After having been released in 1968, it did not take too long for the low-budget horror flick Night of the Living Dead (directed by George Romero) to prove an utter commercial success. The concerned movie was also able to attain nothing short of a cult following – the actual reason why it is often listed among the greatest American films ever made. The two main factors that seem to have contributed more than any other towards making it the case are as follows.
First, the themes and motifs in the Night of the Living Dead have a strongly defined “uncanny” (Freudian term) quality go them, in the sense of how they appeal to the workings of one’s unconscious psyche. Second, Romero’s film is reflective of the political anxieties (triggered by the Civil Rights movement) that used to be experienced by many Americans during the 20th century’s late sixties – something that contributed even further towards ensuring the film’s popularity with moviegoers. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length.
When it comes to discussing the original Night of the Living Dead, it can hardly escape one’s attention that if assessed from the cinematographic perspective, Romero’s movie will not appear particularly valuable. For example, the film’s plot is rather simplistic and formulaic, which in turn enables many film critics to summarize what Night of the Living Dead is all about in a few short sentences.
Moreman’s description of the movie’s plot is probably the most straightforward: “Night stars a black hero, Ben, who is the sole survivor of a small group of otherwise white hold-outs trapped in a farm house surrounded by zombies. Ben survives through the night only to be killed upon waking in the morning—not by zombies, but by a roaming sheriff’s posse” (152). Moreover, with the possible exemption of Ben, the film’s characters tend to act stereotypically – something that undermines the movie’s objective value even further. Night of the Living Dead has also been slated on account of being much too graphically violent. This, however, did not prevent Romero’s film from becoming critically acclaimed.
One of the most plausible explanations for such a phenomenon has to do with the fact that, as it was implied in the Introduction, the movie in question directly appeals to a wide array of unconscious anxieties in viewers. Consequently, this causes the latter to experience the sensation of “uncanny”, in full accordance with the Freud’s suggestion that: “An uncanny experience occurs either when infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (Shuttleworth 85).
This helps to explain yet another commonly reported peculiarity about the original Night of the Living Dead – while exposed to the movie, most people cannot help feeling strongly appalled the sheer amount of gore in it and yet simultaneously motivated to continue following the plot developments on the screen. The reason for this is that Romero’s portrayal of zombies as absolutely mindless automatons, obsessed with eating human flesh, resonates well with people’s deep-seated understanding of the fact that, biologically speaking, they are nothing but hairless apes, ultimately preoccupied with trying to succeed in spreading their genome (sex), ensuring that there is plenty of nutrients, and acquiring the dominant status within the society (Behrendt 70).
Therefore, the viewers’ exposure to the sight of undead “ghouls” trying to find their way into the farmhouse (with the featured characters inside), causes the former to feel “uncanny” about humanity, in general, and themselves (as a part of it), in particular. This simply could not be otherwise, as the film’s conceptualization of zombies is clearly evocative of the idea that the layer of “civility” covering every individual is only skin-deep.
There is a memorable scene in the film where “ghouls” are seen feasting on the burnt up corpses of Judy and Tom (01.15.02). Probably the most striking thing about it is that the contained shots depersonalize the “eaten” to the extent that the audience begins to perceive both characters’ flesh/intestines as nothing else but a legitimate source of nutrients – at least for as long as the film’s undead monsters are concerned. Subsequently, this strengthens the movie’s “uncanny” appeal even further – as the on-screen action continues to take place, it begins to dawn on the audience members that, had the circumstances called for it, they themselves would prove capable of turning into cannibals.
After all, once assessed from the biological perspective, cannibalism is indeed thoroughly justified. By killing and eating another representative of the Homo Sapiens species, one is able to preserve precious energy that he or she would otherwise be required to spend on getting food in a socially appropriate manner and to use this energy for achieving its earlier mentioned biological objectives. As a result, the concerned individual would be able to prove himself/herself much more competitive (in the evolutionary sense of this word) than the rest.
In this regard, Bishop came up with the insightful observation: “Zombies are… uncanny because they are, in essence, a grotesque metaphor for humanity itself. It (zombie) does not think or act on reasonable motives—it is purely a creature of blind instinct” (201). Allegorically speaking, when watching Night of the Living Dead, people get in touch with their own beastly nature and this, in turn, causes viewers’ attention to continue being drawn to the screen, despite the fact that as the film’s plot unravels, its developments become ever more emotionally disturbing. The reason for this is that, as far as the workings of the brain’s limbic system (in charge of controlling instincts) are concerned, there is nothing imaginary about zombies.
Even though we talk of a merely cinematic action, the limbic system assesses them as such that pose a clear and immediate danger to the audience members. And what do we do when facing a danger (especially if it has an “unknown” quality to it)? We instinctively try to learn more about it, so that we may adequately react to it. This is exactly the reason why most of those moviegoers that have had a chance to watch Night of the Living Dead tend to report being strangely captivated by Romero’s masterpiece – contrary to their emotional discomfort with the film’s gore.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that the film’s exploration of the clearly “uncanny” themes and motifs has a solely psychological quality to it. After all, as it has been pointed out by film critics, there is a strong political dimension to what Night of the Living Dead is all about. For example, according to Moreman, “The life-in-death of the zombie is a nearly perfect allegory for the inner logic of capitalism, whether this be taken in the sense of the exploitation of living labor by dead labor… or the artiﬁcial, externally driven stimulation of consumers” (153).
This suggestion is indeed perfectly logical because the Capitalist paradigm effectively refutes the possibility that there may be any other purposes to a person’s existence, but consumption for the sake of consumption – the activity that according to the advocates of Capitalism has the value of a “thing in itself”. And, the higher is the extent of one’s evolutionary specialization as a consumer in a particular environmental niche that provides easy access to nutrients (such as the contemporary Western society), the more there are objective reasons for the concerned individual to grow increasingly “simplified”, in the perceptual and cognitive senses of this word, while becoming nothing short of a mindless zombie – the Darwinian laws predetermine the inevitability of such an eventual scenario. In this respect, we can refer to the Cestoda tapeworms that lead a parasitic existence in the intestines of infected animals and people (Caira and Jensen 373).
Even though these despicable organisms used to have a nervous system back in the distant past (millions and millions of years ago), the specifics of their parasitic specialization have rendered such system useless – there is no need for it in the dark, moist and warm “environment” of the host’s stomach, where there is plenty of nutrients and the complete absence of predators/competitors. Hence, the overall humanist sounding of the film’s discursive overtones – the director has intentionally strived to prompt viewers to give a thought to the idea that there is very little difference between the movie’s White middle-class characters and the undead “ghouls” that attack them.
As Heller-Nicholas pointed out: “One of the film’s central ideas is that Ben is surrounded by unthinking ‘zombies’ not only outside the house in the shape of the Undead, but
also within the house in the form of white people like Barbra” (54). In this regard, the character of Harry Cooper stands out particularly notable. The reason for this is apparent – the prospect of being eaten alive by zombies does not seem to bother Harry as much as his inability to impose its authoritative dominance upon other survivors inside the farmhouse. There is another memorable scene in Night of the Living Dead, where Harry’s wife Helen reveals the unsightly truth about the sheer strength of her husband’s preoccupation with trying to “be in charge”, as something that has a value of its own: “(Helen) That’s important, isn’t it? (Harry) What? (Hellen) To be right.
Everybody else to be wrong” (00.46.26). Evidently enough, the way in which Harry addresses the challenge of trying to stay alive while surrounded by zombies is suggestive of this character’s undermined ability to indulge in the cause-effect type of reasoning, even at a time when his very physical survival depends on it. As such, this particular character can be seen as the living embodiment of the American society’s main weakness – the fact that, due to the specifics of their upbringing, most Americans (especially WASPs) never cease professing the values of extreme individualism, which makes them quite incapable of taking a collective action when it comes to trying to solve a particular problem.
It is understood, of course, that this contributes rather substantially towards legitimizing the “cult status” of Night of the Living Dead as a cinematographic piece that has a number of discursive dimensions to it, with one of them being essentially educational. The validity of this statement is especially apparent nowadays when the international reputation of the US continues to deteriorate rapidly. Being individualistically minded, most American politicians simply do not have what it takes to be able to act in a socially responsible manner.
Just as it is the case with zombies seen in Night of the Living Dead, these individuals cannot help acting on behalf of their deep-seated atavistic instincts while deploying politically correct rhetoric to conceal this fact from the public. This provides us with yet another reason to believe that the concerned film is indeed outstanding – even though Night of the Living Dead was produced during the late sixties, its themes and motifs continue to resonate well with what account for the contemporary realities of one’s “American living”.
Because of what has been said earlier, one may assume that there is much negativity to just about every socially relevant message conveyed (either explicitly or implicitly) by Night of the Living Dead. Such an assumption will not be altogether unreasonable, given the film’s affiliation with the horror genre and the fact that it ends on a pessimistic note. However, along with keeping viewers in the “uncanny” type of suspense, Romero’s movie also promotes the idea that, despite the mental “zombification” of the representatives of the country’s “moral majority” (such as Harry), there is still a hope that American society will one day cease being quite as innately racist/patriarchal as it was the case at the time when Night of the Living Dead was released to the theaters.
The characters of Tom and Judy exemplify the validity of this suggestion. Even though they initially did not mind taking orders from Harry, as someone endowed with the “natural authority” (due to being older than everybody else in the group), this effectively ceased to be the case by the time the film’s plot reaches its climax. Clearly enough, Tom and Judy symbolize a new generation of America’s Whites, capable of understanding the essence of the relationship between causes and effects in this world and adopting a pro-active stance within the context of how they address life-challenges: “This (zombie attack) isn’t just a passing thing… it’s not just like a wind passing through. We’ve got to do something, and fast.” (00.44.40).
Despite the fact that both characters die a half way through the cinematic action, the film’s discursive context implies that there are indeed many objective reasons for more and more White people in the US to end up perceiving the surrounding social reality and their place in it in an intellectually flexible manner. It is understood, of course, that this contributes even further towards increasing the film’s emotional appeal with the moviegoing audiences.
I believe that the deployed line of argumentation, in defense of the suggestion that there is nothing accidental about the “cult status” of Night of the Living Dead, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, it will indeed prove thoroughly appropriate to recommend this film for watching by just about anyone interested in gaining some in-depth insights into what causes American society to function in the way it does.
Behrendt, Ralf-Peter. “The Hypthalamo-Tectoperiaqueductal System: Unconscious Underpinnings of Conscious Behavior.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 30, no. 1, 2007, pp. 63-134.
Bishop, Kyle. “Raising the Dead: Unearthing the Nonliterary Origins of Zombie Cinema.” Journal of Popular Film & Television, vol. 33, no. 4, 2006, pp. 196-205.
Caira, Janine, and Kirsten Jensen. “A Digest of Elasmobranch Tapeworms.” The Journal of Parasitology, vol. 100, no. 4, 2014, pp. 373-391.
Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. “History and Horror: Living the Past through the Living Dead.” Screen Education, vol. 12, no. 58, 2010, pp. 52-56.
Moreman, Christopher. “A Modern Meditation on Death: Identifying Buddhist Teachings in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.” Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 9, no. 2, 2008, pp. 151-165.
Night of the Living Dead. Directed by George Romero, performances by Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, and Marilyn Eastman, Image Ten, 1968.
Shuttleworth, Sally. “Childhood, Severed Heads, and the Uncanny: Freudian Precursors.” Victorian Studies, vol. 58, no. 1, 2015, pp. 84-110.