I See Dead People

Marco Lanzagorta
All things considered, deciding whether or not to launch a devastating nuclear missile strike against Russia should not be as difficult as deciding if the cellar is the best place to hide in case of a zombie apocalypse. Scene from Crimson Tide (1995)

The real legacy of Night of the Living Dead is the way it became a quintessential icon that perfectly represents the patriarchal conflict for phallic control, as well as the confrontation between the primitive and the civilized.

As it has been discussed many times by now, Night of the Living Dead had a unique visual and narrative structure that made it completely different to most horror films released before 1968. Specifically, Romero’s film rejected narrative closure and presented a ominous and depressing finale; it questioned the value of logic and rationality, and its characters were confronted with an impossible situation beyond human comprehension; it was unusually violent and grim, and permeated in a nearly unbearable atmosphere of dejection, dread, paranoia, and xenophobia; and it presented authority institutions as useless, inefficient, unreliable, and untrustworthy in counteracting a violent threat.

However, the relevance of Night of the Living Dead extends far beyond its own specific time, as it influenced and defined the narrative structure of the horror genre for years to come. Unquestionably, the visual and narrative structure of Romero’s film unambiguously delineates the constitution of what is known today as the postmodern horror film. And perhaps this is the reason why I constantly see dead people. Indeed, somehow I feel the presence of Romero and his ghouls on almost every single movie I watch.

For instance, nearly all zombie films made after 1968 rely on Romero’s post-modern reinterpretation of the living dead archetype as an instinct-driven, re-animated ghoul hungry for human flesh. Indeed, take a look at the traditional zombies featured in White Zombie (1932), Revolt of the Zombies (1936), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Plague of the Zombies (1966), and then compare them to their modern counterparts seen in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974), Zombie (1979), Nightmare City (1980), Hell of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981), Evil Dead (1981), Return of the Living Dead (1985), 28 Days Later (2002), Planet Terror (2007), [Rec] (2007), and Quarantine (2008). Then, every single time I see a modern zombie flick, I invariably see the return of Romero’s ghouls.

Furthermore, Night of the Living Dead’s unique signature can also be observed in horror films that do not even feature zombies. Indeed, whenever a handful of survivors have to board doors and windows, I am reminded of Ben’s futile actions to protect the farmhouse. As such, horror flicks such as Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Cujo (1983), Aliens (1986), Ghosts of Mars (2001), Dog Soldiers (2002), and Signs (2002) bring to my mind Romero’s ghouls.

Moreover, the paranoia and human conflicts that doom the characters of Night of the Living Dead can also be observed in horror films such as John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Cabin Fever (2002), The Descent (2005), and The Last Winter (2006). And once more, whenever I see these films, I witness Romero’s Ghouls lurking in the shadows.

But then again, my visions of dead people in horror films should not be entirely surprising. After all, almost everybody would agree that Romero has proved to be a huge influence to the development of horror cinema. However, believe it or not, I can also observe Romero’s ghouls and the structural backbone of Night of the Living Dead in a variety of non-horror flicks!

For as incredible as it may sound, Romero’s signature can be perfectly observed in thrillers [Straw Dogs (1971) and Fear (1996)], war movies [Black Hawk Down (2001) and Crimson Tide (1995)], crime films [Assault on Precinct 13th (1976) and Reservoir Dogs (1992)], and action flicks [Universal Soldier (1992) and Robocop (1987)].

If you think about it, this is not such a far-fetched idea. Just consider, Straw Dogs, Assault on Precinct 13th, Black Hawk Down, and Fear have the same plot structure where a few resilient individuals have to defend their position against hordes of aggressive attackers trying to break in. Similarly, Crimson Tide and Reservoir Dogs perfectly capture the same type of intricate conflict for phallic control that ultimately doomed Ben and Harry. And Universal Soldier and Robocop use dead bodies as a metaphor to showcase the many social problems that haunt our world.

Of course, this does not necessarily imply that, for example, Tony Scott and Ridley Scott made the conscious effort to emulate a specific visual or narrative element of Night of the Living Dead in Crimson Tide and Black Hawk Down respectively. But then again, the Scott brothers have repeatedly showcased their extensive knowledge and understanding of modern horror cinema. As such, it would be quite difficult to objectively determine the extent of Romero’s influence on their work. To be precise, the visual and narrative connection between Night of the Living Dead and the non-horror films mentioned above should not be considered as a direct relation, but merely as a correlation.

Consider first the case of Crimson Tide, which deals with the irreconcilable disagreement between two different men. On one side we have Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), who is a veteran commander of a nuclear submarine and takes a traditional position of blindly following the rules. On the other side is Lt Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), a young African-American executive officer who is more critical of the Navy rules and procedures.

The film confronts both characters with an impossible situation in which both of them are right, and both of them are wrong. Still, they are unable to reconcile their different perspectives, a situation which leads to a scorching conflict as to who should be in charge of the boat and its nuclear missiles.

Clearly, the conflict for phallic control between Captain Ramsey and Lt Commander Hunter has the exact same structure as the quarrel between Ben and Harry in Night of the Living Dead. Not only are the race, gender, and age variables exactly the same in both movies, but also their underlying political ideology is equivalent.

That is, even though these quarrels have an unquestionable racial backdrop, Romero and Tony Scott are also interested in highlighting the irrational aspects of unrestrained destructive masculinity. As such, the potential for a catastrophic fate awaiting the characters in both films is as much due to real or metaphoric bigotry, as it is the result of selfishness and stubbornness.

In the case of Black Hawk Down, a group of American Special Forces is trapped inside a crumbling building, while they are relentlessly attacked by hordes of angry Somalis. Even though both conflicting parties are humans, they are represented in the film as completely different from each other. For example, the Somalis wear filthy clothes and speak an unintelligible language.

Moreover, they are incredibly thin, due to years of famine, and act as a collective force, ominous and seemingly unstoppable. On the other hand, the American troops are muscular, carry expensive gear, wear flashy clothes, and use a variety of advanced technological gadgets. Significantly, the Somalis are black, visually contrasted with the nearly all white American soldiers.

Clearly, Night of the Living Dead and Black Hawk Down have a strikingly similar visual and narrative structure. That is, both films portray a group of survivors defending their position against an overwhelming attack by a collective enemy that is different from “us”. Furthermore, Night of the Living Dead and Black Hawk Down convey comparable social subtexts and political ideologies.

Indeed, if Night of the Living Dead was a metaphor that alluded to the horrors of a brutal war on a faraway land and its impact to the average American citizen, then Black Hawk Down makes the case explicit. Also, if Night of the Living Dead exploited our fears of improper burial rituals and the desecration of our dead bodies, then Black Hawk Down does the same in the scene where the Somalis disrespect the body of an American soldier at the site of the helicopter crash.

And perhaps more important, if Night of the Living Dead was an allegory to represent social and racial conflict, then Black Hawk Down explicitly portrays the clash between the civilized and the primitive. If you think about it, in both films the menace is a primitive force, real or metaphorical, attempting to take over the civilized. In Black Hawk Down such primitivism is highlighted through class, social, moral, and racial signifiers, while in Night of the Living Dead the zombies are metaphors for social forces of tolerance and change, and literally these ghouls have been reverted to their most primitive animal instincts.

But then again, that Crimson Tide and Black Hawk Down are strikingly similar to Night of the Living Dead does not necessarily convey the fact that Romero inspired the Scott brothers to make these films. If anything, we can only conclude that, to a greater or a lesser degree, all three films deal with the same type of social and cultural issues.

Nevertheless, the real legacy of Night of the Living Dead is the way it became a quintessential icon that perfectly represents the patriarchal conflict for phallic control, as well as the confrontation between the primitive and the civilized. As such, we could even refer to Night of the Living Dead to categorize older films such as The Birds (1963), Zulu (1964) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) that may have inspired Romero in the first place. That is, Night of the Living Dead perfectly embodies the above-mentioned social issues, to the point in which it has become their most emblematic representation.

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