Posted on March 26, 2015

Social Commentary Via Zombie: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Elizabeth

His name virtually synonymous with the cinematic zombie, George A. Romero’s Dead series rewrote the rules of the undead monster. Prior to the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, zombies were either the result of voodoo (White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie), supernatural forces (Terror Creatures from the Grave), an indefinable plague (The Plague of Zombies) or the work on an insane human scientist (King of the Zombies). Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, is an exceptional exercise in utilizing zombies to shine a light on social ills such as racism.

The film follows a group of people who have come together in order to escape the living dead who have suddenly started to arise. They assemble in a rural farmhouse and it soon becomes clear that the real dangers faced by the group may not just be the monsters outside.

The film starts off by setting up a point of equilibrium for the audience. From the image of the American flag flying over the graveyard to the two well-dressed, white characters who first appear on the screen, Romero establishes a universe to be read by the audience as Anywhere, USA. Not only does this prevent the audience from relegating Romero’s world to that of the Other (i.e. a foreign land) but it also functions to utilize the audience’s expectations of this world, with regard to race, gender and politics, against the audience in the disruption phase. Casting the opening scene in a graveyard also signifies that a break between the present and the past is imminent. It is the break from this past that causes the disruption to have multiple levels of impact for the audience.

I think the disruption in this case is interesting for two reasons. First, it happens so quickly. There is no slow buildup in which the director attempts to build trust between the audience and the perceived main character. Rather, Romero trusts the audience to make the necessary connections without the aid of stylized devices such as voice overs (Psycho) or montages (Cat People). In a way, this altering of the expected buildup is one element of the disruption. Second, the disruption, fueled by the appearance of the zombies, allows the audiences to more readily accept the familial disruptions taking place in the house. From Ben having authority over a group of white people, especially men, to Karen’s authority over Harry and Helen inasmuch as she is the one keeping them together, traditional family dynamics are disrupted. The societal expectations of who should have power (whites over black, adults over children) are flipped on its head leaving the audience to infer this is a world gone mad.  1
The return to equilibrium, which takes place when Ben is shot, is also interesting to me because it is an equilibrium that has been brought about by the victory of the monster (the lynch mob). I think the establishment of Ben as an anti-hero is significant. Throughout the course of the film we see him use violence against women (Barbra), murder a man (Harry) and threaten to keep food from a child (Karen).  Personally, the violence against Barbra is most shocking. He not only ignores the societal edict to never hit a woman but he doesn’t just slap her in return, which could more easily be read as an appropriate response given her degree of hysteria. Instead, Ben punches Barbara hard enough to render her unconscious. And yet, he is clearly the person worth rooting for because he is the only one taking significant action throughout most of the film. When he is so casually gunned down, the viewer is left with the message that, if you are a member of the marginalized class, you may be able to defeat societal epidemics (zombies) but you will always be at the mercy of the dominant culture (lynch mob). So while social order has been achieved, justice remains elusive.

I’m also intrigued by the way television news was used in this film. Just as doctors were used in early horror films to provide an authority explanation to the audience as to what is taking place, these news anchors serve much the same purpose. Also, I couldn’t help but equate the newscasts to the coverage of Vietnam in the late 60s. The real life news blackouts of the time correlate to the moment when one government official reprimands a scientist for speaking out of turn and revealing something to the television audience the government wants kept quiet.

There is a tendency to disregard zombie films as brainless (pun alert!) fare. Instead, they are complicated treatises on social power. I can’t recommend this film enough, even to those who prefer their films sans zombies. The quality of the filmmaking coupled with its penetrating dissection of culture will intrigue even the most reluctant of horror film watchers.

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