1968 is Undead
To what do we owe ourselves? To what do we owe our future corpses? Will we go on living like we're already dead, like the past is inevitable, like we're doomed to repeat ourselves, doomed to recapitulate the terms of our decease?
The only person in the house to advocate for cooperation is Tom, though even he does so in a way that is divisive. "We'd be a lot better off if all three of us were working together," Tom says of Harry, Ben, and himself, failing to even consider the women. Film historians have alternated between readings of Night of the Living Dead as either a feminist or antifeminist text. Certainly, the women are not complicit in the bumbling corruption of the male leadership, but they are not allowed a chance to be either. Their passivity and hysterics could be read as a kind of "problem with no name", subjugated upon them by the intimate oppression of the men, who offer them no role in their own life narrative.
Even so, this is still a rather narrow portrayal of womanhood that, sadly, is not completely absent from Hollywood today. In terms of the political landscape, one needs only look at the rhetoric that tailed the Hilary Clinton primary run and, to a lesser extent Palin's V.P. bid, to see how mainstreamed misogyny still is in American culture.
Only Helen Cooper is allowed a small degree of independence and it seems to have only come after years of suffering in domestic misery. "We may not enjoy living together, but dying together is not going to solve anything", Helen says to Harry at one point.
Though she directs this comment specifically towards her husband, Helen's words could easily be transferred to both the struggles in the house and those beyond it. The '60s, with its rapid social change and equally rapid schisms, created a vastly splintered vox populi. At the political level, the clusterfuck of Vietnam seemed to have had no strategy for victory, nor did the Cold War. Communication broke down amongst rulers, Generals, the young and old, the working class and leisure class, the black power and women's lib movements, the antiwar pacifists and the New Left Trotskyites, the veterans who continued to support the war (like John McCain) and those who came to oppose it (like John Kerry), the empowered activists and the hippy drop-outs, and so on. The mass movement of young idealism even came to define itself as countercultural, or against society.
Much of the governmental movement since 1968 has been an attempt to close those divisions, either by pushing the radical movements of the '60s to the fringes or by compromising many of the hard-fought victories of that era. However, if anything, the world is more multivalent and stratified than ever. Yet, the political sphere has been energized into a series of maneuvers designed to fit us all into demographics, constituencies, and axises.
There's the indeterminably vague "War on Terror", an inculcation of Samuel Huntingdon's wrongheaded Orientalist Clash of Civilizations, which has promulgated such polarizing dogma as the infamous "with us or against us" Bushism. And then there's the mass bureaucratic bungling of the September 11th tragedies and the Hurricane Katrina disaster, which speaks of a government so disabled by its own crisscrossing inadequacies and addictions to perfunctory procedure that it is practically unable to function. In this instance, Romero's ongoing thematic topoi of the communication gap seems most piquant.
The radio and television broadcasts of Night of the Living Dead, and perhaps even more poignantly so in later films like The Crazies and Diary of the Dead, depicts a government unable to protect, alert, and prepare its citizenry for a national crisis. In fact, Diary of the Dead, in which the government and the media conspire to willfully manipulate news footage to manufacture new truths, uses real Katrina broadcasts as part of its found footage.
Yet despite the political fragmentation, the world itself is also more globalized and interconnected than ever before, with industry and the internet playing equal roles in the expansion. The protest movement now encompasses hundreds of pet causes and antiwar protestors have united en masse in larger numbers than they ever did in the '60s. Ironically, it's the relative pacifism, nonconfrontationism, and solidarity of these demonstrators that has perhaps denied them the headline-grabbing press of the '60s in the United States. Despite their relative invisibility, the privileged and powerful still maintain their fervor for denigrating their critics and suppressing their rights to free speech and free assembly. The marginalization of dissent makes its rare appearance in the public eye seem extreme and anomalous, though it's actually far less than it was 40 years prior.
The news media in Night of the Living Dead feeds the protagonists contradictory information, in part galvanizing their estrangement from one another. Yet, while the news media has always been an unreliable source of information, recent years have seen it grown even more insidious in its masking of realities. Diary of the Dead takes on the blackout of media in the bloody 21st Century. It reacts to the disappearance of corporeal violence from the video game news coverage of the Iraq War. The blood of Iraq, the bodies, the corpses, are only accessible to those who would seek it out in the new media world. Even those images that did make their way to the major news networks, like the torture candids from Abu Ghraib, were tempered for primetime audiences with weak stomachs.
Night of the Living Dead was made with the videographic and photojournalistic iconography of the carnage in South Vietnam fresh in its memory. Its groundbreaking gore found root in the footage returning home of dead young soldiers, razed villages, and shattered communities. In 1968, the famous photograph by Eddie Adams of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon sent shockwaves throughout the globe. The roves of dead bodies lining the countryside in Night of the Living Dead bellow a silent scream of inquiry, perhaps like Loan's defenseless victim: "To what do we owe the dead"?
The tenets of revenge fantasies, like those carried out in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin or September 11th, seem to dictate that owe the wrongfully killed more dead bodies. Justice, by its Western cultural definition, demands that aggressors pay for their sins in pounds of flesh. Yet, by this logic, the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of these vengeance strikes (over 1,000,000 civilian casualties are logged by most counts in Vietnam and roughly 100,000 civilian dead are estimated in Iraq) should return upon their attackers the same degree of vigilance. It’s a recursive strategy that ensures an ever-growing cavalcade of corpses. As King's role model Mahatma Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye makes the world blind".
Luckily then, Romero's gore is always subservient to the plot, not vice versa. He's often conversely lambasted for not delivering enough entrails and praised for offering up the most enthralling and inventive executions. But the balance of the violence in Romero's scripts is always deliberately tipped. As bloody and disgusting as the Dead films are, Romero consistently embeds his tragic villains with a sense of pathos (in later films he even sympathizes with them).
The excitement of seeing the zombies get killed in a Romero picture is always countered with a repulsion towards those who delight in their deaths. It recalls Guy Debord, whose writing inspired the May 1968 student and worker uprising in Paris. Debord, a lifelong revolutionary, once said "Victory will be for those who know how to create disorder without loving it". Those who gleefully murder their zombie enemies without reservation offer no solutions to the "epidemic of mass murder" (as the radio announcer refers to it). They are simply symptomatic of it, as Ben's grisly fate cruelly illustrates at the end of Night of the Living Dead.
The paradox of Romero's zombies is that they are archetypal forces who embody a wealth of contradictions. They can represent new ideas and sweeping changes acting en masse to overthrow an established order, or their lifeless bodies can be stand-ins for cultural conformity. The zombie as a figure functions equally well as an other, a figure of dread whose changes threaten to alter everyday living, and a faceless drone, like one Theodor Adorno's "prepared corpses", whose inability to negotiate his or her station spells doom for humanity at large. What exactly the zombies are can never be precisely pinned down because, as the mantra of Romero's later films goes, "They're us".
To what do we owe ourselves? To what do we owe our future corpses? Will we go on living like we're already dead, like the past is inevitable, like we're doomed to repeat ourselves, doomed to recapitulate the terms of our decease? "I am trying to scare you," Diary of the Dead's film student Debra narrates as footage of war, disease, panic, and terror screen behind her voice in George A. Romero's most recent film. "Maybe you'll wake up. Maybe you won't make the same mistakes we did". Forty years and counting…
Timothy Gabriele is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PopMatters and other not-nearly-as-cool publications. He holds a BA in English and a Certificate in Film Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has been a member of a psychedelic noise outfit, the Co-Director of an Upstate New York avant-garde sound organization, publicity manager for a small record label, host DJ to several college radio shows, intern to an experimental filmmaker, promotional products pusher for an evil corporate radio station, local news journalist, booker for a collective space, and tireless advocate for the release of the first season of The State on DVD. He lives in Philadelphia with his fiancé, his band mate, his dog and his two cats.