[27 October 2008]
“The world of the grotesque is the darkness within us.”
I remember the last zombie nightmare I had was a haze of chaotic urban sequences – a series of macabre visions darkened by the creeping dread of infestation and the smell of rotting flesh. When I finally woke up, it was to escape claustrophobic hell, to leave behind a bleakness so genuinely upsetting that it took me several minutes to recover my senses.
Cold sweats aside, though, it was this dream that made me realize the extent to which my irrational fears of a zombie invasion are grounded in a somewhat more reasonable uneasiness regarding enormous crowds of people (an uneasiness that, here in New York City, I’ve learned to casually stow in my back pocket). So, zombies haunt my unconscious mind – big deal.
What is it exactly that fascinates us about the walking dead? And, perhaps more intriguingly, which of the implications of zombie horror disturbs us most?
American Flags in the Cemetery
As any respectable horror connoisseur knows, Night of the Living Dead is not the first ever zombie film. It may as well be. After all these years, anyway, its importance as a zombie filmmaker’s Bible actually rivals its merits as a masterpiece of low-budget cinema. But first off, let’s not kid ourselves about this being an apolitical sub-genre. It is most certainly not. Now, I know what you’re thinking: let’s just get to the blood and guts of the thing. And so we will.
First of all, few would disagree that Night of the Living Dead is a film that’s positively doused in the guilt and anxiety of a country at war (with another country and itself). More interestingly, it’s the same kind of guilt and anxiety many of us in the US are probably feeling right now.
In his essay,“With ‘The Dark Knight,’ film noir still lives”, Lewis Beale sees a resurgence of the film noir genre in the astronomical success of The Dark Knight. Perhaps the most noteworthy point of his story comes in the form of a quote from director Christopher Nolan, who offered, “When you’re in unsettled times, that’s when the genre [film noir] rises to the fore. Like the concern in The Dark Knight, the fear of anarchy invading society – that’s a very contemporary fear.”
I would argue that the genre of zombie apocalypse is similarly tied to these “unsettled times,” times in which people become drawn – in a perverse way perhaps – into an exploration of the kind of darkness that threatens to envelope them. And Night of the Living Dead is certainly a film that explores this dark space. In the opening scene of the movie, we watch a soon-to-be catatonic Barbra and her wiseacre brother Johnny pulling into a cemetery to visit the grave of their parents. One of the first things you’ll notice is a miniature American flag flapping gently in the breeze.
Already it seems clear that Romero endeavors towards social satire with the movie, but with a special emphasis on what a fundamentally American reaction to zombies would be like (hint: it involves our Second Amendment). Otherwise, though, the flag is probably just an attempt to locate the movie – to solidify in our minds that a horror is being visited upon us in our own backyards. The next step is to scare us witless with a vision of complete anarchy. Whether Romero intended to implicate a libertarian (or, more accurately, Objectivist) ideal in the process is debatable. So, if for no other reason, I’ll argue that he does.
“The Right To Be Left Alone”
The name “Ayn Rand” is probably one of the most explosive ingredients a writer can inject into a pseudo-philosophical text such as this one. Now, I don’t know quite enough about Ms. Rand to wax lyrical on her personal (now very public) philosophies, but I did read Anthem in a single sitting. And, like anyone else who likes to stave off preconceptions as often as he possibly can, I found the novella pretty absorbing. After all, it’s a charmingly simple, heart-warming tale. Summarily put: boy meets girl, boy and girl elope into the wilderness in order to live a life unconstrained by the totalitarian inevitability of civilized society. What I eventually discovered was, that in a rather corrupt form, this sequence of events bears a certain similarity to that which occurs in Night of the Living Dead.
According to the Ayn Rand Institute, the prime ethical component of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, runs this way:
Man – every man – is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
In effect, it’s this single element – self-interest – that dominates any zombie movie, much less Night of the Living Dead. Having less controversial ethical roots in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, it’s one of those basic philosophical principles that an amateur Socrates like myself can steadily grasp. And, for this reason, I have high doubts that this fact could be lost on Romero. It’s this single element that’s responsible for really drawing us into his zombie films.
To zero in on this element in Night of the Living Dead, it is reasonable to highlight the emphasis most zombie directors tend to place on the characters’ decision-making processes, which generally become frenzied and dichromatic within minutes of the opening credits. The first and foremost of decisions Ben has to make in the movie is whether or not to stay in the house once his car breaks down. Having no real idea where he is, he makes the risky decision of rendering himself practically immobile. Although he’s not the archetypal self-interested character of the movie, it’s a decision he makes using your basic fight-or-flight equation.
The most self-interested character in the film has got to be Harry Cooper, a gouty loudmouth with a wife and kid locked in the basement. His foil is the impressionable and laughably earnest Tom (it seems like the women in the movie combine for about twenty words), whose adolescent indecision is meant to show you exactly the way you shouldn’t behave when surrounded by a throng of frothing, reanimated corpses.
In any event, it’s Harry who insists that the group ride it out (the zombie raid, that is) in the house’s commodious cellar. While he’s not nearly as decisive as Ben, he certainly tries to act the part. It helps that he’s an extremely petty sort of man. He presents the group with a typically sanctimonious ultimatum: he’s locking himself in that goddam cellar and if you don’t come with him then forever hold your peace. He does eventually crumble, but only after he feels the force of Ben’s brutal (fist-y) assertion of alpha-male status near the denouement.
But let’s return to Anthem for a moment. When I recently re-watched Night of the Living Dead, I tried to think about the way the characters in the house would react to each other during the “down time” between attacks. Doing this caused me to start seeing their predicament in less restrictive terms. I began to see their existence – particularly Ben and Barbra’s – as a corrupted performance of Rand’s libertarian ideal.
Further discussion of this issue is sensible and worthwhile, even at the risk of overanalyzing one of my simple pleasures in life. While I’m hesitant to make assumptions about audience reaction in a decade I’m only familiar with through pop songs, I’d guess that most ‘60s viewers wouldn’t have seen Ben and Barbra as stand-ins for man and wife. I’m referring, of course, to the race issue (though I won’t elaborate on it here). Still, I’d like to suggest that we take a look at it in this way for the moment.
Granted, there’s hardly a glimmer of romantic sub-plot between the two, but there is at least something that smacks of the kind of independent domestic situation put forth in Rand’s novella. In Anthem, the male protagonist builds a cabin in the woods where he and his wife can live their lives isolated from the society they left behind. As I’ve said before, it’s a very similar situation to the one we find in Night of the Living Dead. The main difference centers on mode of presentation. Romero’s film is, to say the least, more graphic. In the world he depicts, society reels from a supernatural event far beyond its limited powers of imagination. Still, it doesn’t take much effort to see symbolism in the rising dead. Indeed, if we view the ghouls (they’re never actually called “zombies”) that disturb Ben and Barbra’s rural hideaway as agents of society’s marauding influence, we simultaneously attach a whole new meaning to the libertarian slogan, “The right to be left alone.”
What all this amounts to is a picture of a world in which Rand’s prime ethical tenet – self-interest – is allowed to flourish. In the wake of zombie apocalypse, the only law that really makes sense is that of “every man for himself.” In Leviathan, Hobbes warned that life in such a state (what he calls the “state of war”) would be short. In Romero’s cinematic world it gets even shorter. Unlike some of his later films, though, Night of the Living Dead ends with the restoration of order – or, perhaps more appropriately – a state of normalcy. Despite the fact that Ben gets killed by a band of trigger-happy militiamen, all the zombies are put down. In other words, we get a resolution, even if it’s only a superficial one.
At this point is possible to formulate a viable answer to the questions posed at the beginning of this article. What is it that so fascinates us about zombies? What, in our exploration of the darkness, disturbs us most of all? I hope that my own view is now at least somewhat clear. Simply put, the allure of the undead stems from the idea that zombie apocalypse strips man to his barest self –the self that Hobbes describes to us in Leviathan – and essentially subverts thousands upon thousands of years worth’ of moral discipline. The single greatest horror that Night of the Living Dead exposes is that there are evils within ourselves that we can never truly conquer. And this discovery leads to another: that ours is a morbid fascination. Notably, the tagline to Romero’s second zombie film, Dawn of the Dead, ran like this: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the earth.” Only a human being could have cooked up something like that.