Victim or Vigilante? The Case of the Two Barbras

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.

Isabel Cristina Pinedo in an article entitled “Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film” places Night of the Living Dead in the category of what she calls the postmodern horror film. (See The Horror Film, ed. Stephen Prince [New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2004], pp. 85-117). This is a nihilistic genre which repudiates narrative closure, questions the validity of rationality, and raises doubts about causal linkages.

I would differ with Pinedo’s diagnosis in application to either of the Night of the Living Dead films. The original is a straightforward tragedy with a hero who experiences a downfall, fitting the Aristotelian criteria to a “T.” The film employs a narrative structure of reversal of fortune from happiness to unhappiness, where the good person suffers and ultimately dies through no fault of his own, evoking pity and fear from the audience. Pinedo must strain to claim that original film fails to restore order (as she puts it, “chaos reigns in a more familiar form” at the end).

Clearly the film depicts the order as being brought back, since the zombies are eliminated and the sheriff and his authority figures have taken control. The film also provides a distinct causal account of what has created the ghouls (radiation from a Venus probe) as well as of what will kill them (shots to the head and burning). Pinedo and others seem to miss some of the film’s critical irony, since the fact that this causal explanation is meant seriously is actually highlighted by the scenes set in Washington in which mysterious bureaucrats attempt to hush up the scientists’ explanations while hustling them away in limousines. The point should not be ignored because presumably Romero was voicing a critique of the suspect role of science in Vietnam as in previous wars.

Nor would I count the remake of 1990 as an example of postmodern horror, because it too provides clear narrative closure and logical causal sequences. The lead character, Barbra, not only survives but functions as a vigilante heroine who triumphs in the end by disposing of the villainous Harry. This film would better be described as cynical rather than nihilistic.

Yes, it bears the unpleasant message that the patriarchal order is collapsing. But this message on its own is not enough to make for a lack of narrative closure, given that an evidently moral heroine survives and offers the audience a perspective on the situation. Barbra wryly observes both the men in the house who cannot figure out how to survive the threat of the zombies and the men who represent forces of law and order but are just ugly rednecks who delight in torturing the ghouls. This young woman, the lone sympathetic figure in the household, is also the only rational one in the whole movie.

The film clearly expects the audience to share her viewpoint. She chides the men after Ben gets angry with her at one point and tells her, “You’re losing it, girl.” She replies, “Whatever I lost, I lost a long time ago. You can talk to me about losing it when you stop screaming at each other like a bunch of two-year-olds.” Similarly, she grimaces in disgust when the rednecks find her in the woods and ask, “What in the name of Jupiter’s balls are you doin’ out here alone, little lady?”

True, Ben is again sympathetic and Harry despicable, but the 1990 Night of the Living Dead endorses the viewpoint of Barbra that their testosterone-laden bickering for power is what will doom the group. Since they both shoot each other, they both deserve to die. Significantly, when Barbra shoots Harry at the end, she acts as a sort of just executor and does not relish killing him for the sport of it.

When Ben emerges from the basement as a zombie, he still seems sympathetic and even appears to cast a pleading look toward Barbra before being shot by the sheriff’s men. (This scene recalls the anguished look the Fly monster gives Geena Davis when mutely asking her to shoot him at the end of Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly.)

The overlay of grainy images of still photos at the end of the 1990 Night of the Living Dead, focusing in on the face of a young black boy in the pile of corpses, strikes a rather cheap note in copying the closing sequence of the original. Here it is discordant with the rest of the film, since the remake has not carried any particular theme of racial politics. By comparison, the images at the end of the first film would clearly have resonated with the news coverage of racial conflicts of the time.

Someone seeing this film in the ’60s would sense the threat to Ben looming when the sheriff’s men approach the house the next morning with their police dogs, since German Shepherds were prominently featured in the news photos showing police brutality against civil rights protesters in the South during the ’60s civil rights struggle. Similarly, Ben’s horror when he tells Barbra the story of the gas station attack—“I realized that I was alone with 50 or 60 of those things standing there staring at me”—also echoes the fears of black men facing lynch mobs.

In the second film there are, to be sure, some hints of cosmic nihilism. But again, I would not endorse Pinedo’s claim that this is a postmodern horror films that blurs boundaries between good and evil. In the original, Ben is a good guy. He evokes audience sympathy especially as the lone survivor trapped in the basement. In the remake, Ben’s despair seems deeper, so much so that it may indeed seem he doubts whether there is any justice in the universe. After he comes into the farmhouse he shrieks to heaven, “God damn you! God damn all of you!”

His description of scenes of carnival-like chaos offers a preview of just what Barbra (and we) will observe at the end of the film—people are out for fun with guns and six-packs, rounding up zombies in their pickup trucks. Ben says, “This is hell on earth. Something nobody’s ever seen before. Doesn’t take long for the world to fall apart, does it?” In the remake there is also no clear causal explanation of the source of the contamination. The TV commentators speculate that the cause is chemical warfare, voodoo, mysticism, or some sort of organisms, but no one source of the “plague” is ever identified. This implies that the threat Ben faces is not from the KKK or a lynch mob, it is simply the threat of an evil and uncertain universe.

However, the remake of Night of the Living Dead movie does not consistently propose this nihilistic message (perhaps reflecting a divergence among authors or between screenwriters and director). Barbra’s heroism works against Ben’s tendency toward cosmic despair. Her final comment while watching the rednecks, “They’re us and we’re them”, suggests that humankind is a disgusting spectacle. Perhaps it is true that we all mindlessly pursue selfish desires, no better morally than the ghouls.

However, the crucial fact remains that Barbra herself is able to deliver the comment while standing apart from this horror, over and above it. She is separated from the villainous run of humankind by her gender—there are no women rednecks. Thus Barbra provides the audience with a sane and moral point of identification. That this “moral” individual who is the heroine is someone who also feels it permissible to murder a man in cold blood is something the movie manages to gloss over because of the utterly unsympathetic nature of Harry, the man she kills. And, in her defense, at least we can say that she dispatches him with only the smallest bit of moral satisfaction, not with the out-and-out glee of the men in the posses. If anything, their redneck behavior might evoke painful echoes of the delight shown by certain generals reporting on the success of US airstrikes against the Iraqis in the first Gulf War.

Which Barbra do I prefer? It has been argued that feminists cannot embrace the first film because of all the female characters’ passivity and stereotyped deference to the men. And gun-toting Ripley has become something of a feminist icon, so why not embrace Tallman’s red-haired spunky version? Still, I cannot bring myself to applaud the hypocritical Barbra of the remake who vaunts her own moral superiority as vigilante over that of the run-of-the-mill rednecks she stands apart from.

The traumatized, paralyzed, victimized Barbra of the first film makes for some pretty effect cinematic moments, and the great tragedy that befalls the marvelous Ben at the conclusion of the original can hardly be compared to the more superficial social satire offered by the remake. This is not to say that the earlier film’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 (such as the innovative gore of the original film) have been superseded. On examination, the remake proves derivative not only upon its great predecessor but upon too many other films of its era, following out too many familiar “Final Girl” tropes. This is a case where the original really was original, and the original’s catatonic Barbra simply makes for more memorable cinema than the action movie version.

Cynthia Freeland is a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. She has published on topics in philosophy of art and film, feminism, and ancient Greek philosophy. Her books include The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (Westview, 1999) and But Is It Art? (Oxford, 2001). The artist Christian Jankowski had a full cast made of Freeland’s head for his installation entitled “The Violence of Theory” and displayed it with other body parts allegedly mangled by vampires. Freeland first saw Night of the Living Dead in revival in the mid-’70s when she was in graduate school in Pittsburgh.