Just as corporations believed that “Man’s desires must overshadow his needs” to facilitate mass consumption, the zombies’ acts of consumption in Night of the Living Dead are driven by desire, not need. No matter how much human flesh the zombies consume, their state of decay never reverses, they don’t come back to life, and their drive to feed never abates.
Fear of a Pod Planet
During the '50s and '60s, criticisms began to appear of psychoanalytical theory that emphasized the importance of passive conformity and the usage of that theory by corporations to promote consumption. In Hollywood, the most pointed criticism came from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In this 1956 film, which was directed by Don Siegel and based on a novel by Jack Finney, space pods descend upon a small town in California with the intent of taking over by replacing its inhabitants with exact but emotionless duplicates produced by the pods.
In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the clone-producing pods are the ultimate mass-produced, public-pacifying product. Even after the consumer is converted into a pod clone, the pods remain the source of loyalty and motive: the central ideology of the clones is that the pods must continue to be produced and distributed to the masses at all costs.
As the pro-pod characters explain, the pods can fulfill everyone’s innermost desires; no matter who you are or what makes you unique, the pods will make you a better person. Essentially, the pods are the conquerors of the dark, mysterious forces inside the minds of the masses that can cause them to revolt at any time; they replace unique, emotionally complex individuals with emotionless, conformity-valuing doppelgangers.
Further connecting Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Bernays’ commercialization of Freudian theories is the character of Dr. Kaufmann (Larry Gates), a psychiatrist. Kaufmann represents the prevailing psychoanalytical and corporate thinking of the day: he encourages the protagonists to investigate their pod invasion suspicions but in a logical, socially acceptable manner (endorsing community approved behavior and the repression subconscious fears), and then he espouses the values of emotion-free, conformity-valuing pod ideology to the protagonists after they are captured by pod clones (encouraging pacification through mass consumption).
While the pod clones from Invasion of the Body Snatchers have been seen by film critics as metaphors for either communism or anti-communist witch hunts—common controversies and fears of the time—the eerily emotionless and collective nature of the pod clones are much closer to a representation of the popular perspectives of psychoanalysis and consumerism, which Siegel himself has confirmed. As he was quoted by Stuart M. Kaminsky in his 1974 book, Don Siegel: Director:
Many of my associates are pods, people who have no feeling of love or emotion, who simply exist, breathe and sleep ... To be a pod means that you have no passion, no anger, that you talk automatically, that the spark of life has left you ... The pods in my picture and in the world believe that they are doing good when they convert people into pods. They get rid of pain, ill health, mental anguish. It leaves you with a dull world, but that, my dear friend, is the world in which most of us live.
Siegel’s explanation of the significance of the pods closely resembles the then-contemporary criticisms of psychoanalysis. For example, here is a criticism given by Arthur Miller in 1963, as quoted in Century of the Self, which bears a striking resemblance to Siegel’s words:
My argument with so much psychoanalysis these days is the preconception that suffering is a mistake, or a sign of weakness, or a sign even of illness, when in fact possibly the greatest truths we know will have come out of people's suffering. That the problem is not to undo suffering or to wipe it off the face of the earth but to make it inform our lives, instead of trying to cure ourselves of it constantly and avoid it, and avoid anything but that lobotomized sense of what they call happiness. There's too much of an attempt it seems to me at controlling man rather than freeing him; of defining him rather than letting him go.
Finding Your Inner Zombie
Putting Night of the Living Dead into the historical context presented in Century of the Self, Romero’s film was released amid the backlash during the '50s, '60s and '70s against the original supporters of Freudian theory (both psychoanalytic and corporate) and the ongoing efforts by corporations to encourage consumerism within an increasingly fragmented marketplace. Century of the Self looks at several psychoanalytical figures and institutions during that time, those who promoted the ideology that, according to Curtis, “it wasn't selfish to only be thinking about yourself, it was your highest duty”.
However, in spite of such anti-Freudian backlash and the turbulent political events in American during that time, the corporate ideology and strategy that originated with Bernays nevertheless remained the same. In fact, it was America’s movement towards putting the highest value on self-expression that enabled corporations to continue their campaign of convincing the masses that business can be an irreplaceable part of self-expression through the provision of a wide range of corporate-designed products. As Curtis summarizes:
Out of this explosion of desire came what seemed a never ending consumer being that regenerated the American economy. The original idea had been the liberation of the self would create new kinds of people free of social constraint. That radical change had happened. But while the new beings felt liberated, they had become increasingly dependent in their identity on business. The corporations had realized that it was in their interest to encourage people to feel that they were individuals and offer them ways to express their individuality. The world in which people felt they were rebelling against conformity was not a threat to business but its greatest opportunity.
The pods clones of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the zombies in Night of the Living Dead have much in common: they both look human, they both lack normal human emotions, they both are prone to mob-like violence, and they both grow in number at a dizzying rate. Like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, critics linked the plot, images and themes of Night of the Living Dead to the social concerns of the time, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.
Yet what many overlooked in both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead was the significance of what motivated the monsters in both of these films: their insatiable need to consume. Both propagate their ranks through acts of consumption, but it is also here where the two monsters greatly differ.
The irony in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is that the pods can only satisfy the consumer by literally consuming the consumer’s identity. Even though the pods promise to make people better, their capacity to do so only through the means of generating emotionless clones and destroying the original person in fact renders the consumer disposable, more disposable than the product the consumer values. In contrast, Night of the Living Dead takes the concept of consumerism to a gruesome new end.
Instead of the masses compulsively consuming products or having their identities consumed by products, the masses have become so voracious that they start to consume each other and in the process create even more compulsive consumers at an epidemic rate. Furthermore, just as corporations believed that “Man’s desires must overshadow his needs” to facilitate mass consumption, the zombies’ acts of consumption in Night of the Living Dead are driven by desire, not need. No matter how much human flesh the zombies consume, their state of decay never reverses, they don’t come back to life, and their drive to feed never abates.
In other words, the zombies in Night of the Living Dead are the long-feared revolt of the masses, masses that have had their subconscious desires manipulated too far and too long by the corporate world to consume beyond any rational need. While they have become calm, pacified consumers—so calm and pacified that they are literally dead—the need to consume has supplanted all rival needs and desires to the point where consuming other consumers is the only drive left.
As the result of Bernays, corporations use consumerism to suppress ideas of revolution by appeasing irrational, subconscious desires of the individual; in Night of the Living Dead, the collective subconscious, not the individual, becomes the superlative consumer and as a result the drive to endlessly consume is the society-crushing revolution. Thus, Night of the Living Dead is the perfect parody of 20th Century corporate ideology, supported by their adoption of Freudian theory, that the interests of business and democracy are inseparable.
In contrast to the instinctive, unthinking conformity of the zombies, the human protagonists in Night of the Living Dead are deeply fragmented between each other in spite of the danger they face. They are more likely to argue, insult, and talk across each other than to constructively organize in a way which benefits everyone. This separation is symbolically emphasized by their division into factions, those on the main floor and those in the basement, almost as soon as the protagonists meet each other.
The one attempt at cooperative action among them, the attempt to refuel a truck so they can leave the house for a rescue station, ends in failure and leads to betrayal and compromise of their shelter against the zombies. The living characters in Night of the Living Dead reflect an outcome of consumer culture: people who cannot deal with each other due to the disconnectedness that was promoted by consumerism and the class differences it either created and/or perpetuated.
Furthermore, the intra-protagonist conflict takes place within what appears to be a middle-class house. It is filled with all sorts of consumer goods: appliances such as brand-name radios, furniture, clothing, baubles such as music boxes, and firearms. The ensuing conflict between the living and dead consumers leaves the house in shambles by the end of the film. Ironically, most of the protagonists feel that as long as they can stay alive in the house, someone else will find them and save them or that someone on the radio or television will tell them what to do.
Unfortunately, when help does arrive the following morning, the rescuers appear barely more unified and knowledgeable than the protagonists were. Their accidental murder of the last survivor Ben (Duane Jones), under the assumption that he was a zombie, strongly suggests that even if the zombie menace has somehow abated, people still have the potential to turn on each other with little provocation.
Living Dead World
As interviewed in Century of the Self in response to the use of politicians using consumer-centered approaches to win elections, Robert Reich, economist and member of the Clinton Cabinet from 1993 to1997, presented this perspective, which echoes the worlds of Night of the Living Dead, its sequels, and several of its countless knock-offs:
It was in a sense the triumph of the self, it was the triumph of a certain self indulgence, a view that everything in the world and all moral judgment was appropriately viewed through the lens of personal satisfaction. Indeed, the ultimate ending point of that logic is that there is no society; there is only a bunch of individual people making individual choices about their own individual well being.
It is also not coincidental that commercial consumption plays a major role in three of the sequels to Night of the Living Dead: Dawn of the Dead (consumption at a shopping mall), 2005’s Land of the Dead (consumption by the upper class), and 2007’s Diary of the Dead (consumption of the mass media).
It's obvious why the narrative standard that Romero began in Night of the Living Dead has grown during the last few decades to become its own subgenre of horror. As the consumer-centric society has continued to expand around the world, the numerous problems that stem from it are becoming dominant fears in many countries. Increased consumption of food has led to health epidemics, dead zones in the oceans, and the increased likelihood of food contaminants poisoning large numbers of people.
Increased consumption of fossil fuels has led to international military conflicts, market stagnation, and global warming. Increased consumption of water has led to water shortages around the world, particularly in areas where clean, drinkable water is already in short supply. As long as consumerism dominates the marketplace, the cannibal zombie horde archetype created by Romero will always have a place in the popular imagination, because it is the doomsday scenario that perfectly fits the endless, corporate-induced hunger of the consuming masses.
Tim Mitchell is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who has worked for several federal contracting companies and non-profit organizations along the East Coast. A Pennsylvania native, he graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh—America’s zombie capital—and he received an M.A. from Georgetown University. His previous articles about film and pop culture have appeared in Filmfax magazine and on Web sites such as PopPolitics.com and Talk to Action.