Thursday, April 4, 2013

American Apocalypse 1968: Night of the Living Dead


One idea that has come up again and again in our discussion and research on zombies is that the monster in a story is a reflection of the societal fears at that time. During the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, and in the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther KIng Jr., Americans were losing faith in America and the notion of justice—that death had meaning and happened for a reason, to serve some greater cause. This widespread disillusionment is strongly reflected in George Romero’s  1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s new version of the zombie and revolutionary new brand of horror make it difficult to imagine Night of the Living Dead classified in the same genre as something like Dracula. With Romero, there is no personification of evil preying upon the innocent (as in pre-sixties Gothic horror films), only a country in chaos, preying upon itself. Throughout the film, Night of the Living Dead portrays a dark outlook on American society—one which resonated with the disillusioned audience of the 1960s.
The Museum of Modern Art identifies one theme of Night of the Living Dead as, “Death is random and without purpose,” never “for the greater good or to further the survival of others.” It’s true: throughout the film, death is constant, and never does it serve any good. The first death, Johnny’s, is completely unexpected and undeserved, beginning what we learn is a widespread trend of sudden, inexplicable murders (the beginning of a zombie apocalypse). The societal fear illuminated by this monster is not fear of the Forces of Evil as something external and malevolent, but fear of senseless destruction of life, rooted in society itself—a reflection of Americans’ feelings about the Vietnam War. The new mistrust in the government and questioning of Vietnam is best illustrated by the films final death, when Ben is assumed to be a zombie and shot casually by the posse of zombie hunters who should be rescuing him. This death at the hands of those supposed to be protectors hit close to home with an audience who had for ten years lost friends and family drafted against their will and killed in a war they didn’t agree with.
Tom and Judy’s deaths are equally in vain; they die frantically attempting to escape a car they’v accidentally lit on fire while attempting to ward off zombies. Here, there is not even an intentional killer; the characters lose control of the weapon they use to frighten their enemies, and it destroys them. This mirrors the precarious situation of the Cold War, in which both the US and Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, and were one mistaken warning signal away from utterly annihilating one another. This connection to the threat of nuclear technology is accentuated by the fact that the zombie phenomenon is caused by a rare form of radiation. The explosion of the car and Judy and Tom’s deaths seem to ask, “Can we escape this before our own weapons destroy us?”


The events of the ‘60s shattered the picture-perfect, 1950s image of what domestic life in America was supposed to be. This is illustrated in Night of the Living Dead in what the Museum of Modern Art calls “the desecration of the wholesome American family.” The wholesome family in question consists of two traditional parents with their injured daughter (who, unbeknownst to them, has become a zombie). Possibly the most disturbing death in the film is when the little girl brutally stabs and kills her own mother. The murder of a parent echoes the assassinations of two beloved leaders (JFK and MLK) which changed America forever.


Night of the Living Dead marked a huge shift in the horror genre in cinema, to match the momentous shift that was happening culturally in this country. Romero was able to express the countries fears, offering “a release for the country's repressed trauma” (Museum of Modern Art), and making a comment on the state of society and the direction America was headed.

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