Like most of its groundbreaking compatriots in horror cinema, Night of the Living Dead suffers a plague of its own: legions of imitators and followers, most of whom don’t come even close to matching the intelligence and artistry of the original (even given the threadbare resources and sometimes sub-par acting Romero had to work with). But it’s interesting to see how the ‘rules’ established by Romero have been followed, modified and played with.
A common scenario in your garden-variety zombie movie/novel/comic book features a living character confronted by an undead relative, unable to pull the trigger. If our poor, sympathetic soul survives, their rescuer usually admonishes them with something like “that’s not your mother anymore.” Anyone who’s seen enough zombie movies knows that this more callous take is right, and sure enough you can see it at work in Night of the Living Dead. But what are the ramifications of this? Why is it a situation that zombie stories keep coming back to? And why exactly is it so horrifying to us?
“The bodies must be carried to the street and, and, and burned… the bereaved will have to forego the dubious comforts that a funeral service will give. They’re just dead flesh, and dangerous.”
— Scientist on TV, Night of the Living Dead
I have a friend who is genuinely scared of zombies. He’s not generally a frightful or nervous person, and vampires, ghosts, werewolves, aliens or what have you don’t trouble him. But mention the living dead to him and he literally shudders. I asked him once why this was and instead of telling me about some traumatic Stand By Me-ish experience with a corpse when he was younger, he related the horror he felt when he considered the prospect of having to kill (or re-kill, I suppose) loved ones and friends.
I told another friend this story and she mentioned that when her cat passed away and was buried, she kept feeling as if she should go back and get the cat out of the ground because he hated being alone, especially in places he wasn’t familiar with. She knew the feeling was totally irrational, but even as she told herself that her dead cat wasn’t bothered by his strange new home, the feeling wouldn’t go away. And this wasn’t even a zombie, just a corpse.
Humanity may be the rational animal, in Aristotle’s famous phrase, but what makes us so interesting (and dangerous) is that we’re still to a large degree irrational in our everyday thought and action. In addition to the visceral peril that zombies put us in, they also confront us with one of our most persistent and unshakable irrational beliefs: That the thing looming before you, reaching out to grab and eat you, is still your mother.
George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead gave horror cinema a whole new set of rules and conventions for zombie movies and it’s here that zombification becomes a horrific, irreversible condition. Earlier films dealing with zombies generally featured Voodoo-based creatures that, while creepy, were far less dangerous and virulent than the Romero breed. Before, zombies could be alive or dead as long as they were cursed, and in some cases could even be restored to normality. Romero’s innovation (at least as far as the nature of zombies went) was to shift the nature of the problem from magical curses to disease, infection, contamination. Zombie-as-plague is now the standard thrust of zombie movies, and that starts here.
Before, when a loved one was turned into a zombie on film, the protagonist tended to spend the rest of the running time fighting to restore them to life or at least to grant them a clean death; certainly they had to avoid letting the witch doctor/houngan put a curse on them as well, but the zombie itself carried relatively little threat. Zombies were dangerous, but only to the extent that they were directed to be: A zombie had no will.
Under Romero’s direction, however, zombies have plenty of willpower, as long as it’s being directed towards finding flesh to feed on. And without intelligence, speech, or much more than a certain low animal cunning, they present a wholly different kind of terror, especially when that zombie is your friend or brother or child. And as we all know, if you get bitten or wounded, God help you – you’re a small amount of time away from becoming one yourself.
Suddenly, there’s no way to bring a loved one back, and it’s all to easy to lose them (or yourself) to the mindless, ravening hoard of undead. Rationally, this may be extremely unpleasant but the right course of action is clear: when your brother, child, best friend, parent, spouse, whoever sits back up again after being killed, you shoot them in the head. Right? Right.
Zombie movie fans often audibly decry just how stupid characters in everything from Dawn of the Dead to, well, Shaun of the Dead are when they don’t immediately terminate any loved ones who turn into zombies, something reflected in the way Selena in 28 Days Later immediately and dispassionately kills a comrade who has just been bitten, before he turns. Note that this only happens a month after the outbreak, however; Selena has had time to come to terms with the new status quo and understands what’s at stake.
The former might be even more important than the latter; certainly someone like Helen Cooper in Night of the Living Dead understands the stakes intellectually by the time she encounters her now undead daughter in the cellar of the house where the survivors make their stand; but she hasn’t been living with the reality of the situation long enough. She can’t help thinking of undead Karen as a “poor baby,” and gets stabbed to death with a trowel and eaten as a result.
Barbra: Don’t you understand? My brother is alone!
Ben: Your brother is dead.
Barbra: NO! My brother is NOT dead!
You have to cut Barbra some slack; from the unforgettable opening scene where her brother is killed in front of her, she has a rough time all movie, and it’s capped off by that same brother being part of the zombie mob that kills and eats her. She’s catatonic for much of the film, and doesn’t always make sense for the rest of it. And although those lines of dialogue refer more to Barbra’s beliefs before she sees zombie Johnny again, they reflect the way she does something surprisingly rare in subsequent zombie movies: She simply refuses to accept the reality of zombies. She knows something very bad is going on outside, but her mind struggles to fit it into categories she knows and is familiar with.
These days, post-Night of the Living Dead, it’s possible that zombies are well known enough culturally that in the unlikely even of a similar uprising none of us would have that problem (certainly, there are legions of nerds with half-formed plans just in case…), but in 1968 “Romero zombies” would not be the first thing to comes to mind, even in the situation Barbra finds herself in. So what do you think at that point, when your brother gets up after having his head bashed in and comes after you? When he won’t say anything to you? When he’s got this crazed light in his eyes?
The horror in the Romero zombie is dual; on the one hand, we have the spectacle of family and loved ones reduced to murderous meat, to dead flesh without any vestige of personality or memory. The zombie is an obscenity precisely because it’s the inanimate made animate; Romero zombies even more so because usually the supernatural isn’t involved.
It’s key to the classical Romero zombie, and certainly in Night of the Living Dead, that there’s a period of inactivity before the corpse rises. It may not be long, but there is always that separation to let the audience and the characters know for certain that this is not the person it once was. And at the same time, we cannot escape our irrational feeling that the thing shambling towards us is Mom, Dad, Johnny, little Karen, whoever. This doesn’t stop us with people we don’t know, of course, but when you’re holed up with your nearest and dearest and one starts craving human flesh, it’s trouble in a host of ways that gunning down some guy from the next town over doesn’t present.
Even other supernatural monsters capable of converting the living don’t offer the same kind of horror. You may not want a vampire recruiting your mom into the undead, but at least (in general) they can be reasoned with, and usually at least some part of the person you loved is still present in the new monster, if a bit more fond of rare steaks. The werewolf offers you someone who is still the person you knew most of the time, even if they now have a rather significant monthly problem. And ghosts and the like, while often terrifying, don’t tend to start turning other people into ghosts.
The threat is generally more direct – characters in horror movies tend to worry more about getting killed by vampires and werewolves than becoming them themselves. Because you’ve always got that lurking in the back if your mind too, especially if you’re a character who’s had to put down a loved one – what if I get bitten? Could I stand to kill myself? Could my loved ones put me down? Who might I hurt before they get me? And at the same time, as nearly every character who’s bitten shows (even Karen, whose parents should be clued in by the TV broadcast), the irrational human mind is endlessly capable of ignoring or minimizing the problem as long as it doesn’t mean you have to shoot yourself.
It’s hard, really to call classic Romero zombies evil, as that implies an agency the things just don’t have (unless hunger is evil), which is part of the reason why the films have to focus so directly on the way the still-living screw themselves over via bickering, prejudice, cowardice and greed. While more recent attempts have taken the Romero model to an extreme in order to dig into the real horror of watching your loved ones go irrevocably over the edge into zombie-esque savagery (Warren Ellis and Max Fiumara’s comic book series Blackgas is to be especially commended for taking a nasty version of this premise to its logical, disturbing extreme), Night of the Living Dead posits instead a situation where all you’ve got up against you is dead flesh.
As the scenes showing hunting parties easily mowing down zombies shows, organized rational people versus zombies is no contest at all; it’s the close quarters, the infighting, and the psychological effect of not just zombies but familiar zombies that dooms people stuck in situations like the one the movie depicts. Among the myriad other cultural and social ramifications of the Romero zombies, it’s this latter quality that reflects back at us North American cultural mores about the dead, and in this case our respect can even get us killed.