Posted on March 28, 2016

The Birds and Night of the Living Dead

Dawn Keetley

Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful film, The Birds, was released on March 28, 1963—fifty-three years ago today.

Among the many ways in which The Birds broke new ground, helping to shape the modern horror film, is in its profound influence on George A. Romero’s inaugural zombie film, Night of the Living Dead (1968).

Numerous critics have pointed out the similarities of the two films, and the ways in which The Birds created the narrative formula that would be emulated by so many zombie films. [i] The birds, like zombies, are dangerous en masse, as they flock and herd—and birds and zombies are also largely silent. Both The Birds and Night of the Living Dead, moreover, involve humans trying to board themselves up in structures that inevitably prove vulnerable: grasping dead hands and beaks always manage to penetrate their walls.

Both films also left in obscurity the origins of the mysterious attacks by the birds and the returned dead, each of which represented a grotesque overturning of natural law. As The Birds’ ornithologist, Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies) proclaims, birds are “peaceful” and different species of birds would “never” flock together. Her definitive pronouncements (like those that insist the dead are dead) prove, of course, spectacularly wrong.

I’d like to point out one significant similarity between the two films that I haven’t seen noted anywhere else: in each film, the “monsters” (the birds and the ghouls) have the effect of rendering their heroines deafeningly silent.

The Birds features three strong-willed women who are not in the least afraid to speak their mind, and yet all three of them are reduced to a blank wordlessness.

Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), goes to visit a neighbor, in one of the best-known scenes of the film: the sight of the neighbor’s corpse, eyes pecked out by the birds, causes her to flee in a shock that is more palpable, more visceral, in its wordlessness than it would have been in horrified screams. Here’s the scene:

After the birds attack the diner, the ornithologist who had earlier been declaiming at length and with authority is also rendered speechless. She ends up silently consenting to the utterly irrational claim of another woman that Melanie herself (Tippi Hedren) is responsible for the violent disruption in the natural world. You can see below how Mrs. Bundy shifts from being at the center of the frame, confidently imparting her knowledge of birds, to crouching in the background, only her back visible. She has been utterly subdued.

Mrs. Bundy takes center stage, discoursing of birds

Mrs. Bundy takes center stage, discoursing of birds

Mrs. Bundy at the center but buried, cowed, among the silently staring women

Mrs. Bundy at the center but buried, cowed, among the silently staring women

And then, of course, there’s Melanie herself, whose voice and desire drive the first half of the film as she willfully pursues Mitch (Rod Taylor). Melanie is subject to the most vicious attack of all by the birds, after she ventures upstairs into Mitch’s younger sister’s bedroom (a sign of how she is reduced to a childlike state). After the attack, Melanie doesn’t speak again—reduced to silence and gestures, to a virtual catatonia. She has to be laid on the couch and helped to the car—all thought and agency seemingly gone.

Melanie, at the end

It is this last attack, on the film’s most powerful woman, which gets repeated in Night of the Living Dead. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) flees the ghouls that kill her brother in the cemetery and makes it to the farmhouse just before Ben (Duane Jones) arrives. She slowly descends from hysteria into a speechless catatonic state, notably after she looks upstairs and sees the bloodied body of a woman—perhaps a covert reference to Melanie?

Like Melanie, Barbra ends up on the couch, incapable of helping herself and, while Ben furiously boards up the house, she stares mesmerized at a music box and, later, is seen studiously poring over a doily on the arm of the couch.

Barbra and the doily

Near the end of the film, Barbra briefly comes to some kind of consciousness, helping to shore up the house against the marauding ghouls. After only a few minutes, though, she goes willingly into the arms of her dead brother—a moment evocative of Melanie’s curiously purposeful entry into the room where she knows the birds are, her foot almost intentionally shutting the door, trapping herself inside. Both women share not only voicelessness, then, but a seeming drive to punish themselves for whatever voice and agency they may once have shown.

The silence of these heroines of The Birds and Night of the Living Dead supports an argument that many critics have made about how the women of horror share an uncanny affiliation with the monster. Women look at the monster, the argument goes, and experience a moment of recognition: in their fundamental difference from the (male) hero, both monster and woman are threatening.[ii]

Tellingly, the monsters of The Birds and Night of the Living Dead in particular are silent (Ben Hervey calls them “silent attackers”). In their silence, then, the women of these two films end up mirroring the monsters in another way than through their mutual look of recognition. Perhaps this bond—between birds, ghouls, and women—provides a way of thinking about the silence of women differently, not only as a marker of utter powerlessness but perhaps also of their threat.

[i] See, for instance, Carter Soles, “‘And No Birds Sing’: Discourses of Environmental Apocalypse in The Birds and Night of the Living Dead,” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 21.3 (Summer 2014), pp. 526-37, Craig Fischer, “Meaninglessness: Cause and Desire in The Birds, Shaun of the Dead, and The Walking Dead,” in Triumph of The Walking Dead, ed. James Lowder (Benbella Books, 2011), pp. 67-80, Ben Hervey, Night of the Living Dead (BFI, 2008), p. 49, and William Paul, Laughing, Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 260.

[ii] See Linda Williams, “When the Woman Looks,” in The Dread of Difference, ed. Barry Keith Grant (University of Texas Press, 1996), pp. 15-34, and Rhona J. Berenstein, Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender, Sexuality, and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema (Columbia University Press, 1996).

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