocacy of firearms go largely unscrutinized. One need only imagine how pictures of Barack Obama with a gun would go over to see the divide between black and white gun ownership.
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