"What is it about zombies?" asked Zombos. He put aside his cup.
"I'm not sure I follow you," I said. Shadows from the long day drifted lazily on the floor of the solarium. I had been trimming the corpse plants and orchids while he sipped his late afternoon coffee. Philosophical musing can be a dangerous thing, especially when rattling around in a head like his with nothing to cushion its impact against the inside of his thick skull. The vision of a ball-bearing cracking the side of a glass sprang uppermost in my mind. I'd rather be a poor servant to a poor master then have to listen to Zombos' philosophical ruminations, rare though they are.
"Who would have thought," he continued, "that zombies, those rotting corpses prone to consuming mass quantities of, well, mostly living people, would provide such a large pile of compost to fertilize thought and discussion."
"Take individualism or community in George Romero's movies, for instance," said Zombos. I accidentally snipped the rare marifasa lumina lupina in half. I wisely put down my shears as Zombos continued. A cold chill ran down my back as clouds blocked the sun and the complacent shadows on the solarium floor scattered to oblivion.
"Individualism does contribute to higher body counts in horror movies," I said.
"Let me think. The zombies consume people, the people are themselves consumed by fear, which makes them ad hoc a social contract that, due to their individualism, they ineptly engineer. In the end, unable to become a living community that can defend itself against the more socially-bonded—but dead—growing community of zombies, the hasty and shaky social contract crumbles, leaving the dwindling living community to revert back to their ineffective individualistic states of actions, which backfire and they all end up being eaten in no time. I say, Zoc, good call on that one. It does appear that community is the better way to go when surrounded by zombie hordes."
"Good evening," said Uncle Fadrus, joining us. I poured a cup of coffee for him, relieved he would now take over the philosophical dialog with Zombos. I turned my attention back to trimming the plants.
"Thank you, Zoc. What happened to that beautiful marifasa orchid? You didn't let Zombos trim it, did you?" He laughed. "Zimba is going to show me your wonderful Long Island shopping malls today."
"Speaking of malls," said Zombos, "that reminds me of the consumerism innuendo Romero plays with in Dawn of the Dead."
"Yes, that's quite an image, isn't it? The dead dying to get in, though they don't know why, and the living just dying to shop." Fadrus was also an ardent horror movie fan. “I suppose if I were doomed by a zombie apocalypse I’d want to be holed up in large shopping mall. Go down shopping, that’s for me. Better a mall in Texas, however, as I’d like to have sufficient ammo and guns, too. May as well make a good fight of it. Have you thought about the paradox inherent in all this zombie business?”
"What paradox?" asked Zombos.
"Death, my friend. The grim blackness of no return. The great question mark of life. The paradox is why we embrace death's imagery so avidly where zombies are concerned. Posit this: which is worse, death being the end of all things for you, or death leading to an endless, consumerist, mindless need, never satisfied? Made worse by partial memories of your living life gnawing at you while you rot away forever."
Zombos rubbed his chin. "Heidegger's angst, eh?"
"A little, perhaps.”
"I think I understand,” said Zombos. “You mean the value of personality when it no longer exists, or partially exists in another form that is more alien than familiar. Like a person suffering from Alzheimer's disease or mental disease. What of the soul, then? Is it there, where does it go? How does it survive the physical and mental battering of life? That uncertainty can be overwhelming."
The long day turned grayer. Zimba's voice called to her uncle, and soon they were off to the malls. Zombos sat quietly in his chair, looking into the dusk, hoping to see well beyond it. I poured another cup of coffee for him, and continued to trim the orchids as long as the fading light permitted.
The year 1968 was filled with tumultuous change. Political and social unrest divided the country, and the violent change brought about by assassinations, riots, and a war that provided no avenue for victory would alter American culture and thinking in ways both better and worse in the years to come. The horror movies at the box office included The Conqueror Worm with Vincent Price, Rosemary's Baby with Mia Farrow, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave with Christopher Lee, and Night of the Living Dead with zombies.
Lots of them.
In 1968 I was twelve years old. At the time, I didn't realize how important that movie was and still is, or how it would change forever the pantheon of fictional monsters to create a sub-genre that would provide the fodder for legions of undead, flesh-eating ghouls to roam across the landscape in countless movies. Zombies have been parodied, satirized, gory-ized, psychoanalyzed, sexed up, sexed down, and alternately made mindless and mindful ever since, but it all popped from those rotting heads in 1968.
I wasn't prepared for the sudden turn in cinematic horror from "rubber monsters, cardboard gravestones or hands groping in the shadows" as Alan Jones describes it in his book, The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. Up until then, I had watched in cozy comfort as man-made monsters, vampires, and various aquatic wild-life tried to wreak havoc in an ordered universe; only to be stopped in the end by the triumph of scientific reason, religious belief, and when all else failed, a pointy piece of wood, or the trusty military might of the army, navy, or air force.
But director George Romero changed all that. No longer could the monster be contained, controlled, or avoided by day. The ordered universe was no longer neat and tidy, and it refused to be subject to man's laws or scientific codexes or heroic deeds.
And the monsters were us!
We were mindlessly devouring each other and infecting each other in gruesome ways in a suddenly nihilistic universe governed by godless quantum shifts.
I first watched Night of the Living Dead at an evening showing at the Benson Theater in Brooklyn. Afterward, the long walk home was fraught with shadows of zombies lurching from every doorway and side street. For the next two weeks I took baths at night with the door locked. I became one of those kids Roger Ebert wrote about when he watched the movie for the first time, in a theater packed with kids. I don't think we really knew what hit us. No ghouls before this had eaten people, leaving a bloody mess behind that could stand up and start walking. This was little girl ghouls killing and eating their parents. Worst of all, even the hero got killed. Real terror was felt in movie theaters across America. We weren't prepared for this. Frankenstein was undead, but at least he didn't go around eating people. Dracula was undead, but he just sucked the life blood out of you without chewing a body part or two. These ghouls were next-door-neighbor ghouls, they were unrelenting monsters beyond all hope of redemption. And religious icons, voodoo rituals, wolfbane, military might, and scientific knowledge were powerless against them.
You bet we were terrified.
Much has been written on the racial and cultural overtones—or supposed overtones—in the movie, even though Romero and co-writer John Russo may not have been fully cognizant of them at the time. In Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, Annalee Newitz builds a solid case for drawing parallels between Night of the Living Dead and DW Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation :“Night is in many ways an updated version of Birth, except this time around the upwardly mobile black man is the film's hero, rather than its locus of evil and terror... Ben is a black man with power in a white-dominated society; he is also, like Silas, ultimately destroyed for it.”
Take away the racial overtones and capitalistic corporate undertones that permeate the film (how many cubical zombies surround you?) and what you’re still left with is palpable horror. The horror of the unknown suddenly reaching out for you, unreasoning horror that knows no surcease for sorrow, no pitying the fool, and no god to succor you. It’s horror twisting your daily routine into a hopeless knot, leaving you with no sun-will-come-out-tomorrow to look forward to because Little Orphan Annie would be a zombie, too.
The movie starts with Johnny and Barbra, brother and sister, driving to a bleak and deserted cemetery to lay a wreath on their father's grave. The eerie, cobbled together music, bits and pieces of existing music were used, warns you this will not be a familiar horror movie. When Johnny's "they’re coming to get you Barbra" joke backfires, the action quickly escalates from the cemetery to the bleak, isolated house in the woods. Black and white, grainy texture, and the closeness of the scenes exacerbate the “realness” and seriousness of the walking corpses congregating at the small house.
But it’s not only a practical refuge; it represents the American dream of home and security and the happiness you’re supposed to get from attaining it. Romero films the house in noir style with ominous shadows lurking in every corner and stark contrasts accentuating the dire situation. This house is not a safe haven. It’s a potential death trap, slowly surrounded by lumbering corpses looking for their next meal. At least with vampires you have to invite them in before they can attack.
Barbra meets Ben at the house. Ben is the only African American in the film, and he has to contend with an all-white zombie jamboree outside, and more distraught white people hiding out in the basement of the house. He happens to be the only rational, cool under fire individual in the group, too. He forages around to find whatever he can to board up the place, all the while dealing with an increasingly catatonic Barbra, and a really annoying white guy named Harry, whose wife and daughter are holed up in the basement, along with a young couple. Harry's daughter was bitten by one of the undead, so you know where that is going to lead; but back in 1968, we didn't know. It’s when Barbra climbs the stairs and discovers the home-owner, or what's left of her, that I and every other kid realized this was not going to be a fun ride. There would be no safe thrills and chills here. No Ed Wood undead Tor Johnsons or Vampiras shambling about. The situation grew grimmer by the minute and there was no Van Helsing in site, no Castle gimmick to chuck popcorn at.
Harry's one great idea is to stay locked in the basement. Ben wants to fortify the house, and have avenues of escape if necessary. Outside, the zombies gather in greater numbers, waiting, while the two men bicker and fight for control of an uncontrollable situation.
Throughout this ordeal, key icons of control and salvation come into play: the radio, the television, and the gun. More than once "we'll be all right until someone comes to rescue us," is spoken. In today's post-Katrina world, we know differently; but back in 1968 we didn't know.
Romero closes in on the Zenith radio as the news (horror host Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille plays a field reporter) describes the growing civil disaster as a mass murder spree by persons unknown, and the bodies of victims are found to have been partially eaten.
I really wanted to go for popcorn then, but I was too afraid to leave my theater seat. I wonder how many kids pissed their pants that day?
A television set is soon discovered, and everyone eagerly gathers round to listen and watch as newscasters discuss what the hell is happening with concerned scientists, the puzzled military, and local good-old boy militias. A humorous, and still timely scene has the news reporter hounding a scientist and military commander leaving a high-level Washington meeting, only to have the scientist warn about the seriousness of the situation, while the military person downplays it with a "we don't really know yet" attitude. Boy, how often have we heard that even today?
The television provides an anchor of technology in a world gone mad, and they cling to it for succor; as the mother observes, as long as there's "some kind of communication, authorities will send help." Pretty soon the situation escalates to the point where the newscaster reverses his first recommendation to stay put, and tells listeners to head to a safe location near them as soon as possible. The National Guard protected locations are flashed at the bottom of the television screen as Ben devises a plan to take the truck and gas up from a pump just a few feet away. There's just the problem with those two dozen or so zombies standing in the way to be taken care of. Tom and Judy, the young couple, argue over why Tom has to be the one to help Ben. Tom puts it rather well when he says "it's not like a wind passing through. We've got to do something and fast." He hops in the truck to drive it to the gas pump, while Ben wards off the undead with a flaming table leg used as a torch. Judy decides at the last minute to join them, but things go from bad to worse when the truck catches fire. Tom and Judy wind up barbecued in the ensuing fireball as Ben hustles back to the house, only to be locked out by Harry. He breaks the door down to get back inside, and shoots Harry for almost getting him killed.
Now comes the Tom and Judy a la carte scene, and it is here that horror films were forever changed. In a graphically gory scene by 1968 standards, the zombies reach into the truck and grab a hand-full of roasted human remains, then chow down in stark, nauseating close-ups. I was glad I didn't go for that popcorn now. With the taste of human flesh in their mouths, the zombies head for the house and start breaking in. Mom retreats to the cellar, where she is promptly killed by her daughter with a trowel, in a brutal scene that was quite shocking for me and the other kids to witness. The fact that she was snacking on her dead dad before she kills her mom was also another taboo broken. Barbra, in yet another taboo-breaking scene, is pulled through the door to her doom by her now undead brother, the one person she apparently relied on for her protection and security.
And Ben, who did not want to retreat to the basement, now has no other option and locks himself in the basement.
He has to shoot mom and dad as they become hungry undead themselves. Society and its precepts fall apart as the zombies fill the house, looking for their next living victim. When morning comes, Ben is still alive, but in an ironic twist of faith, his rescuers, the all-white militia patrolling the woods to kill zombies, kill him with a bullet to the head in the mistaken belief that he is a zombie. So no one survives; not even the upwardly mobile and educated Ben.
That was a real downer.
I left the theater that evening shaken, and no longer secure in the commonplace. George Romero had brought ghastly horror home, both figuratively and literally, and the course of future horror films would follow the same path, to the dismay of parents and censors in the decades since then, and probably for the decades to come. Night of the Living Dead stands as a classic horror film because it deals with social and cultural themes as they existed in 1968, and more importantly, as they still exist today, but didn’t realize it at the time.