The author John Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1941 that:
“It isn’t that the evil thing wins—it never will—but that it doesn’t die… two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”
Horror depends on our inability to accept the inevitability of our own deaths, and cannibalism adds to the recipe the terror of that death involving our total disappearance, not just our spirit but our bodies, incorporated into the stomach, then the cells and finally the shit of another. We cheer the death of the ‘bad guy’ because we feel at a primal level that his death is required for the continuance of our life. But what if, as Steinbeck says, the evil never dies, and keeps coming back for us?
This I think is the attraction of the zombie, who has become a critical character in our culture since the release of this movie in 1968. An earlier movie, The White Zombie (1932) saw Bela Lugosi turned Madge Bellamy into a mindless love object – returned to life, but as a slave with no will of her own. Those zombies did what they were told, but they did not go out of their way to eat people. That type of compliant, submissive zombie is pretty much what Jeffrey Dahmer was hoping to achieve when he drilled holes in his lovers’ skulls and poured in what he hoped were non-lethal doses of acid.
George Romero’s genius was to combine the undead with the cannibal to create what in this story is called a “ghoul”. The zombie was still, in 1968, the undead servant of Haitian mythology. In this film, the ghoul, a figure that traditionally hangs out in graveyards and sometimes digs up corpses, becomes those corpses, and so gives birth to what we will ever after call zombies. These zombies are cheaper by the dozen – they have no will, no intelligence, just the force of numbers, and overwhelm the living with their ragged, shuffling weight of numbers.
What raises these dead? We are told by a TV newsreader that a strange phenomenon, perhaps radiation from a space probe that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, is causing the dead to rise from their graves. They are voraciously hungry, but very fussy eaters – their preferred cuisine is living human flesh, although cooked (when a truck explodes) will do. But the horror in this movie is from the “banality of evil” – the things that really haunt our nightmares are not ogres and aliens, but cemeteries at dusk,
Ordinary (ish) looking people trying to get into our car, when we can’t find the keys
Technology that won’t work at times of crisis
And of course the dead. Particularly when they look angry. And hungry!
Romero did not just bring to life the zombie hordes, but also very many cannibal movies owe a debt to him, as do “splatter” movies generally. The simple opening scene of a couple of siblings driving across the desert to visit their father’s grave was later replicated to some extent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. And of course many, many zombie movies and TV shows have followed in the shuffling footsteps of this one. Without Night of the Living Dead, there is no Walking Dead.
The story revolves around a group of people sheltering in a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, which is under assault by a growing crowd of cannibalistic, undead corpses. The phone doesn’t work, which is annoying, but the radio and even the TV are fine, which is useful as a dramatic device to fill us in on what’s going on.
The radio reports that they are:
“things that look like people but act like animals.”
The horror of this film seems so much greater by their ordinariness (although the low budget may have had something to do with it). Cannibals are often described as acting “like animals”, but of course, we are all animals, great apes, and cannibals are just as likely to be accused of treating their prey “like animals.” Ordinary people, animals, fall down when shot, but the horror of these undead is their invincibility. It’s hard to kill someone who is dead, and has just risen from the grave. Shoot them in the chest and they fall over and then get up again and keep coming. They can however be shot in the brain or walloped on the head or burnt, so we are not left without hope.
But there are other dynamic binaries – heroism and cowardice, fire and fuel, shelter and intrusion, eater and eaten, and a scene where an infected girl within the boarded up house eats her own parents, and an undead brother returns to eat his sister. In two short scenes, Romero takes Freud’s insistence that cannibalism and incest are the two original prohibitions of mankind, and merges them into incestuous cannibalism. The film comprehensively problematises the narrative of humans vs monsters. We are all hiding in our houses, terrified of the latest headline, and we are also all members of the monster horde.
The protagonist is Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American hero, which in itself was rare in the sixties. Romero says Jones was chosen just because he gave the best audition, but the dynamic he brings, particularly in the inter-relationship battles inside the house, where he insists on being boss, and of course in the climax, took the film into the heart of darkness that was 1968 America. As the ghouls lurched toward the house, the Vietnam war was raging, students and police were battling on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic Party convention, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down, and in Paris revolution was in the air.
But it’s not “all right”. The racism issues raised by the film further complicate the dichotomy between human and ghoul; human and, well, inhuman. Because when the authorities arrive, they are basically a vigilante mob killing ghouls with a random collection of guns, and building bonfires to dispose of the corpses. When they see a black man – will they recognise him as a real, live human? Well, no, Ben has made it through the night, surviving the attack of hundreds of the ghouls, only to be shot through the head by a police sharp-shooter as he emerges. The film ends with grainy images of him being pulled from the house with meat-hooks and burnt with the corpses of the again-dead, and the pictures are unmistakably reminiscent of photos taken at lynchings.
The review from the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, sums up the response to the movie at the time. This was written after he had watched the movie in a cinema filled with kids, who had been dropped at the cinema, unaccompanied, for an afternoon of fun scary time.
The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire…
The movie has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Chicago Reader summing up:
Over its short, furious course, the picture violates so many strong taboos — cannibalism, incest, necrophilia — that it leaves audiences giddy and hysterical.
Interestingly, the movie was removed from Netflix in Germany, following a written demand from the German Commission for Youth Protection.
“Banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi organiser of the death camps in which millions died. What shocked Arendt was that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann, one of the most pivotal figures in the Holocaust, was a monster, in fact she found him “terribly and terrifyingly normal”.
This is the crucial difference between the early cannibals of Herodotus or Columbus and the ones inside our cities after 1888 (the year of Jack the Ripper). They don’t look that different from us. They are men and women, young and old, dressed and naked. We can no longer tell them for sure from our next-door neighbours.
The ghouls of Night of the Living Dead are human but dehumanised. They are dead, but still walking and eating, and the dead and the undead all burn in the same fire. In fact, the ghouls are us, filled with rage at the fact of our mortality, but they don’t look that dissimilar from people you might be standing next to at a political rally.