American New Wave: Night of the Living Dead

Note: this review is something of a repurposed college-age article, so be kind to the writing…

Edited May 2015

Armed with a 114,000 dollar budget, a few low-quality cameras, a non-professional cast, and its hopes and dreams (not to mention its fair share of nightmares), George A. Romero’s 1968 game-changer Night of the Living Dead wouldn’t seem an “ambitious” project on the surface. Or even one destined for competence. And that’s exactly why it’s so thrillingly disconcerting. It has, and needs, only one ambition: to scare. It eschews any hope of middlebrow competence. And due to its lean, mean, guerrilla filmmaking and single-minded obsessiveness, it doesn’t just scare – it instills a creeping, gnawing fear and doesn’t let up. Night of the Living Dead is, famously, about as economical as a film can be, with no shots wasted and nothing left up to chance – it’s a study in efficiency, but it’s more than that. It’s a study in terror.

Among its many facets, perhaps most so its gritty, documentary-like camerawork, Night of the Living Dead is armed to the teeth with one very special thing, a gift long-forgotten in the cinema: simplicity of plot. A bunch of people find themselves trapped in a rural house.  Dead people hungry for human brains encircle them. They try to survive the night.  That’s it. It’s as tersely elegant as any film, allowing for mood and filmmaking, rather than exposition, to take charge.

“Scaring” through style is not all that is at work here, however – Romero has more under his sleeve. There’s something subversive poking around the edges here, largely reflected only in a look at filmic, and American, history. The term zombie, now common in the English language, dates back to the early 1800’s slave Haiti and New Orleans. In the most basic sense, it’s quite similar to what we think when we here “zombie” today: the rebirthed dead. Only in its original incarnation, the dead were brought back to life via voodoo rather than…whatever vague explanation constructed by a screenwriter. Naturally, slave masters and other whites caught wind of the specter of voodoo and other forms of spiritualist medicine found within slave culture. Such forms of community and medicine which challenged their own dominance as whites and the Christianity and Western medicine they nominally used to nominally “protect” slaves, but which in reality heavily contributed to the system of dehumanization, materialism, and passivity slavery was predicated on.

Naturally, you might say, anyone would fear the rise of the dead. But there’s something less purely natural and more intimately tied to the master-slave relation to be found in the history of the “zombie”. The idea of a zombie fundamentally challenged the internal logic of slavery – it proposed that slave, made dehumanized property by the system, could be rebirthed anew and freed from the master’s control by African spiritualism after their death. Literally, it posited a life beyond slavery, with the dead-now-living no longer subject to the rules of life and death under the slave system and, above all, no longer dependent on masters for Western medicine. If whites became afraid of zombies, masters most certainly did. The word “zombie”, whispered in hushed breaths  and permeating the cavernous bleached-white halls and sun-drenched hells of plantations as if to serve no purpose other than to provide a nightmare to the master’s dreams of power, beckoned a chill down a master’s spine. Gliding through the air and into the master’s heart, it was one of the few words that could stop such a powerful figure dead in his tracks.  That the slaves who had been beaten and dehumanized and killed by white oppression could come back from the dead en masse, theoretically with a vengeance and no longer subject to pain, was nothing short of a hypothetical death sentence for the master, an eternal haunt of his soul and one which implied a certain slave agency to reject the Western logic of slavery. And, even more damningly, so too did it imply a rejection of slavery’s underpinning logics – the superiority of Western worldviews such as rationalism, rationalist medicine, and the fundamental separation of life and death. What thought could have terrified whites more?

Some of the first commonly acknowledged zombie films, the freakishWhite Zombie and the lyrical, noirish I Walked with a Zombie, make the race-connection explicit, with imagery not dissimilar from the nominally “living” blacks in Birth of a Nation – that of blacks as shiftless, non-moving individuals defined purely as part of their “group” and lacking individual humanity. Furthermore, both group depictions have blacks as objects of fear whose danger is predicated on their unfiltered animalistic drive for flesh: while zombies “eat” it, racist logic historically argues that blacks desire to utilize it for sexual purposes. Both groups are consumed only by drives and are incapable of civilized behavior or rational thought. In many ways, they are depicted as one and the same.

The 1932 Bela Lugosi film White Zombie evokes race in its very title: a black zombie wouldn’t have needed racial clarification at the time, because the image, up until that point, was assumed to imply blackness. Here the whiteness of the zombie in fact must be made explicit as a qualifier, implying that white and zombie do not normally go together and that the connection needs clarification. It was not normal for a zombie to be “white”, in other words, so this “white” zombie is not just a “zombie” but a special variety. Humans were white, and blacks were not human.

It’s tempting to say there’s a significant distance today that renders the connection between race and the zombie image irrelevant. Yet, this devalues the ways in which these stereotypes still persist in mainstream society. They don’t play out as explicitly, of course, but there remain plenty of statistics which reflect and reveal the ways in which negative stereotypes of African-Americans that bear a striking resemblance to the characterization of “zombies” – violent, dangerous, carnal, simple-minded, un-civilized –  persist.

One needs only look at the first “modern” zombie movie – why, Night of the Living Dead of course –  for the relevance of the image even to 1968, and the relevance of race to the film. Firstly, the film goes to great lengths, admirably, to depict a heroic black figure, Ben (Duane Jones), being one of the first popular films in American cinema to do so. He’s independent and quietly resourceful, and he emerges, despite infighting and implicitly racial tension flung by others at his competence, as the de facto leader of the group. Beyond this, he is not only heroic but human; he’s flawed, makes questionable decisions (as does everyone in the film). He does what he can to save those around him in the face of crisis, but he isn’t in-human.

Compare this to, for instance, another commonly cited “positive” filmic depiction of black males from the same period, the much more explicitly racial Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a film which expends such personal energy dignifying a black male that it sacrifices his humanity, his frustration, his irritation, his capacity for resistant thought. Not only does Sidney Poitier’s Dr. John Prentice, the black fiancé of the white Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton), act inhumanly politely, but he plays like a walking resume that extends far beyond even his occupation as one of the world’s foremost doctors. In turn, his worth, what allows Joanna’s parents to get over his race, is not that he is black and human, but that he is black and superhuman, qualified beyond belief and applying for the position – or cast in one unknowingly – of an allegorical totem to white America’s heroic liberalism.

In fact, as Tim Wise notes in “Between Barack and a Hard Place”, this reflects not an end to racism but its transformation, where white liberals can claim non-racism by championing successful black figures while simultaneously de-valuing or paying no attention to non-successful ones. Success as a black person becomes an exception to the rule, the reflection of a person who has proven himself worthy by distancing his or herself from their race – implicitly, most African-Americans remain unworthy failures in society, forgotten midst a color-blind language where-by African-Americans *can* be successful but most are not. This becomes a form of evidence to claim racial progress, to claim that in fact racial opportunities are equal, and to then perversely and insidiously blame the majority of African-Americans for the fact that they still cannot succeed in society. The message Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? presents then is not that a black male is as qualified for marriage as an equally successful white, but that he must be more qualified and attain a statuesque level of success to be designated with value, as though bequeathed with humanity at the halls of liberalism (and Liberalism, for that matter).

In contrast, Duane reflects a positive portrayal of a black male, but not a caricatured, tamed, domesticated one. He’s an avatar for the average human’s reaction to crisis, and in making him black he allows an audience to connect with a black male as an everyman, not a superhuman. However, the film’s ending betrays its racial commentary on a deeper level: he isn’t “the everyman” because his blackness reflects an immediate visual marker of “otherness”. At the end of the film, two white men come up to the house where the film’s action takes place, carrying guns. They see Duane simply standing around in the house and immediately, without hesitation, clarify his racial status – and their own itchy notion of human angst, the extent to which the zombie outbreak unleashes their inner, possibly racial demons – with a bullet.

The film never clarifies the race connection explicitly, instead ambivalently dropping us into the interracial hot-house of America, knotting up the desperation, turning up the dial on America’s nascent anxieties, and casting us adrift in an ambiguous America under pressure. It explores race with an eye for both its modern prevalence and its modern subcutaneousness, its habit of burrowing into the nation’s core fabric while only sometimes exposing itself, in some instances less to remind us that race exists than to mask just how pervasive it truly is when it isn’t showing its head more overtly. Primed at a failed world revolution in 1968 then, Night of the Living Dead is uniquely – far more than most then-concurrent prestige pictures starring Poitier – skilled at enmeshing itself in the dirt of a racialized American society, and slashing away at that dirt in primal cinematic strokes.

And to this extent, subtext is only meaningful if the film works in and of itself, as a purely filmic lesion on society, a contaminating visual conundrum. And, above all, Night of the Living Dead just works. Like its final aforementioned shot, there’s a blunt, excoriating matter-of-factness to the filmmaking that unnerves and tenses, that clings to you like meat to the bone. Things happen we can’t come to terms with, such as the ending, but which chill us to the core – in fact the point is very much that we, like Duane and co., do not have time to come to terms with any of it.  The movie happens to them and it happens to us like a neo-realist fever dream. Romero intentionally deploys his guerrilla, semi-documentary-style camerawork to involve the audience and accrue an air of gritty hyperrealism, but also to churn and mangle the assumptions of cinematic continuity and stability for a world then-presently being thrust into a moral, mental, and physical centrifuge.

The film feels positively alive with its treatment of death and decay, as if the camera itself was covered in a dingy grime and had ascended from the muck of the world, only to bring a little of that muck along with. It has the air of, perhaps of all things, a down-and-dirty in-the-trenches war picture, like The Battle of Algiers released a couple of years before this, a similar depiction of apocalypse and likely meaningful to Romero in the context of his nation’s now-prominent role in the Vietnam war. Thus, the film gives way to a clear sub-textual analysis, not only about race, but about a society both at home and abroad where people felt increasingly hopeless and strangled by social difficulties and unresolved tension absent any catharsis. The film focuses primarily on those trapped on the inside of an increasingly heated and desperate location, unable to come to terms with each other and increasingly deranged and discombobulated by the task of embodying an interpersonal, collective democracy under duress. They bicker and argue so much that the outside threat becomes almost moot in comparison to the ones on the inside – the human ones. The implications for Romero’s time, even if he did not “intend” it in a formal sense, are all over the place. It captures a US in chaos, angry at itself and erupting into tension as it refuses to reconcile its own internal decay and rage. And, in its more pernicious, truly cutting moments, exposes other uncovered nerves that lash American with its own foundational principles, such as in the most stomach-churning moment where the film uproots and devours the mother-daughter bond and suggests that the nuclear family itself is a festering contusion damaging the well-being of society, that it may even be the ultimate undoing in a modern world which calls for more egalitarian, interracial, horizontal, communal, non-biological family arrangements in order to effectively survive.

Admittedly, this present-tense timeliness and social awareness permeates the film, but in its allegorical parable of human duress, Night of the Living Dead feels as much timeless as timely. One needs not know anything about the US circa 1968 to be ravaged by the film’s decayed, nervy filmmaking and alternately angry and beaten-down direction – with the camera lingering on horrific images as if it had been strangled into submission by them, viced in their eternal grip, and rendered so ready for the destruction that it can do nothing but stand still and watch. It is, in this regard, very much an American New Wave film, a work of staggering subversive grit as to completely challenge the “professionalism” of Old Hollywood by buckling it and deforming it, shooting it full of European verve and nerve perfectly applicable to the more energetic, nervier American landscape of the late 60’s. By taking such European filmmaking styles and applying them to then present America, or at least seeing in them a transnational refraction of very global fears, filmmakers rendered this new radical approach to filmmaking borderless and timeless. Romero and filmmakers like him tapped into rawer fears of chaos and unnerving dread which require no political context other than being human. His film plays like a hell-scape eerily similar to rural America, but one which could be anywhere where a human being feels alone, paranoid, or disarticulated from any sense of social stability.

Score: 10/10


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