[28 October 2008]
The zombie is a staple of horror cinema. It is a reanimated, unthinking corpse, whose unrelenting purpose and drive is to consume the flesh of the living. In contrast to an understanding of the zombie as a shallow figure with little symbolism or deeper meaning, I suggest that the zombie is a blank slate onto which we can write society’s anxieties, fissures, and insecurities.
As Kim Paffenroth highlights in Gospel of the Living Dead, the zombie is a figure that is especially appropriate for exploring the failings of human nature because its very fact of existence unsettles deeply held beliefs regarding cannibalism, religion, and the finality of death. These factors encourage filmmakers to use the zombie film genre as a critical lens through which to view humanity’s shortcomings. In total, this flexibility makes the zombie film genre an ideal site for incisive critiques of class inequality, racism, and white supremacy.
As a canonical film, Night of the Living Dead is dense with socio-political themes and critiques. For example, how do human beings behave when they are placed into anarchy? Are humans good and kind by their very nature? Or alternatively, when the zombie plague has stripped away all artifices of social control and authority, does humanity in fact lose its empathy, decency, and compassion? The social relevance of Night of the Living Dead is further encouraged by the film’s revolutionary casting of an African American lead, as well as its release during the social tumult of the ‘60s.
As a foundational zombie film, Night of the Living Dead’s influence is widely felt within the broader genre it helped to create. At present, because of how deftly Night of the Living Dead presented socially relevant themes, there is a significant pressure for zombie films to foreground social and political meaning in their narratives. Simply stated, instead of being “mere” entertainment, the zombie film “has to be about something.”
Over the past four decades, race has played a dominant role in the scholastic analysis and appreciation of Night of the Living Dead. But then again, perhaps all this extensive academic literature that discusses how race is used as a thematic or symbolic device precludes us from better understanding other facets of Romero’s film. Thus, we should ask ourselves, how does a pressure to read race into Night of the Living Dead mask other ways of constructing meaning around the story? How does our understanding of Night of the Living Dead, and our interpretation of its narrative change (or not) if race as a critical lens is removed from how we view the film? Must the zombie film have social significance? And what is lost by insisting that it does?
To answer these questions, it is important to realize that even though it is a smart and foundational film, Night of the Living Dead has had mixed consequences for Romero’s body of work, and for the broader zombie film genre. More specifically, Night of the Living Dead’s influence is so great, that it has made social and political commentary a basic rule for the genre. This necessity threatens to make pleasure, as a valued and acceptable goal and purpose of zombie film, illegitimate.
On the surface, Night of the Living Dead is a simple film. In minimalist style, Night of the Living Dead depicts the efforts of one group of people to survive in a one story home against an unrelenting tide of the undead. Romero’s aesthetic sensibilities masterfully support his storytelling goals: the film is shot in black and white in order to give the movie a documentary feel. In addition, the film moves forward in real time.
As a complement to its documentary feel, Night of the Living Dead does not feature either spectacular violence or editing choices that would break a suspension of disbelief. The sum result of these choices is a claustrophobic atmosphere that is grounded in the “real” rather than the fantastic. The ways in which Night of the Living Dead is grounded by reality encourages critical interpretation of the film.
The period specific events of the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War and youth countercultures, and the Cold War are at the forefront of how Night of the Living Dead conveys meaning. While Night of the Living Dead also offers critiques of the media (the omnipresence of the television and the pleadings of officials to maintain order and to remain calm in the face of disaster), of an ineffectual State which fails its citizens (the United States government is unable to contain the zombie outbreak), of mob rule (the lynching party inspired violence of the “posse” which “rescues” the protagonists and kills the heroic African American figure, Ben) and irresponsible science (it is rumored the zombie outbreak was caused by a space probe that recently returned to Earth), Night of the Living Dead’s critique of racism and racial injustice is among its most compelling themes.
In reading race into the Night of the Living Dead, I focus first on the principal characters. The characters in Night of the Living Dead are, with the exception of the protagonist, uniformly flawed. Barbra, the sister of Ben, the first “victim” shown in the film, is passive, shell-shocked, and in denial of the dire threat posed by the zombie apocalypse. Harry Cooper, husband of Helen Cooper, is a coward. Despite the best advice of Ben, he chooses to hide in the basement—a nod to the Cold War—and wait out the zombie attack. Harry is also in denial of the fact that his daughter, having sustained a fatal bite from a zombie, will inevitably turn on the party. The remaining characters, Helen (wife of Harry), Judy, and Tom are supporting characters who act in response to the power struggle between Ben and Harry.
Ben is the hero of the film. As the only African-American character, Ben’s actions exist in contrast to the other characters in Night of the Living Dead both symbolically (as a person of color in contrast to the “white” characters he is isolated with; to the whiteness of death embodied by the zombies; and the white lynching/rescue party) and practically. In terms of the latter, Ben is a character of action as opposed to reaction. This is an important distinction.
Ben first appears in the film using a truck to escape the zombie horde. His other heroic acts include gathering supplies, finding the television in order to gather news about the zombie apocalypse, lighting the house so that it will be easier to defend, boarding closed the windows to provide safety, and formulating a plan for escape. While Harry is content to hide in the basement, a choice which will lead to inevitable death, Ben is forward thinking and innovative. He is not crippled by fear and indecision.
The tensions between Ben and Harry are pregnant with racial overtones. Harry resents Ben’s authority and actively tries to subvert it. Harry also attempts to murder Ben by locking him out of the house and abandoning him to the zombies. Symbolically, Harry as the white male authority figure resents Harry’s assertions of leadership. If one understands the Civil Right movement(s) and the broader Black Freedom Struggle to be resistance movements against white male authority and their exclusive claims to citizenship and power, Ben’s assertion of his “manhood” against Harry’s illegitimate authority is a mirror of the challenges made by people of color against the white racial order.
In the language of the moment, Harry saw Ben as being “uppity” and not content to follow the “natural order of things.” Because the zombie outbreak is a shattering of the conceivable and the normal, Ben is forced to kill Harry both as a practical act of survival, and as a symbolic act that vanquishes the established order—a series of events brought into motion by the rising of the undead.
I just hope that if I ever become zombified, it will not happen on a bad hair day. Promotional poster for Return of the Living Dead (1985) .
The end of Night of the Living Dead brings an inevitable (in only temporary) return to normalcy. Ben is eventually forced to hide in the house where he is subsequently overwhelmed by the zombies. In the oft-discussed ending of the film, Ben emerges from a closet and the rescue party shoots and kills him. There is no explicit mention of racial violence.
However, there is a clear racial subtext as the rescue party is intentionally evocative of a lynching party (their Southern accents and the television’s instructions to “burn” the zombies). These details, in combination with the killing of the film’s African American protagonist, are not coincidental facts.
It is also important to highlight how Ben is actually killed twice. First, he is murdered in the film as a zombie. In this instance, Ben is murdered because he represents an immediate threat. However, Ben is also murdered because he has been transformed from a racial Other (a person of color) to a literal and species Other (a zombie).
I would also suggest that the tone of the film and its events suggest that whether alive or “dead,” Ben would have been killed as a function of the “rescuers’” impulsive and infectious violence. Again, Ben must die for the world to return to normal, for it to reset to an existing state where zombies no longer exist (the outbreak is initially contained), and where the racial hierarchy is re-established (the outspoken and heroic black leader is killed).
In a variety of subtle ways, Night of the Living Dead also places race as central to its narrative. The zombie plague is both an impossibility and absurdity. The zombie plague is also inconceivable until it actually occurs. This is the genius of the zombie film genre. Because zombies evoke the specter of apocalyptic disaster, of an event so horrifying and unimaginable, our understandings of reality and of our own possibilities are unhinged by the rising of the undead. The zombie plague, as Romero details in the sequels Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Land of the Dead, creates a new world from the ashes of the old one. Nevertheless, this “new” world is still plagued (if not more so) by the worst excesses and failings of human nature.
Disaster creates possibilities for new beginnings. It also fuels a desire for the familiar and the safe. Here, in the direst of moments, the white characters return to the familiarity offered by racial hierarchy. For example, Harry, rather than concede to the wisdom of Ben’s plans, clings to his familiar bigotry and decides to contest Ben’s authority.
In another example, Ben’s presence unsettles the male-female dynamic in the house. While on one hand, Ben is Barbra’s savior, there is also the weight of anxiety about black men, inter-racial sex, and fears of black male sexuality coloring the relationships between Ben, the white women and their white male “protectors.”
The hold of old habits, traditions, and bigotry on the white psyche is Night of the Living Dead’s sharpest critique: while the world is being destroyed, racism still influences the behavior of these white characters. To varying degrees, the white characters seek out the familiar hierarchies and arrangements of race and power (as well as gender) because they provide safety and security.
Likewise, the way that racism impacts social relationships is so damaging (if not damning), that Ben, as a black man, is able to find respect and authority from white people only when the world is faced with an unthinkable disaster. This is Romeroʼs most incisive critique: that even in the face of unimaginable horror, humanity reverts to its status quo and the very social arrangements which left majority white society unprepared for the rising of the undead.
To this point, race has been central and fore grounded in my readings of Night of the Living Dead. How do our interpretations change when race is removed as a critical lens for viewing this film? How then is meaning constructed in a “race neutral” Night of the Living Dead?
Ben’s character literally embodies the significance of race and racial difference as a primary theme in Night of the Living Dead. He is singular and unique. However, I suggest that the narrative arch of Night of the Living Dead would remain unchanged if Ben were not a person of color. Certainly, there are many reasons to suggest that the casting of Duane Jones was intentional. While Romero has denied that race was a factor in his casting of Duane Jones, I would add a level of complexity and nuance to his claim: the choice to cast Duane Jones (or not) is an active one, and the decision to be “colorblind” is still a decision that speaks against the norms and conventions of the era.
In addition, Romero’s film is a carefully constructed piece of social and political criticism. Here, the casting of a person of color as the lead would add resonance and weight to the film’s narrative and themes—a choice that given the timing of Night of the Living Dead’s release during the social upheavals of the ‘60s would undoubtedly reinforce the film’s themes. As a result, Night of the Living Dead would necessarily foreground race as a category of meaning and lens for interpretation. Moreover, Romero would have been quite conscious of the impact of having an African American lead on the audience, their relationship to Night of the Living Dead, and the symbolic meaning and narrative force of the film. As a result, Night of the Living Dead would necessarily foreground race as a category of meaning and lens for interpretation.
However, if Ben’s character was not a person of color, Night of the Living Dead would still function as a coherent text. While allowing for the richness created by Romero’s casting choice, and his simultaneous claims that race did not influence his choice of Duane Jones to play Ben, the film does not depend upon an African American being in the role of leading man. If the role were recast the narrative would remain whole and the story would move forward. However, the ways in which the film constructs meaning would be subtly rather that radically changed. The zombie would still represent a type of Other—be it the counterculture, Communism, conformity, fear of change, etc.
The poignancy of Night of the Living Dead would perhaps be compromised, and certainly, the visceral power of its last scenes (of a heroic African American shot down in a manner eerily reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X) would be lost. Nevertheless, Night of the Living Dead as a zombie film where a compulsion for “the normal” is over-riding, dominant, and compulsive would remain.
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a foundational film that has profoundly influenced the zombie film genre. It has set a difficult if not unattainable standard for all of zombie cinema—a claim of influence that also includes Romero’s subsequent work within the very genre which he helped to create.
While the immediate sequels to Night of the Living Dead (i.e., the films Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead) continued with Romeroʼs commitment to a socially relevant zombie cinema that is also highly entertaining, the films Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead are evidence of what I describe as the power and weight of obligation. In these last two examples, I suggest that Romero’s efforts to create meaning, i.e., a popular culture that “matters,” supersedes a commitment to pleasure and entertainment. This is one of the central challenges in our efforts to understand how meaning is constructed in, around, and by popular culture. How does one balance an obligation to social relevance in one’s “art” with a commitment to entertain?
The long shadow which Night of the Living Dead casts over the zombie film genre has had a number of significant consequences. In its most positive influence, Night of the Living Dead has created a space for serious and powerful zombie fare such as the novel World War Z, the comic book series the Walking Dead, and the film 28 Days Later. However, Night of the Living Dead’s success has also inspired less than impressive movies where the pressure to create socially relevant film has overwhelmed a primary obligation to entertainment.
Two zombie films, the 1980 horror comedy Return of the Living Dead and the recent Tarantino and Rodriguez produced, Planet Terror, speak to the challenge posed by an emphasis on pleasure in the zombie film genre. While allowing for alternate interpretations, at their core these movies are highly enjoyable tales of zombie fueled mayhem and violence. By largely avoiding the “politics” in the politics of popular culture, and stepping away from the burden of meaning, both are excellent examples of the zombie film as pure genre entertainment. Planet Terror, and Return of the Living Dead, both demonstrate the flexibility of the zombie as a storytelling device where pleasure is a legitimate end goal for the movie.
Night of the Living Dead is firmly cemented within the American popular imagination. It has generated a rich imaginary which has been a source for countless films, comic books, and literature. The heights reached by Night of the Living Dead as a story and as a foundational blueprint for zombie cinema are both a blessing and a curse: Night of the Living Dead is the definition of genius because it has made all previous zombie films obsolete while simultaneously being the measure of excellence for all zombie films that have followed it.
Now the challenge is how to balance the weight of meaning in the zombie film, a function of the influence of Romero’s seminal work, with an equally valid commitment to entertainment and pleasure. This need for balance must push the genre forward. As modeled by Night of the Living Dead, the zombie film genre is uniquely positioned as a site for radical and insightful social and political commentary. However, there is also room within the zombie film genre for the pleasures of Planet Terror and Return of the Living Dead. Ultimately, as we reflect upon Night of the Living Dead’s influence on the zombie film genre, we must ask ourselves, “Why can’t we just enjoy eating brains anymore? And why can’t we just be happy doing so?”