In Night of the Living Dead, the most unpleasant character just happens to also be the most insightful.
The virtues of Harry Cooper are not immediately apparent. A superficial examination of his role in George Romero’s masterpiece Night of the Living Dead reveals him as the nearest thing the film has to a conventional villain. Certainly he is the least obviously sympathetic of all the characters who end up trapped in a farm house by marauding zombies, and in many ways his negative qualities help to underline the positive features of everyone else. For example, Ben, Night of the Living Dead’s ostensible hero, is forceful and courageous, Barbra is traumatized but benign, and Tom and Judy are a nice if rather bland young couple who help out as much as they can.
As for the Cooper family, we feel sorry for the wife because she is bullied by her husband and sorry for the daughter because she is ill. But then there is Harry, who seems to be the cowardly one in the face of the courage of others, the selfish one in a scenario that stresses the need to work together, and the one who mocks all attempts to survive. From this perspective, his eventual ghastly fate is eminently satisfying and justifiable. He is shot dead by Ben after attempting to wrest the gun from Ben’s control, and subsequently he is partially eaten by his own zombified daughter. Finally, Ben shoots him again as he is resurrected in zombie form.
However, a closer inspection of Night of the Living Dead reveals that the situation within that farm house is far from straightforward and that a reappraisal of Harry himself can help in unlocking the full iconoclastic power of Romero’s film. In part, this has to do with the undeniable fact that Harry is generally proved right in his reading of their predicament and his predictions of what will happen to them. This is most obviously the case in his preference for the cellar as the most defensible location in the house. Within a few seconds of his first appearance he is declaring that the cellar is ‘the safest place’ in a manner that brooks no disagreement, and many of the arguments between Harry and the rest of the household revolve around this issue.
Harry loses all these arguments, of course, but nevertheless at the end of the film we find that Ben, the sole survivor of the night (although not of the following morning) only survives by hiding in Harry’s cellar. It is also Harry who, despite all Ben’s assurances to the contrary, insists on pointing out how vulnerable the rest of the house is – ‘there are a million weak spots’ - and predicts the massed zombie attack that eventually does overwhelm all of Ben’s defenses.
Several critics (as well as Romero himself) have pointed to Harry’s astuteness as one of the film’s dark ironies, with the most unpleasant character just happening to be the most insightful. Perhaps one should go further though and question the extent to which Harry is actually the vile individual that he is sometimes made out to be. In other words, what exactly is the case against Harry Cooper?
Mainly, it is that he is a coward. But is he really that bad? It has already been established that his desire to remain in the cellar turns out to be a sensible one. But what about those other moments when he seems to behave in a cowardly manner? Most notable here are the reasons for his delayed entrance into the film. (He does not appear until about forty minutes in.) It turns out that he has been hiding in the farm house cellar with his wife, child and Tom and Judy, and that they were all able to hear the sounds of Ben boarding up the house and Barbra’s screams.
However, they did nothing about this but instead, under Harry’s leadership, only ventured upstairs when all was quiet. Ben himself interprets this failure to help as cowardice, and as he is a personable and capable young man that we have already come to trust while Harry is a sweaty, balding and agitated individual, we tend to side with Ben.
But think about it for a minute. If you have been attacked by a gang of zombies and your daughter injured (which turns out to be Harry’s back story) and from your safe place you hear a load of crashing and screaming but are unable to see what is going on, what is the sensible thing to do? Do you launch yourself into an unknown situation or do you instead put the safety of others, including your own daughter, first? Admittedly, Harry’s own defence of his position is not particularly eloquent – ‘You’re telling us we gotta risk our lives just because somebody might need help’ – but here he is reacting against Ben’s instant aggression towards him. In fact, this first encounter between Ben and Harry sets the pattern for their later encounters, with Ben’s unremitting hostility pushing Harry into a more extreme position than he might otherwise have adopted.
It seems from this that Harry does have reasons for acting in the way he does that go beyond his own self-preservation. Of all the people in the house, he is the one who most frequently expresses concern for his injured daughter (while for Ben she just seems to be a hindrance to his plans), and even when he is dying he struggles to get back to her side. Even his most extreme act – not immediately letting Ben into the house after the plan to get gas from the nearby pump has gone disastrously wrong – has a rationale to it, for he is the only one left in the house who sees what happens. The expedition to the pump, which results in the deaths of both Tom and Judy, was Ben’s plan, and Ben was also responsible for allowing Judy to join them at the last minute, while Harry tried to stop her. (Incidentally, Harry carries out his own part in the plan – throwing Molotov cocktails onto the surrounding zombies – with exemplary efficiency, demonstrating his competence in the face of the bumbling heroics of the others.)
Put this alongside Harry’s doubts about Ben’s defence strategy, and one can see how, from Harry’s perspective, Ben might seem just as dangerous to the group as the zombies. As he tells his wife later, ‘Two people are dead already on account of that guy.’ Even so, his hesitation is only momentary and he helps Ben reseal the house, only for Ben to turn on him and beat him up brutally. If one is prepared to give the matter some thought, Harry’s final act in the film is also far from cowardly. He takes the gun away from Ben and seeks to regain control of the situation. This is not out of selfishness but rather because Ben has begun to plan yet another potentially disastrous expedition outside while the massed zombie attack on the house predicted by Harry has also just begun.
It is easy to see why we instinctively prefer Ben over Harry. Ben is handsome, decisive and courageous, while Harry is a nervous and irritable little man. But Ben’s story is clearly one of comprehensive failure; every plan he makes fails and he only succeeds in leading the group in the house to their deaths (and in so doing gets himself killed as well). It is hard to say whether Harry would have been more successful but it is hard to see how he could have fared worse than Ben. It is also worth pointing out how much Ben bullies Harry from his very first appearance, as if Ben recognises that Harry is the only one who might question his authority. ‘You can be the boss down there,’ he shouts at Harry, ‘I’m boss up here’ and a little later ‘If you stay up here, you take orders from me.’
As a culmination of this, he finally shoots a defenceless Harry in cold blood. This is clearly an excessive response to Harry’s challenge and, given that by now it has been clearly established that the dead will rise, a particularly foolish one as well. Put simply, Ben, for all his heroism, is a very bad leader indeed and only achieves dominance through ruthlessly putting down Harry at every opportunity.
A lot has been made of Ben’s blackness, and the way in which the idea of having a hero of this kind contributes to the film’s progressive credentials, particularly in the context of America in the late '60s. More could be made, however, of Ben’s imperfections. This might muddy the waters a little so far as ideologies are concerned, but it makes for a more challenging drama, one in which nothing is straightforward, where the apparent hero is far from perfect and the apparent villain offers the potential of a more effective leadership. More surely should also be made of the fact that Harry, for all his problems with Ben, never resorts to racist language or attitudes. He might be a perpetually angry man but he is not an ignorant one and he is not a racist.
So what do we make of Harry Cooper now? It would be too easy simply to reverse things and present Harry as the real hero as opposed to Ben. Night of the Living Dead is much too crafty and provocative to permit such neat readings of it. But looking at Harry in a more open-minded way can help us to see more clearly the broader ambiguities within Romero’s film and to appreciate the extent to which it sets out to undermine all our certainties and assumptions.
Of course, a character in a film is only credible inasmuch as he is brought to life in performance. The performer in this case was Karl Hardman, who also worked on the film’s sound and make-up design and by all accounts was a warm, genial man quite unlike Harry (and, incidentally, the little girl playing his daughter was his daughter in real life). He did not do much acting but his performance as Harry is energetic, nuanced and utterly convincing, and it remains one of the most memorable things about this memorable film. Sadly he died in September 2007. This article is as much a tribute to him as it is to Harry Cooper.
Wherever you are, Harry, consider yourself vindicated.
Peter Hutchings is Professor of Film Studies at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom. His most recent books are The Horror Film (Pearson) and The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema (Scarecrow Press).