His name virtually synonymous with the cinematic zombie, George A. Romero’s Dead series rewrote the rules of the undead monster. In the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero’s core group of survivors battle each other as well as the zombies in a film which very much reflects the time in which it was made. As one of the group fighting for survival, Barbra is the epitome of the defenseless female. She spends the majority of the film either panicking to the detriment of those around her or catatonic. Her death, via consumption by her zombified brother, is almost a welcome reprieve from her complete ineffectualness.
Romero, recognizing this flaw, used his 1990 screenplay for the film’s remake to undo the previous film’s stereotypical gender depictions. The Barbra in the 1990 remake is competent, unapologetic and, most importantly, the voice of reason. She is also, at conclusion’s end, a monster.
Kevin J. Wetmore[i] offers a wonderfully detailed analysis of the updated Barbra and her evolution from an almost comatose victim to an assertive heroine. He is quite correct that Barbra undergoes a significant transformation throughout the course of the film. Yet, I disagree with his portrayal of Barbra in the introductory scenes as “mousy” and “unassertive.” Rather, I believe that Barbra starts the film from a position of strength but without full knowledge of her capabilities due to societal conventions. This distinction is important as it allows more fully an understanding of Barbra’s evolution from victim to monster.
While Barbra 1990 is intended as Romero’s “apology to women” for Barbra 1968, it is still a film conceived of and directed from the male perspective. As such, while Barbra loses a great deal of the qualities that rendered her weak in the original film, the updated version does not completely escape gender stereotyping. When we first meet Barbra, she is the quintessential ice princess. Her costuming literally has her buttoned up to her neck which, when coupled with her long skirt, severe haircut, and eyeglasses, signals Barbra’s repressed state. And yet, she is no shrinking violet. Unlike her predecessor, this Barbra does not treat Johnny’s complaints timidly. Rather, she argues against his claims and even calls his diatribe “bullshit.”
Barbra’s willingness to fight back is evident in the graveyard scene. It is also a complete departure from the original in which Barbra did nothing but scream and look on in horrified paralysis. Although our updated heroine calls out to her brother for assistance, she does so while physically assaulting the zombie. And it isn’t Johnny who saves Barbra but she herself who thwarts her attacker by ramming a grave marker in his chest. This fight scene crystallizes our understanding of Barbra as able, which is vital in appreciating her later transformation. It is also our first glimpse at how Barbra’s metamorphosis will be visible through her appearance. After her first moment of violence in the graveyard, in which she breaks the societal edict that good girls don’t fight, she is stripped of her cardigan and her eyeglasses.
Almost from the moment she steps inside the house, Barbra’s presentation of her strength begins to alter. In a highly symbolic moment, the house seemingly baptizes her metamorphosis when blood drips from the ceiling onto Barbra’s person, staining both her face and clothes. It is a further indicator that the uptight Barbra we were initially introduced to is being replaced by a more primal version.
While she accepts a token of male paternalism in the form of Ben covering her with his jacket, Barbra ultimately shakes off this assistance so as to have the physical freedom to fend for herself. This moment of choosing her own strength instead of the strength being offered by Ben is further magnified when she sets to deal silently with the cleanup of the zombie while Ben is shown to be washing his hands and verbally brainstorming ideas. It subtly suggests to the viewer that Barbra’s tendency for action may be more useful long term than Ben’s inaction. And in one more peeling away of her old life, Barbra exchanges bare feet for a pair of socks and work boots once worn by the house’s deceased male owner.
As the house becomes boarded up, the last vestiges of Barbra’s own repressed state are kicked aside when she removes her skirt to don a pair of men’s trousers. This move away from femininity toward androgyny means that the viewer no longer has to regard her actions within the construct of the feminine.
Barbra’s physical transformation complete, she now has access to what Laura Mulvey labeled “the male gaze.”[ii] Mulvey contends that audiences automatically default to the heterosexual, male view when watching horror films. Linda Williams extends this claim by arguing that the male gaze too victimizes female characters within the text.[iii] It is her contention that if a woman in a horror film gazes upon the monster she too will become monstrous. It is a theory that finds grounding in the arc of Barbra 1990.
Unlike the other female inhabitants, Barbra does not shy away from looking at the zombies. Her first moment of unabashed looking occurs when she examines the zombie she first kills in the house before rolling him in the carpet. Just as the dead zombie is powerless, Barbra too has not accessed yet her full independence from her learned gender role. She is able to look in that instance because the monster is no longer a threat. Yet, in a telling scene occurring after she has shed her feminine appearance, Barbra stands on the porch and gazes at the zombies in concert with Ben as they debate the best plan for survival. There is no display of sexuality in this scene, indeed it is shot in close-up de-emphasizing their bodies, and it plays as a moment of exchange between equals. These moments are significant because they suggest power derived from the masculine must be present in order to see the monster.
Yet, the ability to gaze and the ability to see are quickly defined for the audience as being two different beasts. Unlike Ben who can only gaze, Barbra can also see the zombies for their reality. It is this sight that allows her to realize their vulnerability. Her argument to Ben that they could get away from the slow moving zombies is sound because she is able to negotiate past fear to assess the situation accurately. In this moment, she surpasses Ben as the hero of the film since his inability to see has undermined his power. This castration of Ben’s power is especially interesting because it is a result of the combination of both his feminine (fear) and masculine (machismo doggedness) traits.
The ultimate moment of seeing, the one that initiates Barbra’s metamorphosis into the monster, occurs when Barbra enters the camp set up by a posse of rednecks. As she walks along, the viewer catches a glimpse of a pig roast, which mirrors the zombie devouring of the burned flesh of Judy Rose and Johnny after the fire. Further down she notices the lynching of several captured zombies as well as a ring where a zombie is used as sport. The complete lack of humanity being portrayed leads Barbra to the realization that “They’re us. We’re them and they’re us.” This is a fundamental moment in Barbra’s ascension to the monster.
Williams argues that a woman’s ability to gaze connects her to the monster of the story. Between the two, there is ”recognition of their status as potent threats to a vulnerable male power.” In this case, the monster is unable to have such recognition as zombies are by their nature devoid of reasoning. Yet, Barbra’s recognition of her shared connection with the monster sets her apart from the masses who are still unable to see the link. She understands now why she is a threat and that is a realization only possible through her ability to see the monster.
In the final moments of the film, Barbra takes her knowledge that she is a monstrous and applies it in a practical sense when she kills an unarmed Harry. The act is at once personal and impersonal. The audience senses this kill is a result of her previous relationship with Harry but also that her newly discovered masculine ability to kill is but a harbinger of things to come. It is Barbra’s monstrosity staring at us unblinkingly.
[i] Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr., Back from the Dead: Remakes of the Romero Zombie Films as Markers of Their Times (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011), 47-63.
[ii] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.
[iii] Linda Williams, “When the Woman Looks,” in Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism (New York: American Film Institute Monograph Series, 1983), 15-32.