Night of the Living Dead counters the swarming crowds of the walking dead with a seemingly antithetical mode of social organization, namely the nuclear family taken to its destructive, quasi-incestuous extreme.
Since its release in 1968, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has become a classic of the horror genre and a staple of late-night Halloween screenings on televisions and in movie theaters around the globe. Made for a mere $114,000, this intimate chamber play from hell assaults viewers with a grainy, black and white vision of the unburied dead tottering and shambling across a darkened rural landscape to feast upon the flesh of the living. In the process, Romero’s film offers a bleak apocalyptic vision that almost single-handedly redefined the “zombie” as a monstrous, cannibalistic entity whose sheer numbers and single-mindedness of purpose constitute the locus of horror.
Given its status as a landmark work of horror cinema, Night of the Living Dead has given rise not only to a franchise of sequels, prequels, and remakes, but to a seemingly endless onslaught of imitations and would-be innovations that endeavor to put their own, frequently banal spin upon the “dead walk the earth” formula. Furthermore, given the crucial position that Romero’s zombie films have come to occupy within the horror genre, it is perhaps not surprising that Romero’s groundbreaking film and its monstrous progeny would induce a deluge of critical analyses. These texts range from reviews speculating upon the appeal of the film’s horrific premise to book-length anthologies comprised of philosophical inquiries seeking to interrogate the ontological, phenomenological, and metaphysical implications of the living dead.
The prolonged fascination with the zombie as signifier is itself a worthy subject for critical inquiry, particularly given the zombie’s continued appeal as a cultural barometer for gauging the metaphorical weight attached to mass-culture representations of aggregate social collectives ("swarming" bodies and "unruly masses" as opposed to "orderly groupings," etc.). Swarms, and the myriad bodies that comprise them, have long been associated with the evocation of fear and dread in the Western popular imagination. From literary and cinematic representations of locust plagues and “Africanized” killer bees to mass media depictions of overpopulation, urban riots, and the forced or voluntary migrations of large numbers of ecologically- or militarily-displaced people from one location to another, a discourse of swarming and non-containable social congregations has been constructed that takes as its primary logic a narrative of border violation and indiscrete social and corporeal formations.
Immigrants and refugees, for example, are frequently described in the media as “overwhelming floods” of people that, like locusts, devour resources and create “humanitarian nightmares” as they cross over from one country to another, their movements graphically depicted by colorful arrows on maps that call to mind war-time illustrations of troop movements. Mobilizations of so-called “illegal aliens” are likewise portrayed as undisciplined and/or unauthorized influxes of bodies that threaten a nation’s cultural or political integrity. Even large public protests calling for necessary social change are described as potentially destructive configurations, or “unruly mobs.”
Swarming bodies, then, occupy a significant and politically charged position in the cultural imagination. Endowed with predominantly negative connotations within popular discourse, these heterogeneous and fluid groupings are also objects of continual fascination, as evidenced by “info-tainment” programs like The World’s Deadliest Swarms. Indeed, it is exactly the potential indeterminacy of crowds that mark them as both dangerous, in that they challenge the structures that support the status quo, and appealing, in that they offer a multitude of alternative economies.
As Steven Shaviro points out in his essay, “Two Lessons from Burroughs”. swarms “form immense crowds without adopting rigid hierarchical structures. Their loose aggregations offer far more attractive prospects for postmodern sociality than do State organizations…swarms are populations in continual flux, distributing themselves across vast territory” (51). In late capitalist culture, where, as David Harvey has demonstrated, flows of capital are infinitely re-configurable in the face of potential crisis, the prospective indiscretion of swarming crowds offer a model of society in perpetual transformation, a body politic that, like the subject positions that constitute it, is open to perpetual legislation.
The zombies that congregate outside of the farm house in Night of the Living Dead, however, are motivated exclusively by their desire to devour, a behavior that Romero will push to its allegorical breaking point in 1979’s Dawn of the Dead and its primary setting – a shopping mall besieged by zombies seemingly drawn by a powerful primordial will to consume. Indeed, it will not be until 1985’s Day of the Dead and 2005’s Land of the Dead that Romero will embark upon a consideration of the “zombified” masses as a possibly progressive alternative to the scientific-military apparatus that may not only be largely responsible for the dead bodies overtaking the living, but that may also lack the basic interpersonal skills necessary to set aside meaningless partisan agendas and organize an effective response.
In Night of the Living Dead, however, the swarming crowd of zombies recalls the critique of crowds that Elias Canetti poses in his Nobel Prize winning tome, Crowds and Power (1960). In an ironic reversal of the abject repugnance many people feel when social and sartorial boundaries are ruptured and our all-too-human flesh makes unexpected and undesired contact with the stark physicality of another human being, crowds, for Canetti, not only eradicate such fears, but provide comfort through a physical and psychological surrender to the spatial and political formulations of the mass that moves as an apparently unified, uncontainable collective. Like the zombies, who no longer adhere to the hierarchical constructions to which they were subject while alive, a person in a crowd, Canetti reminds us, is equal, merely another organ in a larger, incomprehensible body at war against any boundaries that endeavor to contain it (be they doors, windows, or human beings deemed “outsiders”). Consequently, individual responsibility for one’s actions is quickly abandoned; as Voltaire observed: “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”
One of the strengths of Romero’s film, and indeed one of the primary reasons that it endures to this day as a subject of such expansive and diverse critical reception, is its resistance to reducibility. For the last 40 years critics have met Romero’s shoe string budget monster flick with readings informed by the latest theoretical platforms that popular and academic analyses have to offer, and his humble B-movie has, like one its tell-tale zombies wandering aimlessly in their filthy burial garments, continued to stagger back into the public’s imagination.
For this critic, what makes George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead truly remarkable is the way the narrative counters the swarming crowds of the walking dead with a seemingly antithetical mode of social organization, namely the nuclear family taken to its destructive, quasi-incestuous extreme. Comprised of Harry, the abrasive patriarch, Helen, his beleaguered wife, and Karen, their daughter-turned-zombie, the Coopers (a family whose very name implies enclosure) assume antagonistic roles within the hastily boarded-up farmhouse.
Harry and Helen’s continual sniping and bickering exacerbate tensions within an already stressful environment, and Harry’s persistent and selfishly motivated challenges to Ben’s democratically-sanctioned authority further endangers the safety of those gathered in hopes of surviving the zombie assault. Harry’s pernicious self-interest reaches its crescendo when he locks Ben out of the house, a move that results in Harry being shot during a physical altercation with Ben. Bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound, Harry finds himself back in the very room to which he constantly advocates return: the basement. Bereft of escape routes (literal and figurative “lines of flight”) the basement proves to be every bit the “deathtrap” that Ben claimed it to be all along. It is in this subterranean space that the isolationist family unit devours itself, the undead daughter feasting upon her father’s organs before turning on the hapless, pleading mother and butchering her with a trowel.
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that the most horrific moment in Romero’s film transpires well after the eponymous night has given way to the break of day and the arrival of the trigger-happy zombie hunters who, as numerous critics have pointed out, are far more reminiscent of lynch mobs and conservative thugs than knights in shining armor (or, in this case, flannel). Like the undead they aim to eliminate from the planet, the zombie hunters lack the desire, or indeed the inclination, to determine whether a figure half-glimpsed in the distance is a member of the living or a representative of the rapidly growing ranks of the dead.
Given that their target is both the film’s hero and a person of color, their mindless slaughter for slaughter’s sake takes on an even more harrowing dimension. As the montage of grisly snapshots with which Night of the Living Dead concludes clearly suggests, the zombie hunters have as much in common with their undead quarry as they do with the Cooper family who sequester themselves within the cellar-soon-turned-family-crypt. As is made abundantly clear throughout the film’s narrative, the destruction of the zombies must ultimately come from without; as one expert hunter puts it: “shoot ‘em or burn ‘em; they go up pretty easy.” Sadly, the human race is at risk from both without – at the cold dead hands of the walking corpses – and from within – at the somewhat warmer hands of their fellow humans.
Jay McRoy is Associate Professor of English and Cinema Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside. He is the author of Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (Rodopi, 2008), editor of Japanese Horror Cinema (Edinburgh University Press, 2006) and co-editor (with Richard Hand) of Monstrous Adaptations: Generic and Thematic Mutations in Horror Film (Manchester University Press, 2007).