MASTER OF THE UNDEAD – GEORGE ROMERO
When I watch any horror movie depicting zombies, I immediately think of George Romero. Even if he is nowhere near the movie. He redefined the concept of zombies in his ultra-low budget first outing Night of the Living Dead (1968). But hidden behind the blood thirsty and flesh craving automatons from the dead, is a tale of survival amongst personalities intent on continuing on with existing societal divides (be it race – gender – or class) long after the fall of civilization by the endless invasion of the undead. Romero plays with these social conventions in each of his subsequent zombie horror flicks — including a deliberate commentary on consumerism, by having a group hold up and fortify in a locked shopping mall in order to ride out the growing threat outside in “Dawn of the Dead“. He also puts capitalism under the microscope and dissects it in “Land of the Dead“.
In The Crazies (1973), Romero opts to have the hordes of murderous people from a small town be infected by a plague, rather than being recently reanimated corpses. This movie also continues Romero’s career-spanning observation on how society will cling to the broken and flawed world they already know versus adapting to new ideologies in order to survive an ongoing, and potentially global, mega-threat.
Creepshow (1982) was a rare departure from Romero’s usual zombie-fare. The movie is a book-ended anthology picture, with various themes and tones, that successfully emulates the classic horror comics of the 1950s that George Romero grew up with. He truly is a Master of the Undead.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Directed By: George A. Romero
Written By: George A. Romero and John A. Russo
Starring: Duane Jones; Judith O`Dea
Released: October 1968
“They’re coming to get you Barbara!”
It can be heavily postulated that Night of the Living Dead created and defined the modern zombie. Prior to this movie, zombies existed more on the hypnotized versus undead spectrum of horror. In films of the past, most notably the 1933 Bela Lugosi flick White Zombie, zombies were generally people who had fallen under the powerful hypnotic spell of voodoo – whereby an evil voodoo priest would then command these slaves to do his nefarious bidding. That was the cinematic definition of a zombie until Night of the Living Dead changed that perception. The dead rising from their graves with an unwavering and visceral appetite for flesh and blood was far more frightening then any dazed servant of the dark arts. When the movie was released in 1968, the American tapestry was heavily entrenched with the war on communism in Vietnam. Many film theorists have boldly pronounced that the introduction of the modern zombie during this era was a deliberate attempt to draw a comparison to the insatiable appetite of capitalism. More critics would defend the notion that the modern zombie was a reflection of the soldiers battling in an unrelenting and grotesque war in the South China Sea. Only George Romero, the films writer and director can truly resolve that debate.
It`s the granddaddy of the sub-genre. It is THE defining zombie film. The isolated farm house with a ragtag group of strangers barricaded inside desperately trying to prevent the growing hordes of the undead from getting into the house. But a different battle for control erupted inside the house as each person had to deal with their social intollerances of each other. It was also perhaps the first horror film to depict a strong black male character as the central protagonist. Also, after growing up watching zombie movies in all their full colored blood-and-gutsy goodness – I find that re-watching this particular zombie film every so often helps to strip the genre down to the essentials in a black and white format that adds far more eerieness and menace to the narrative.
SCARIER THAN FICTION: A Look at Sexual, Racial, and Sociopolitical Issues in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
Film theorists posit that the genre of horror is traditionally defined as the expression of repressed sexuality, and that the postmodern horror film has been replaced by something else. Sexual terror has become part of a much larger anxiety about gender – identity – morality – power – and loss of control. The horror film, and its predecessor in literature, has always been observant in reflecting the attitudes of contemporary society. All of the cultural fears, problems, issues and injustices that overwhelm any particular society have always been chronicled in the fiction of the region and era. The Brothers Grimm, Aesop, and the venerable Mary Shelley amongst other literary icons – educated the reader through the telling of horrific and imaginative tales. These stories reflected a very real world hidden just between the lines. For example, Shelley’s Frankenstein is a commentary on the burgeoning industrial complex of the early 19th century. So it stands to reason that the modern equivalent of these classic tales is the horror film. Especially within the margins of American cinema.
Horror films engage themselves a great deal into the dramatization of public events and newsworthy topics in American history. This is very evident in the early Universal Studios supernatural monster movies of the 1930’s. Particularly given the fears manifested during the era of a Great Depression. These themes continued in the paranoid Cold War era atomic horrors of the 1950’s; and the widespread social change movements that arose out of the 1960’s and 1970’s. For the comparisons of classic versus modern horror films, it is best to examine films from different eras to illustrate growing social changes that have taken place over several years – or a generation. This essay will closely examine the key issues of sexual terror, race relations, and other socio-political issues that appear in George Romero‘s 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead and Tom Savini‘s 1990 remake of the film!
It could be hypothesized that one of the most seditious horror films to ever be released was Romero’s low budget black and white cult spectacular, Night of the Living Dead. Initially, the film was unknown and reviled by notable film critics who considered it a blatant and exaggerated biopic of the decline of Western civilization. The film reflected heavily the social unrest that was growing in the United States at the time. The narrative was quite simple: dead people were rising from their graves and once again walking the earth intent on eating the living. The film has often been interpreted as a disturbing testimonial on capitalism, political and societal instability, and an apocalyptic vision of America literally devouring itself! The film begins with a young man and woman driving to a cemetery to visit their deceased father. A brother and sister duo, the female looks incredibly uneasy about being in the cemetery and is mocked by her brother Johnny with the exchange “they’re coming to get you Barbara”. This exchange of dialogue casually illustrates the brother’s power over the sister – male vs female. Almost immediately following Johnny’s frolics, a strange decayed looking man attacks Barbara. In the patriarchal tradition of horror films of the past, Johnny intervenes and prevents Barbara from being further accosted by the pale ghoul by allowing himself to be attacked by the ‘zombie’ in her stead. In the battle, Johnny trips and smashes his head on a tombstone – killing him instantly. The zombie lurks towards Barbara once more but she is able to escape and runs a great distance until she finds, and takes refuge in, a nearby isolated farmhouse. After a hurried search of the house, Barbara eventually encounters another living person.
It is then that she falls under the protection of a young black man named Ben. Almost immediately after their introduction, Barbara retreats into herself and becomes almost catatonic. Eventually, several other people appear in the house having hidden in the basement. As they board up the windows and doors, it is made evident that Ben is good with his hands, is very articulate and well spoken, and appears to be the most rational and intelligent of the lot. Some of the other inhabitants of the house are Harry Cooper, his wife, and their little girl. Mr.Cooper also appears to be a strong man but focuses mainly on trying to assert his opinion on the others. His solution to the situation is to barricade them in the basement and wait until help arrives or that the problem goes away. Harry Cooper’s ideology strongly contrasts with Ben’s, who adamantly believes that the only way to survive is to fortify the house and frght off these living dead creatures. The exchanges between Harry and Ben, although not mentioned in the film, allude to a racial tension between the middle- aged suburban white male (Harry) and the urban black male (Ben). Along with his confrontations with Ben, Harry is also in the midst of a failing marriage. Mrs. Cooper makes it overtly obvious that she is still in the family unit for the sake of their daughter, who has unfortunately been bitten by one of the undead and lies motionless in the cellar. The Cooper family adequately describes the breakdown of the nuclear family unit. Hiding along with the Coopers in the basement are the final two members of this motley crew, Tom and Judy, who are two typical young hippiesque teenagers in love. They act as the middle ground between both Harry and Ben’s conflicting ideologies; and as tantalizing fodder for the nightmarish creatures that patrol the perimeter of the house.
Towards the end of the film, Barbara awakens from her trance to assist Mrs. Cooper, who is being attacked by her recently transformed daughter into the very thing that bit her. The Cooper child feasts on her mother, as Barbara tries to intervene she is grabbed and carried away…by Johnny, her recently deceased brother! This is an allusion to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ world of capitalism. With the living dead breaking through his fortress, Ben escapes to the basement and barricades himself downstairs, following the very advice he had contested earlier. To his surprise, Ben encounters Harry Cooper in the cellar, his arm removed from being eaten by his daughter. As Harry tries to rise from the floor, Ben notices that Harry has been bitten. Without hesitation, and perhaps as some form of personal and cultural retribution, Ben shoots Harry killing him. The next morning, when he believes it to be safe, Ben exits the house in search of other survivors. Due to the horrifying and exhausting events that took place the night before; Ben drags himself through the house appearing almost ‘zombie like’. Mistaken for a member of the undead, Ben is gunned down by a posse of trigger-happy beer swilling rednecks that are out hunting zombies.
Both within the narrative of the film, and in other media, it had become increasingly evident how disillusioned America had become. With numerous riots, the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and growing dissidence over the conflict in Vietnam, American society was in need of an outlet to vent its frustrations. It became undeniably obvious that the films of polite, urbane, and exotic vampires of the past had indeed run their course. The new ‘monster‘ of American horror was a mirror image of the current American society. ln the original Night of the Living Dead, the fact that Ben is a black man is not made an issue within the narrative of the film; however, the conflicts that arise within the story enlightened the viewer on the residual racial unrest that still exists in America. The bourgeois suburban Harry Cooper has difficulty with Ben right from their introduction, and cannot bring himself to listen to or aid the black man. But it is apparent that within the film itself, Ben is simply a working class ‘stiff’ trying not to be eaten. Indirectly, the zombies are created by the same society that produces the gun toting militant rednecks that casually shoot Ben at the end of the film. Therefore, one must surmise who the ‘living dead‘ truly are. Is it the zombies, the victims, the vigilante rednecks, or the society that the film is a mirror image of? Regardless, by the film’s inevitable conclusion, it is abundantly apparent that the traditional horror film of the past had been forcibly retired.
The 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead directed by Tom Savinì, had a significantly different ending. Producer George Romero wanted the remake to follow his original zombie narrative, but believed that it should adopt a more progressive political-view regarding feminist issues. Particularly, Romero and Savini wanted to focus on Barbara. In the original film, the character of Barbara was demonstrably passive, irrational, hysterical under pressure, and emotionally vulnerable. She personified the sexual assumptions of the female in the classic horror tradition. She was attractive, naive, and needed the big strong man to save her from the scary monsters. In the 1990 remake, however, Barbara is active, assertive, and tough as nails. It is this Barbara who, in Darwinian fashion, is the fittest for survival. Unlike the original, Ben becomes one of the gruesome undead by the film’s end. In this modernization, the other characters are virtually identical to their 1968 predecessors, with the exception of Barbara. She is the only one in the house who deduces that neither Ben nor Harry’s strategies for survival are the best course of action. She realizes that they must all flee the house, but she is the only one to successfully do so. Although characteristically this Barbara may exhibit masculine tendencies in the popular ‘tough girl‘ trend that developed out of the 1980’s, she is a much more positive, confident, and assertive female than her comatose counterpart from 1968. Contrary to the classic horror films preceding the 1960’s where the status quo is resolved in the end, and the battle between good and evil where the result was always the banishment of evil by fire or wooden stake, the disillusioned society of the 1960’s could no longer be convinced of such an ending. As a result, the films developing out of the late 1960’s (most notably 1968) were much more graphic and disturbing. Much like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, which was also released in 1968, the Night of the Living Dead was one of the pioneer films that envisioned the apocalyptic horror within the narrative continuing on and overwhelming society long after the credits stop rolling.
If Night of the Living Dead contended with both Ben’s struggle for leadership of the group, his survival, and acceptance, it is also a revisitation of the classic horror film formula of the previous decades regarding a helpless female victim needing the male hero to protect her. Even though Judy, Mrs. Cooper and the Cooper’s daughter all fall into this framework it is Barbara’s character that is the most significant. In both versions of the film, 1968 and 1990, the characterization of Barbara is completely different. The original film had her equated with a child under the protection of the fatherly Ben, which included a slap in the face to revive her senses once she became irrational. This reliance on Ben ultimately led to her death when he was momentarily preoccupied and unable to rescue her from the clutches of the zombie herd. In the remake, Barbara would not have been so accepting of such treatment. In the Lt. Ripley/Sarah Connor tradition of the 1980’s, Barbara was a fighter and able to defend herself, not a hysterical crutch for the male characters like her 1968 counterpart. In this edition, Barbara alone rises up against the undead monsters to survive that terrible night. It is in these final scenes, that she is jarred into the realization that through the abhorrent nature of mankind and their herding of the zombies, that humanity – not the zombies – are the true monsters.
It is abundantly clear that modern horror has been completely redefined. There was a transference of focus in the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s from external threats, like atomic mutants, aliens, or monsters – to a more real internal threat such as the continued disempowerment and oppression of women – minorities – and homosexuals through imposed patriarchal power. The horror genre has always been a chronicle of real life socio-politics, however, the events in real life have always been far more scarier than fiction.