Friday, November 2, 2018

50 Years and Counting: 1968 is Still Undead

Originally published this at PopMatters 10 years ago, but the link appears to be slightly broken:

1968 is Undead: The Grim Legacy of Night of the Living Dead

Pictured Above: early right-wing militia

"It's like they're pretending to be alive"- Mike
 Isn't that what we're doing?"- Riley

                                    -Land of the Dead (2005)

To what do we owe the dead? 

This is a question that lingers through the background of all of George A. Romero's zombie films from his pivotal genre-defining debut  Night of The Living Dead to 2007's new media manifesto Diary of the Dead. It's one we pose when we revisit events on their round-numbered anniversaries.  1968, the year of Night of the Living Dead's debut, turns 40 this year and it's worth noting that it has stuck with us long after December 31, 1968. 

In a way, 1968 never really stopped happening.  It never really went away.  It just transmogrified, like a zombie, a specter, a ghoul, haunting and informing the future.  The revolutionary ideals of that time and the reactionary backlash against them are undead in today's culture, try as we might to bury the past.  Despite the sheath of disambiguation that confounding, deifying, or otherwise revisionist historicity has covered upon the era, its soul and its memory persist, even as we aim our redneck shotguns for its brain.  It's like we owe 1968 something.

To what do we owe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, both assassinated in 1968 (in the case of King, mere hours after Romero wrapped up post-production)?  The spirits of both icons are embodied in the Junior Senator from Illinois, who seems to possess King's capacity to inspire hope and Kennedy's youth and vitality, though Obama’s specific policy initiatives have adapted themselves to the political mainstream and disavowed King's pacifism.

To what do we owe the P.O.W.?  In this election cycle, he's represented by a decorated veteran who stayed in captivity for over five years, withstanding injury and disease, though as a politician he has frequently been known to sell veterans down the river and create tons of new dead soldiers. He even voted against a bill that would have restricted the intelligence community's use of torture methods.

The grim legacies of civil rights, war, and internment extend beyond the inspirational narratives of the presidential candidates though.  They cross over to the dead and dying bodies of Katrina, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.  It is that dark patrimony which inscribes itself in our culture the deepest, despite all evidence of our institutional progress.   It is perhaps to those dead, the faceless anonymous masses, that we owe the most.

Romero's career trajectory is a straight arrow towards overtly political allegory, but Night of the Living Dead is very much a shell of a storyline, what Umberto Eco refers to as an "Open Work" or Opera Aperta.  The film tackles the complexity of a changing world with a distilled narrative, archetypal characters, and a broad, indefinable threat.  This openness allows for a multiplicity of interpretations. 

Unlike Romero's later films, Night of the Living Dead was written with no specific polemic argument in mind.  But it did shoulder with it the albatross of rising violence from the Vietnam and Civil Rights eras.  Its imagery is evocative without being directly allusive, from the space probe carrying dangerous levels of radiation back to earth to the Molotov cocktails Harry throws out the window at the zombies.  Even the film's much publicized racial subtext is grafted onto the celluloid by years of critical equivocation.   Leading man Ben was originally imagined to be a white trucker, but unknown black actor Duane Jones, who gives an electrifying and nuanced performance, wowed Romero in the audition process.

Thus, Night of the Living Dead, much like 1968 itself, is as much about public perception and cultural reception as the actual events that transpired.  It's a film subsequent generations will be able to readily revisit, still finding its subversive content harrowing, insightful, and prophetic. 

Set in rural Western Pennsylvania, the film is the story of a group of stragglers banded together in a house where they attempt to protect themselves from a heretofore unnamed menace (the word "zombie" is never actually uttered in the film) that has begun to claim the lives of their friends and loved ones.  As a monster movie, it's oddly absent many of the normal conventions of the horror film, even by today's standards.  Its enemies are lethargic and witless, barely even a threat.  They quiver at the sight of fire and are defenseless against hillbillies with shotguns.  In fact, it's exactly the inconsequentiality of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead that defines the film as a true watermark in cinematic history. 

Rather than focusing on the pure visceral terror of its villainous corpses, the film turns its cameras on the supposed protagonists for whom a dynamic power struggle begins to emerge.  After Ben rescues Barbara, who has just witnessed her brother's death at her father's grave site, they discover the house of Harry Cooper, whom we find hiding in the basement with his wife and his infected daughter.  The Coopers ignore the disturbance that Ben and Barbara make in their attempt to secure the site as Harry adopts an isolationist view point. 

"We luck into a safe place and you're telling us that we gotta risk our lives just because someone might need help, huh?" Harry asks Ben, who is incensed by Harry's lack of basic human altruism.

"Something like that," Ben replies acerbically.
Harry and Ben spar with one another immediately and start struggling for territory.  Harry claims the downstairs, where there's only one door to defend.  Ben prefers the upstairs, where he can scour for supplies and plan an exit strategy if need be.  Their quarrel is more about control than survival.  "If you stay up here, you take orders from me", Ben shouts to Harry at one point.  
Tom and Judy, a young couple who have been hiding with Harry and Helen Cooper in the basement, side with Ben and take refuge upstairs.  Tom helps Ben board up the house to keep the zombies out, but in doing so, it soon becomes clear that they're also fencing themselves in.  Trapped in a space with no exit, it doesn't take long for them to discover that hell is indeed other people. 

The breakdown in communication is a running theme throughout all of Romero's work.  In Night of the Living Dead, Ben and Harry won't let the very real task of escape and survival interfere with their constructed social hierarchies.  Barbara, after an initially courageous escape, is rendered catatonic by both the trauma of seeing her brother killed and, not unimportantly, her powerlessness to stop it.   In the face of a patriarchal power structure that renders her and the other females in the house ineffectual, Barbara panics and slowly loses her mind. Despondent and petrified, she voices a desire to be let outside so she can save her brother.  In the process, she smacks Ben, who retaliates and strikes her back, his fists rendering her practically mute for the rest of the film. 

Ben's aggression and its intimation of domestic violence, makes him a complexly rendered and three-dimensional protagonist, perhaps moreso than most films today, which tend to unrealistically deify African-American heroes as “magical negros” or the unassailable “black best friend”.  He is a decisive and well-spoken leader, poised and responsive to the changing demands of his situation, possessed with a sense of chivalry, but unable to control his aggression, which later leads him to first assault and then shoot an increasingly belligerent Harry Cooper.  

At the time of the film's release, images of black nationalists like the Nation of Islam militants responsible for Malcolm X's assassination and those in the burgeoning Black Panther Party/black separatist movement were horrifying whites like Harry and Helen, who sought safe haven, stability, and isolation from the racial tensions of America's cities in the suburbs.  Though desegregation and other civil rights laws slowly trickled traces of tolerance into mainstream society, the fear of black militancy still permeates throughout society today.  In 21st century America, unconscious prejudices are legislated or policed into the popular imagination via crack downs on gang violence, draconian penalties for drug abuse, and capital punishment enforcement.  In electoral politics, the fiery rhetoric of Barack Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, the confoundingly misinterpreted "terrorist fist jab", and a manufactured news story on a missing lapel pin have painted the current Democratic presidential candidate as anti-American and hostile in some above-ground circles, while Sarah Palin's separatist husband and open advocacy of armed insurrection go largely unscrutinized.  One need only imagine how pictures of Barack Obama with a gun would go over to see the divide between Black and White gun ownership.

The only person in the house to advocate for cooperation is Tom, though even he does so in a way that is divisive.  "We'd be a lot better off if all three of us were working together," Tom says of Harry, Ben, and himself, failing to even consider the women.  Film historians have alternated between readings of Night of the Living Dead as either a feminist or antifeminist text. Certainly, the women are not complicit in the bumbling corruption of the male leadership, but they are not allowed a chance to be either.  Their passivity and hysterics could be read as a kind of "problem with no name", subjugated upon them by the intimate oppression of the men, who offer them no role in their own life narrative.  Even so, this is still a rather narrow portrayal of womanhood that, sadly, is not completely alien from standards in Hollywood today.  In terms of the political landscape, one needs only look at the rhetoric that tailed the Hilary Clinton primary run and, to a lesser extent Palin's V.P. bid, to see how mainstreamed misogyny still is in American culture.

Only Helen Cooper is allowed a small degree of independence and it seems to have only come after years of suffering in domestic misery.  "We may not enjoy living together, but dying together is not going to solve anything", Helen says to Harry at one point.    

Though she directs this comment specifically towards her husband, Helen's words could easily be transferred to both the struggles in the house and those beyond it.  The 1960s, with its rapid social change and equally rapid schisms, created a vastly splintered vox populi.  At the political level, the quagmire of Vietnam appeared to have no exit strategy nor vision of what victory might look like, which is also true of the Cold War in general.  Communication broke down amongst rulers, Generals, the young and old, the working class and leisure class, the black power and women's lib movements, the antiwar pacifists and the New Left Trotskyites, the veterans who continued to support the war (like John McCain) and those who came to oppose it (like John Kerry), the energized activists and the hippy drop-outs, and so on.  The mass movement of young idealism even came to define itself as countercultural, or against society. 

Much of the legislative movement since 1968 has been an attempt to close those divisions, either by pushing the radical movements of the sixties to the fringes or by compromising and undermining many of the hard-fought victories of that era.   However, if anything, the world is more multivalent and stratified than ever.  Yet, the political sphere has been atomized into an easily quantifiable series of demographics, constituencies, and axises.  There's the indeterminably vague "War on Terror", an inculcation of Samuel Huntingdon's wrongheaded Orientalist “Clash of Civilizations”, which has promulgated such polarizing dogma as the infamous "with us or against us" Bushism.  And then there's the mass bureaucratic bungling of the September 11th tragedies and the Hurricane Katrina disaster, which speaks to a national security state emboldened by endless outpourings of capital yet so disabled by its own crisscrossing inadequacies and addictions to perfunctory procedure that it is practically unable to function.  In this instance, Romero's ongoing thematic topoi of the communication gap seems most piquant.  The radio and television broadcasts of Night of the Living Dead, and perhaps even more poignantly so in later films like The Crazies and Diary of the Dead, depicts a government unable to protect, alert, and prepare its citizenry for a national crisis.  In fact, Diary of the Dead, in which the government and the media conspire to willfully manipulate news footage to manufacture new truths, uses real Katrina broadcasts as part of its found footage.  

Yet despite the political fragmentation, the world itself is also more globalized and interconnected than ever before, with industry and the internet playing equal roles in the expansion.  The protest movement now encompasses hundreds of pet causes. Antiwar protestors have united en masse in larger numbers than they ever did in the 1960's.  Ironically, it's the relative pacifism, solidarity, and unity of these demonstrators that has perhaps denied them the headline-grabbing press of a more confrontational 1960's leftist resistance movement.  Despite the relative invisibility of activists on the national stage, the privileged and powerful still maintain the same callous disregard for their critics and are all too willing to suppress their rights to free speech and free assembly in order to relocate these grievances into the margins of discourse.  Dissent’s scarcity inside the daily operations of the state make it seem extreme and anomalous, though it's actually far less so than it was 40 years prior as there’s perhaps more to protest now than there ever has been before.

The news media in Night of the Living Dead feeds the protagonists contradictory information, in part galvanizing their estrangement from one another.   Yet, while the news media has always been an unreliable source of information, recent years have seen it grown even more insidious in its masking of realities.  Diary of the Dead takes on the blackout of media in the bloody 21st century.  It reacts to the disappearance of corporeal violence from the video game news coverage of the Iraq War.  The blood of Iraq, the bodies, the corpses, are only accessible to those who would seek it out in the new media world.  Even those more sanguinary images that did make their way to the major news networks, like the torture candids from Abu Ghraib, were tempered for primetime audiences with weak stomachs. 

Night of the Living Dead was made with the videographic and photojournalistic iconography of the carnage in South Vietnam fresh in its memory. Its groundbreaking gore found root in the footage returning home of dead young soldiers, razed villages, and shattered communities.  In 1968, the famous photograph by Eddie Adams of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon sent shockwaves throughout the globe.  The roves of dead bodies lining the countryside in Night of the Living Dead bellow a silent scream of inquiry, perhaps like Loan's defenseless victim- "To what do we owe the dead"?

The tenets of revenge fantasies, like those carried out in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin or September 11th, seem to dictate that all we owe the wrongfully killed is still more dead bodies.  Justice, by its Western cultural definition, demands that aggressors pay for their sins in pounds of flesh.  Yet, by this logic, the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of these vengeance strikes (over 1,000,000 civilian casualties are logged by most counts in Vietnam and conservatively 100,000 civilian dead are estimated in Iraq) should return upon their attackers the same degree of vigilance.  It’s a recursive strategy that ensures an ever-growing cavalcade of corpses.  As King's role model Mahatma Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye makes the world blind".  Or, maybe just zombifies us.

Romero's gore though is always subservient to the plot, not vice versa.  He's often conversely lambasted for not delivering enough entrails and praised for offering up the most enthralling and inventive executions. But the balance of the violence in Romero's scripts is always deliberately tipped.  As bloody and disgusting as the Dead films are, Romero consistently embeds his tragic villains with a sense of pathos (in later films he even sympathizes with them).  The excitement of seeing the zombies get killed in a Romero picture is always countered with a repulsion towards those who delight in their deaths.  It recalls Guy Debord, whose writing inspired the May 1968 student and worker uprising in Paris.  Debord, a lifelong revolutionary, once said "Victory will be for those who know how to create disorder without loving it".  Those who gleefully murder their zombie enemies without reservation offer no solutions to the "epidemic of mass murder" (as the radio announcer refers to it).  They are simply symptomatic of it, as Ben's grisly fate cruelly illustrates at the end of Night of the Living Dead.

The paradox of Romero's zombies is that they are archetypal forces who embody a wealth of contradictions.  They can represent new ideas and sweeping changes acting en masse to overthrow an established order, or their lifeless bodies can be stand-ins for cultural conformity.  The zombie as a figure functions equally well as an other, a figure of dread whose changes threaten to alter everyday living, and a faceless drone, like one of Theodor Adorno's "prepared corpses", whose inability to negotiate his or her station spells doom for humanity at large.  What exactly the zombies are can never be precisely pinned down because, as the mantra of Romero's later films goes, "They're us". 

To what do we owe ourselves?  To what do we owe our future corpses?  Will we go on living like we're already dead, like the past is inevitable, like we're doomed to repeat ourselves, doomed to recapitulate the terms of our decease?  "I am trying to scare you," Diary of the Dead's film student Debra narrates as footage of war, disease, panic, and terror screen behind her voice in George A. Romero's most recent film.  "Maybe you'll wake up.  Maybe you won't make the same mistakes we did".  40 years and counting…

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