‘Night of the Living Dead’: Re-evaluating the Undead Classic

Stephen Harper

Stephen Harper

There has been a veritable outbreak of zombie films in the last few years, from Hollywood blockbusters ‘Resident Evil’ (Anderson, 2002) and ‘Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse’ (Witt, 2004), to British films such as ‘28 Days Later’ (Boyle, 2002) and the zombie spoof ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (Wright, 2004).

The release in 2004 of Zack Snyder’s remake of George A. Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1978) attests to the continuing influence and appeal of classic “zombie cinema.”

While the cinematic concern with the undead predates Romero’s films, all of the recent films mentioned above have some connection to Romero (Romero was originally scheduled to write the screenplay for ‘Resident Evil’, for example, while the recent British films allude frequently to Romero’s work). The following article is an attempt to account for the continuing attraction of Romero’s first zombie film, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968), nearly forty years after its release.

Shot in black-and-white over seven months on a shoestring budget, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ defined the modern horror movie and influenced a number of international horror directors, especially those working within the horror genre.

The film’s plot of is simple: Barbra and her brother Johnny are attacked when visiting a graveyard to honour the grave of their father. Johnny is attacked and killed by a zombie. Fleeing her attacker, Barbra meets Ben, who is also on the run from the recently reawakened dead. They begin to set up a nearby farmhouse as a fortress and soon discover they are not alone in the house. Two couples have been hiding out in the basement of the house: a young couple, Tom and Judy, and Harry and Helen Cooper, an older married couple with a young daughter who has already been bitten by one of the zombies. When Ben and Harry start arguing over where the safest place in the house is, tensions are created that lead to the downfall of the group. The film ends when Ben is shot by marshals who apparently mistake him for a zombie.

‘Night of the Living Dead’ was George Romero’s first feature film, and its title has become almost inseparable from its director’s name. This in itself is problematic in that it allows the film’s author to overshadow and even determine the film’s interpretation.

‘Night of the Living Dead’ certainly encourages auteurist interpretation: Romero both wrote and directed the film and is, therefore, like the cinema “greats” Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, or John Ford, an auteur par excellence. However, since the film so clearly and insistently engages with its contemporary social and political milieu, we must also try to understand it in its historical context.

First of all, the disturbing power of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ has deep historical and cultural roots that can be uncovered through comparisons with much earlier, European texts.

Like Franz Kafka’s (1992) classic story of 1914, ‘Metamorphosis’ (which concerns a travelling salesman who is mysteriously transformed into a gigantic insect), ‘Night of the Living Dead’ dramatises the bewildering and uncanny transformation of human beings into non-human forms. Indeed, like all metamorphosis narratives, the film carries uncomfortable messages about identity — about what it means to be a human being and about the terror of alienation.

The film’s power to unsettle its audience also derives from its focus on the taboo subject of cannibalism (which it depicts far more graphically than previous zombie films). In the eighteenth-century, the English ironist Jonathan Swift (1996) wrote ‘A Modest Proposal’, a darkly satirical attack on the privations suffered by the Irish people at the hands of the English in which the author ironically proposed that infants be killed and eaten in order to solve the problem of poverty in Ireland.

‘Night of the Living Dead’ also uses cannibalism as a metaphor for exploitative power relations. Thus, while it deals with a quite different set of social problems, Romero’s film can also be seen a sinister satire that exploits an outrageous premise in the interests of social and political critique. My specific concern here, however, is with how the film reflects and negotiates the political and social anxieties of the late 1960s.

I shall discuss ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in relation to the formal categories of genre, structure, and theme, with particular reference to the film’s engagement with the politics of race, gender, and violence. While these time-honoured categories are hardly exhaustive of the film’s meaning, I hope that exploring them will take us some way towards understanding the film’s central concerns and its wider cinematic importance and influence.

Some of my wider claims about Romero’s ideological vision are unoriginal — the exposition of Romero as a social critic, for example, has been magnificently achieved by Robin Wood (2003), amongst others. Moreover, close readings of the film already exist, most notably the analysis of the film’s “textual and structural” aspects first published in the early 1970s by R. H. W. Dillard (1987) Nonetheless, my discussion (I might almost say disinterment and dissection) of the film offers some original contributions to the film’s generic, stylistic, and structural analysis and explores some of the reasons for its continuing popularity at a time of renewed cultural and cinematic fascination with zombies.

Genre, of course, often determines how a text is received by its audience. Given its titular identification as a horror film, we know from the start that ‘Night of the Living Dead’ will present a world in chaos; there is no sense in which the zombie plague is anything other than a catastrophe. In other ways, however, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ complicates many taken-for-granted critical assumptions about the genre.

Wells (2001: 7-8) suggests that while science fiction primarily concerns the external, and “macrocosmic,” horror concerns the internal and the “microcosmic.” In other words, the horror genre is concerned with fundamental fears: the primal fear of the unknown and of that which may end life at any moment. Certainly, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ is most immediately concerned with such “inner” fears. Yet the film is also, as we shall see later, replete with references to its contemporary social milieu, severely problematizing the rigid distinction between science fiction and horror suggested above.

The “realism” of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ seems to confound other critical distinctions. In his famous book ‘The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Concept’ (1975), Tzvetan Todorov distinguished between two types of verisimilitude: cultural verisimilitude and generic verisimilitude.

The first type refers to texts that aim to be “true to life,” like police drama; the second refers to texts in which the narrative details are true to the conventions of the genre. Horror texts tend, of course, to fall into the latter category.

‘Night of the Living Dead’ obviously has a generic verisimilitude — while it observes the conventions of the horror genre, it does not, in a literal sense, correspond to any known reality. Yet the film calls into question Todorov’s distinction since it seems entirely feasible that a world in which zombies did exist would be like the one presented, giving the film — fantastic as it is — a sense of being “true to life.”

The plausibility of the zombie outbreak is reinforced by several textual qualities. For example, television news in 1968 appeared in black and white, which would have given ‘Night of the Living Dead’ a documentary-like feel to the film’s original audiences, at least.

This sense of verité is also emphasised in the series of gory still photographs that accompany the film’s closing credits and which recall the photojournalism of the Vietnam war. In other words, the film’s gritty, “realistic” mode of address confers upon the film a “cultural verisimilitude”: the audience is asked to believe that the horrific events depicted could be happening now.

This point can be further illustrated with reference to another of Todorov’s ideas about genre. Todorov distinguished between three modes of horror: the “uncanny,” the “marvellous” and the “fantastic.” In the uncanny text, the apparently supernatural is finally explained rationally.

In the fantastic text, we hesitate between natural and supernatural explanations of events (as in Henry James famous story ‘The Turn of the Screw’). In the marvellous text, the bizarre events of the story can only be explained by reference to another level of reality. From the first appearance of a zombie in the opening graveyard scene, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ seems to conform to the “marvellous” category. Nonetheless, it is worth emphasising that Romero makes us believe that this is happening now — so the film cannot be seen simply as a “marvellous” text like ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

On the contrary, it asks us to believe that there are rational explanations for the zombie’s existence: we are told, however implausibly, that the zombie phenomenon has been caused by radiation from outer space. Insofar as the film posits a rational explanation for the zombie menace, the film is “uncanny.” Thus, rather than presenting a fantastical “alternative” reality, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ insists on the shocking immediacy of this one.

The film’s sense of urgency and immediacy is also a function of its narrative structure. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ can be seen to be complexly structured around a number of classic horror film binary oppositions (such as nature and culture, urban and rural).

The essential plot of the film, however, is very simple. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ has a beginning (the graveyard scene), a middle (the defence of the farmhouse) and an end (the tragic shooting of Ben). In this sense, the film — like many Hollywood films — broadly follows a classical Aristotelian three-act structure.

One of the most striking aspects of the film’s structure, however, is its conformity to a central concern of much Renaissance tragedy: namely, that drama should observe the three “unities” of time, place and action. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ takes place in real time (there are no forward jumps or flashbacks), bringing us an hour and a half of a group of people defending themselves from murderous zombies.

This temporal continuity is quite unusual in contemporary film. Most narrative films contain cuts and take place over a few days in various locations. ‘Night of the Living Dead’, however, adheres to all three of the so-called “unities” of classical theatre, which are based (very) loosely on Aristotle’s Poetics: the unities of time, place and action.

According to the rather rigid structures of seventeenth-century dramatists like Corneille, tragic drama should not exceed 24 hours, it should not contain multiple plots, and it should be set in only one location. According to this model, therefore, drama should be confined to a single action occurring in a single place and unfolding over no longer than a single day.

It seems improbable that Romero was consciously trying to follow this formula himself (and undoubtedly, Romero’s decision to delimit his narrative in this way was partly determined by his limited budget). Yet Romero’s adherence to these unities is fortuitous, ensuring that its pace does not slacken (indeed, “unrelenting” is a word often employed by the film’s critics). In short, the film’s uncomplicated narrative structure produces a concentrated, taut drama, uncompromised by digressions or subplots. Like other films that observe (or nearly observe) the unities — Joel Schumacher’s ‘Phone Booth’ (2002) is a case in point — the pace is unflagging and the atmosphere intense.

It is also instructive to consider the structure of the film in relation to the conventions of classic Hollywood narratives. As Todorov implies, narratives tend to begin with a state of equilibrium that is disrupted, and then return to a state of “equilibrium” at the end.

In many 1980s horror films, for instance, the initially harmonious family unit is disrupted and eventually reunited at the end of the film. As the case of 1980s horror cinema suggests, this simple narrative structure has often been used to reinforce conservative ideologies by transforming disharmony into order (for a basic introduction to some of the issues involved here, see Strinati, 2000: 34-39). However, this narrative structure does not necessarily lead to ideological conservatism; as Robin Wood points out, classical narrative moves towards the restoration of an order, but that nature of this order is open to question and revision: “If classical narrative moves toward the restoration of an order, must this be the patriarchal status quo? Is this tendency not due to the constraints imposed by our culture rather than to constraints inherent within the narrative itself? Does the possibility not exist of narrative moving toward the establishment of a different order, or, quite simply, toward irreparable and irreversible breakdown (which would leave the reader/viewer the options of despair or the task of imagining alternatives)?” (Wood, 2003: 220)

Wood’s comments are highly relevant to the conclusion of ‘Night of the Living Dead’. On a purely formal level, the “equilibrium” model describes the structure of the film; Romero, however, gives this narrative structure a twist, undermining the apparent “return to order” at the end of the film.

On a superficial level, narrative equilibrium is restored in the final scene by the state troopers who, in keeping with their usual diegetic function in thriller and horror film, reinstate order and authority. Yet the audience knows that this apparent “order” has been achieved at the cost of Ben’s life and has involved a heinous violation of social justice. In this sense, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ anticipates the pessimistic horror cinema of the 1970s, in which legitimate authority is seen to be impotent in the face of evil (Crane, 2002: 169). Yet, while despair is one possible response to such endings, the shocking bathos of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ challenges the audience to imagine more positive alternative endings.

‘Night of the Living Dead’ is a film about the apocalypse. American films are very often apocalypse or disaster movies, and there are many theories about why this is so. The cultural critic Slavoj Zizek (2002a) points out that Americans have a deep psychological attachment to images of catastrophe.

This constant anxiety about catastrophe shows just how concerned America is about radical social change and indicates, he argues, just how concerned America is to preserve the status quo. While many mainstream American films concern some kind of catastrophe, however, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ does not offer the happy narrative closure expected of the Hollywood disaster movie. Instead, Romero’s presents a tragedy in which the hero dies, rather than saves the world.

Romero’s tragic vision is quite unusual in an American culture which, according to the critic Terry Eagleton (2003), has been rendered “anti-tragic” by the forces of relativism and voluntarism. This tragic vision has a political colouring in ‘Night of the Living Dead’.

Indeed, Romero’s film can be seen as the artistic counterpart of Raymond Williams’ argument, in his ‘Modern Tragedy’ (1966), that tragedy consists not simply in the deaths of great leaders, but in the heroic and pointless destruction of “ordinary” people in their struggles for democracy.

Whereas Slavoj Zizek’s theories about catastrophe grow out of his analysis of American responses to the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001, ‘Night of the Living Dead’ must be understood in relation to the impact of Vietnam on American consciousness in the 1960s.

Experiences of Vietnam constitute a common subtext of American cinema from the 1960s onwards. Near the beginning of ‘Night of the Living Dead’, in a shot of Johnny and Barbra’s car entering the graveyard, we see a fluttering American flag in the foreground. The symbolism of the flag becomes clear as the film progresses: America is a dying country as a result of the zombie menace, and the flag represents the meaninglessness and deadliness of patriotism.

In the post-war period, Leftist critics often pointed out the almost religious hold of patriotism in the Western world and the dangerous fervour with which patriotic ideology was upheld. Writing in the 1950s, the psychoanalyst and humanist cultural critic Erich Fromm, for example, pointed out that attacking the flag of one’s country would be an unspeakable act of sacrilege; even extreme racist and militarist views, he continued, would not be regarded with such great hostility as anti-patriotic ones (Fromm, 1963: 59).

The savagery of the anti-Communist McCarthy hearings of the mid-1950s certainly vindicated Fromm’s observation. However, by the late 1960s, such patriotic hegemony had been significantly contested and undermined. Romero’s film emerged at a time of strong public disapproval of the American military involvement in Vietnam, during which criticisms of patriotism — while deeply offensive to the American establishment — were becoming commonplace.

Closely related to concerns about the consequences of militarism (and about Vietnam in particular) are fears about the potential for Western society to be devastated by nuclear holocaust. The wretched condition of Romero’s zombies resounds with popular fantasies about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on America — a widespread anxiety underpinning American post-war cinema (other films attesting to this fear include Franklin J. Schaffner’s ‘Planet of the Apes’, which was also released in 1968).

The film may also represent another type of apocalypse: that of religious doomsday. Many fundamentalist Christians in America and elsewhere believe that the dead shall be raised to life on “the last day’: “Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable […]” (King James Version, 1 Corinthians 15:51-52)

Romero’s zombies, according to this interpretation, might be seen as the resurrected on Judgement Day: indeed, like their biblical counterparts, they are mute.

Clearly, it is possible to read many versions of apocalypse into the film. Perhaps the zombies represent, in Freudian terms, the “return of the repressed” — those sublimated aspects of ourselves that we hide from public view. Perhaps they are to be equated with the Russians — often conceived by Americans at the time as a barbaric throng, intent on destroying (devouring) the American way of life.

Perhaps the zombies represent the younger generation of Americans which, as it seemed to many in the late 1960s, wanted to overthrow traditions and replace them with a new social order. Or perhaps, from a more recent perspective, the zombies could be seen to represent the homeless, AIDS sufferers, drug users, or any other marginalised group (Tom Savini’s 1990 remake of the film makes the drug-user metaphor explicit).

Clearly, some of these interpretations may have been intended by Romero, while others were not: but all of them are valid. It is true that the film does offer a kind of B-movie scientific explanation of what is happening: radiation from outer space. However, Romero does not posit this “explanation” as the only correct interpretation of the apocalypse; instead, he prefers to let the audience determine the meaning of his metaphor.

Horror films are, to borrow a term from the Italian theorist Umberto Eco, “open works,” texts that allow a high degree of interpretative ambiguity. Eco argues that such texts are the most appropriate type of text in our own time, because they reflect the sense of disorder and discontinuity that are such marked features of the modern world (Eco, 1989). In every era, the ‘Night of the Living Dead’ audience will attach its own meanings to the zombies. Romero is more interested in allowing his metaphor to work subtly yet powerfully at the heart of his film. Romero’s primary interest is not in providing a detailed explanation of the disaster that has befallen America, so much as in analysing the human response to it.

‘Night of the Living Dead’ constitutes a dramatic appeal for communication and cooperation in the face of paranoia and violence. Romero’s interest in communication resembles that of the British dramatist Harold Pinter. Like Pinter, Romero explores interpersonal communication through dialogue, focusing on the ways in which our preconceptions of others make us suspicious and even hostile towards them, and the lies we tell to ourselves and to others.

As with Pinter, the dialogue demands scrupulous attention. Careful listeners will have noticed that when Barbra first speaks to Ben, she is not entirely honest about her relationship with Johnny: she tells him that she was “with Johnny,” implying that Johnny is her partner. This suggests Barbra’s uncertainty regarding the intentions of her interlocutor, perhaps because he is a man, perhaps because he is black?

Barbra also misleadingly talks about her brother is if he were still alive, even though the audience knows that he is dead. Barbra’s denial of her brother’s death can be understood as an unconscious psychological survival strategy.

The character of Harry Cooper, however, tells lies deliberately in order to cover his cowardice. Early in the film he tells Barbra and Ben that when he was in the basement, he had not heard the others enter the house; later, however, he lets slip that he had, in fact, heard the commotion above.

The film also raises questions about the role of the media and the role of mass communication. The media is omnipresent. Early in the film, there is a lengthy scene in which Ben and Barbra do not speak, but listen to the radio — a fairly fruitless activity adumbrating Romero’s concern in his later films with the banality of media culture (Blake, 2002: 157-61).

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