Victim or Vigilante? The Case of the Two Barbras

Cynthia Freeland
The new Barbra may be stronger, but the zombies are as ugly as ever. Scene from the remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990)

We cannot say that the original Night of the Living Dead’s racial politics trump the gender politics of the remake, but rather, that the great power of tragedy can still grip us long after a movie’s more superficial aspects have been superseded.

Apart from the difference made by the transition from black-and-white to color, surely the other most obvious difference between the original and the remake of Night of the Living Dead (1968, 1990) is their respective treatments of the main female character, Barbra. (She is named “Barbra” in the first film, but I will use the more conventional spelling for both.) Despite the fact that in other respects their plots and central characters are very similar, the two films’ versions of Barbra could not be more distinct.

In the first film, Barbra is so traumatized that she becomes nearly catatonic; she can only perform minor tasks and talk in a regressed, childlike fashion. But in the remake she is tough, resourceful, sardonic, and a central participant in the action of resisting the ghouls. This difference can also be gleaned from the shift in visual depictions of the actresses portraying the two Barbras.

In the 1968 film, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) wears a trench coat over a skirt and blouse. Her stiffly coiffed long blond hair is held back by a prim headband. In the remake, Barbra (Patricia Tallman) has short bright red hair, already hinting at a more tomboy-like nature. Though she begins the film looking dowdy in a skirt, stockings, pink cardigan sweater, and glasses, by mid-film she has been transformed into a “GI Jane” warrior woman clad in dungarees and combat boots, toting a rifle with a bandolier slung over her shoulders. (I refer of course here to the 1997 film starring Demi Moore.)

This second Barbra loses her sweater, glasses, and shoes fighting the first ghoul in the cemetery, and then subsequently doffs her skirt in favor of boots and jeans (conveniently finding ones in her size at the farmhouse). But of course to remind the viewers of her femininity, she runs around wearing only a lacy camisole, despite the fact that it is so cold outside you can see her breath.

The focus in the first film is on the conflict between the two male authority figures of the stranded household group: the black man Ben who is “boss above” and the white man Harry Cooper, “boss below”, who presides in the cellar. They quarrel over which domain of the house is safest and who gets to carry the gun. The women express concern for one another, but do not offer strong opinions about how best to defend the house. Helen Cooper snipes at her husband and clearly despises him, but makes no contributions to planning an escape.

Instead, she longs for rescue by authorities. All of the women in the original film die for their loved ones: Helen killed by her daughter-turned-zombie Karen, Judy who runs impulsively after Tom to the gas pump where they get blown up, and Barbra whose brother Johnny seizes her and carries her off from the window.

In the remake, the Ben/Harry conflicts are depicted as bits of patriarchal absurdity and the focus of empathy shifts from the heroic Ben to Barbra. Again she is mostly silent, but this time from grim determination, not hysteria. Occasionally she offers opinions about what should be done, remarking for instance on obvious points such as that the ghouls are so slow one could escape just by walking past them. She argues that it would be best just to get out of the house, and indeed this is how she survives.

In the remake, after Ben and Harry shoot one another, Ben dies, inevitably turning into a zombie himself. Harry manages to survive his wound and the ghoul attack by hiding in the attic. But in contrast to the first film, where the sheriff and his men shoot Ben at the conclusion, now it is Barbra who deliberately shoots Harry, laconically making the comment uttered about Ben from the first film, “There’s another one for the fire.”

What has changed during the time period from 1968 to 1990? Obviously, both racial and gender politics underwent tremendous shifts in these decades. In the late '60s race riots and the Vietnam War were major political issues receiving extensive media coverage. Everyone had seen the potent images of Watts and Detroit going up in flames, along with the similar ones of Buddhist monks and nuns immolating themselves in Vietnam. The early scenes between Ben and Barbra play upon elements of racial threat, as when he first comes in and scares her, or when he lays her prone body onto the sofa and unbuttons her coat.

The top television shows of the '60s had no black actors, featuring instead very traditional white male authority figures in westerns like Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Romero’s selection of a black man as his hero—indeed, a well-spoken, white-collar black man at that, was striking and unusual. (But perhaps not as unusual as some people make it out to be: this was just a year after Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner put to test the liberal pretenses of the older white couple played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn when their daughter brought home the handsome black doctor Sidney Poitier as her intended.) Ben’s superior class status is underlined when Tom explains to Judy that he must go outside because he knows about things like trucks and gas pumps, whereas “Ben doesn’t know about these things.”

By 1990, in contrast, The Cosby Show was the #2 program in the country and other top 15 shows like In the Heat of the Night also featured strong black characters. At the time of the October 1990 release of the remake, the public would have had different political issues in mind, most especially the First Gulf War (Desert Shield/Desert Storm).

This so-called “Television Gulf War” stretched from August 1990 to February 1991. The country had by now swung from the liberal period of Civil Rights, the Great Society, and Vietnam protests to the conservatism of Dirty Harry (in five films from 1971 to 1988) and Ronald Reagan (re-elected President in 1984, followed by the senior George Bush in 1988.) Feminism, which was barely on the horizon in 1968, was old news by 1990, with Roseanne, Golden Girls and Murder She Wrote among the most popular TV programs. The country was but one year away from significant developments promoting greater awareness of sex discrimination, such as the Anita Hill sexual harassment testimony at Senate hearings over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and publication of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth.

Furthermore, the horror genre itself had changed a great deal in the '70s and '80s. The great horror films of these decades, including Halloween (1978) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) launched the sub-genre that Carol Clover has so aptly described as that of the “Final Girl” in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws (Princeton, 1993). In these films the killer or monster picks off female victims until he is defeated or at least resisted by the “Final Girl”: the one young woman who remains virginal and tomboyish. She manages to be resourceful enough to outwit the monster and survive.

We see similar shifts in the character of Ripley in the Alien series, from the initial movie Alien (1979) to Aliens (1986). The sequel in which Sigourney Weaver is a very tough heroine toting a huge grenade launcher could well have provided the blueprint for the changing depiction of Barbra in the remake of Night of the Living Dead.

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