Romero's Dead Cycle, Part One: Cannibalizing Social Values, or Night of the Living Reds?
By Desmond Reddick
22 January 2007 — 1968 was a tumultuous year in America. It was a year when students were being killed at civil rights protests, a year when American soldiers massacred dozens of Vietnamese civilians in a war that was already against the public opinion, and a year when both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. The state of the union was one of unrest to say the least. This is the culture that helped one young director change cinema on a shoestring budget. George A. Romero, having only directed short pieces for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, used guerrilla-style filmmaking techniques to redefine horror films for the modern age.
There are several schools of thought as to the actual analogy built into Night of the Living Dead. Being an English major, I'm of the camp that you can place any kind of reading on any work as long as you can find the evidence within to support it. I don't hone in on any specific "reading" of Night, be it: socialist, feminist, postcolonial, environmental or any slew of others. I take a holistic sociopolitical approach.
Of course, for the truly deprived I will synopsize:
Barbra and her brother Johnny reluctantly visit their father's grave in the Pennsylvania countryside on behalf of their mother. They have an argument after Johnny keeps trying to scare Barbra by uttering the now famous words "They're coming to get you, Barbra." Of course, a zombie (although they are only ever called "things" or "ghouls" in the film) lumbers around the graveyard and ends up assaulting Barbra. Johnny intervenes and in the ensuing fight he gets knocked out. Barbra escapes to an isolated farmhouse where she meets Ben. Ben is a no-nonsense heroic character that is now quite common in horror films, but he really set the archetype here. Barbra has a mental breakdown of sorts and is essentially catatonic for much of the movie. After boarding up the house for much of the first act, Ben discovers that there are five other people hiding out in the basement: a young couple (Tom and Judy) and an upper middle class family (Harry, Helen and daughter Karen). As tensions rise, so do tempers — and it all leads to the film's tragic ending.
While many critics look at the film as an allegory for the Vietnam War, I would argue that it is a snapshot of America during the Vietnam War. In one of the most pivotal times in American history this film perfectly allegorizes it. I'll go through the characters and what they represent in order to prove my point.
The zombies: These undead creatures can represent a variety of threats (war, Communists, etc.). I see them representing the breakdown of society. The other characters in the film represent various aspects of society, but the zombies are the threat to that — or the multiplying anarchy. Cannibalism, on behalf of the zombies, can then only be seen as America destroying itself from the inside.
Barbra: This sweet young girl is the American public in general. She did her best to tolerate her overbearing and annoying brother Johnny; however, an outbreak of violence brings her world crashing down. After being assaulted and witnessing her brother's death, Barbra is scared into a catatonic state. Her innocence is mercilessly torn away. Her state of shock runs parallel to the overall mindset of the American public, which was overwhelmed with images of American troops slaughtering Vietnamese children. Not to mention the body bags filled with young men — sons, brothers, fathers. Stories of wholesale massacre on both sides and an illegal underground drug trade by disillusioned soldiers only worsened things. The country was falling apart in Vietnam and in America.
Ben: Brilliantly portrayed by Duane Jones, he represents both the struggle for civil rights and the working class. Ben is a man of action and is wonderfully juxtaposed against both Harry Cooper and the government officials broadcast across the TV. He is already in the midst of barricading the farmhouse before he meets the other inhabitants. His clear vision and drive for respect makes him impossible to dislike. He is the icon for the civil rights movement: a black man who takes charge and keeps the white man down, literally. Watching him punch Harry Cooper and send him to the basement still drops my jaw to this day. It is this powerful iconic imagery that makes the ending all the more potent.
Tom and Judy: This young couple has little impact on the film, and many with an untrained eye would consider them throwaway fodder. However, they represent the informed youth of America. They are educated and begin to see the hypocrisy of the elite. They have come to realize that the world doesn't just revolve around them. In love 'til the bitter end, Tom and Judy are also the hope for the future: an open-minded generation wanting to do the right thing. It may look as though Ben leads them to their doom; rather they are made to see the error of their ignorance and their final act is one that is attempted heroism and for the good of mankind. They die too early to be heroes, but perhaps that is what it's supposed to mean. Students being shot by soldiers on university campuses, dying before their potential could be reached, can be paralleled with the needless death of the young in Vietnam as well.
The Coopers: Harry fills the traditional role of the patriarch, but the disdain on his wife's face echoes the women's movement and lets us know that all is not well in this family dynamic. The man doesn't always know best and Harry certainly proves that. Harry is the capitalist who's out for himself and his family whether it means death for those who share the house. Poor Helen Cooper drifts between despair over her sick daughter and admonishing the stubborn man she calls husband. Harry does come around near the end, but not so much that he becomes a hero. Instead of fleeing the house to gather gasoline, he's content to throw Molotov cocktails from an upstairs window. After, we can assume, he sees Ben returning defeated, Harry turns his back for a moment leaving Ben to bang on the front door while the flesh-hungry ghouls amble slowly towards him. It is only when he finally opens the door that the confrontation between the two happens. Before Ben sends an emasculated Harry down to the basement, we are witness to young Karen rising from the dead to stab her mother to death with a garden trowel. Harry returns to see his daughter chewing on his wife's flesh before he too is devoured. This is the final step in the uprising of the youth. While we are to view the zombies as a threat, Karen as a zombie is seen as a threat by her parents. We can see this as a prelude to the eventual end.
As the film wraps up, it becomes difficult to say for certain what I believe its meaning to be. The Tom Savini-helmed remake updated Barbra so as to conform to modern sexual equality, and told us that "we're no better than they are." The 2006 re-imagining, Night of the Living Dead 3-D, taught us all that the meaning of the film was that it should never have existed. The original is much more complex than that. Ben escapes to the basement as zombies storm the house. The police and their roving band of trigger-happy vigilantes have gotten together to try and exterminate the zombies one-by-one. They get to the farmhouse as Ben deems it safe to come upstairs again. As Ben looks out the window, the hunting party sees movement through the window and one of them shoots Ben in the head. His resiliency and strength has meant nothing. It is a bleak and hopeless view of the world. At this point it is very easy to use the racial reading of Night: regardless of his stature and the respect he demands as a hero, to the world at large he is still just a nigger. The haunting montage which follows depicts the hunting party using rancher's hay hooks to lift Ben's corpse and throw it on a bonfire. It is a final indignity done to him: his body is not even worth touching. The racial viewpoint is too blatant to overlook.
However, there is another aspect that can be argued for. Only the common man can make a difference for good in this world, but as this film tells us: it is all for naught. This is a bleak and hopeless view of reality, and I tend to float a little more towards this end of the spectrum. The ending shows that whoever comes out on top, humankind or the zombies, the world will not be in good hands.