The central metaphor of “zombie apocalypse” cinematic narratives is the “rising up” of beings signifying “The Other” and their aggressive urge to destroy people in their protected shelters (homes and businesses). Romero did this first, and did it best, even though he never really called these beings “zombies.” Night of the Living Dead (1968) was perhaps not initially intended as a cultural commentary on racism or other social ills, and yet it emerged as a powerful statement, coming as it did at the height of late 1960s upheaval.
The film concerns a group of desperate white people brought together in the countryside outside Pittsburgh, trying to escape flesh-eating ghouls that have begun wandering the area and attacking the living. A single black man named Ben emerges as a brave, capable leader. Romero did not intend this casting, but Duane Jones auditioned and was the best actor to read for the role. Ben finds Barbara, a young white woman in shock after watching her brother killed, and they run to a deserted farmhouse. Harry, a white man with a wife and young daughter, are hiding in the basement of that house, and when Ben challenges Harry’s cowardice, they two are at odds. The racial tension is palpable, as is the generational tension (Ben is in his 20s, Harry in his 40s).
The ghouls in Night of the Living Dead move slowly, wear ragged clothes, are described as “all messed up” and make guttural nonverbal sounds. Later a young white couple, dressed and groomed a bit like hippies, meet a tragic end, joining the ranks of the ghouls who could be said to symbolize the young, drug-consuming (“messed up”) anti-war protestors of the time. The ragged clothes from people rising after rotting in their caskets are a visual stand-in for the flowing clothes of the hippie fashion zeitgeist.
The era’s “Free Love” movement is expressed in the way the ghouls aggressively embrace and devour their victims. Further, the contamination that causes this reanimation of the dead is revealed during a television news broadcast to be a form of radiation brought back from a space mission to Venus (planet of love and sexuality), which also lends an alien, sexual connotation to the ghouls’ mode of attack: is it a reference to homosexuality? To more open (yet “scary”) ideas about sex in the books and films of the time? The divide between the sexual mores of the post-War 1950s generation and the late 1960s children of the Dionysian era of sex, drugs and rock and roll was still very wide at the time: the massive orgiastic mounds of flesh seen in Night of the Living Dead are uncomfortably intimate heaving masses of humanity. They are also a harbinger of a sex-borne pandemic that would emerge only a few years later in 1976, when the Bicentennial celebrations in New York’s harbors, it is theorized, became the vector for the AIDS virus to enter the United States homosexual community. And there followed a horrifying, homophobia-driven refusal of our federal government to ignore the crisis until it was a true pandemic.
Night of the Living Dead‘s ending expresses the most horrifying “othering” trope of all: the killing of Ben, the black hero left standing, by a good ol’ boy with a gun who mistakes Ben for one of the undead hordes. His corpse is thrown on the burning pile of ghouls, so much cordwood, and the images over the credits subtly evoke the Jim Crow South.
As Romero added to the franchise, he explored other examples of social ills (consumerism in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, fear of nuclear annihilation in 1985’s Day of the Dead), portraying the ghoulish “Other” as a zombified mall shopper and post-apocalyptic revenant, respectively. These were less concerned with the separations among different societal demographics than with pointing out societal trends pre-Millennium.
But in 2005’s Land of the Dead, Romero returned, triumphantly, to the theme of The Other in a way that underscored its parallel to urban life. The ghouls have assimilated into society, but are still dangerous. Only the very rich can avoid them, “safe” in their gilded towers; the lower classes try valiantly to work their way up to a place in the hallowed skyscraper village, but their ingenuity and hard work just wasn’t enough to help them “move up.” John Leguizamo plays a scrappy survivor who does anything his millionaire boss (Dennis Hopper) says, believing his good performance will gain him a place in the prized palaces of the city’s rich. It is trickle-down economics writ large, the have-nots forced to live among hordes of the living dead. The parallel to the homeless community is staggeringly clear.
When we begin to acknowledge the parallel of “zombie apocalypse” films to narratives of pandemics, and the social collapse that follows, it is clear that the illness that turns living people into flesh-eating ghouls, desperate, angry and hungry, is the illness of poverty. The rich can hunker down in bunkers, or put themselves high above the streets teeming with disease; it is their wealth that seems to give them, at least temporarily, immunity. This didn’t work out so well for the wealthy celebrants in The Masque of the Red Death, whose decadent excess was eventually met by the spectre of the waiting plague.
In all of Romero’s films about the undead, the ghoul hordes are seen as filthy, infected, and way too close for comfort. Romero’s “preservation efforts” progress from boarding up doors and windows, to “escaping” to suburban malls, to hiding in underground bunkers, to living high above the hordes in golden towers. But the poor, the filthy, the infected, the flesh-devouring hordes, they will not be denied. We may try to hide ourselves away from the world, but it finds us. It finds us even when we live our lives entirely online and eschew public gatherings and never go out of doors, like the characters in 2007’s Diary of the Dead, Romero’s prescient penultimate film. Technology and social media are but fleeting and fallible comforts when the fleshy dead come knocking.
In 2009’s Survival of the Dead, Romero’s final film (and one he hurried to make as his eyesight was failing), the filmmaker posits a world where we move to the literal ends of the earth, away from the flesh-eating ghouls, only to be devoured from within by our own human tendency to demonize whoever is in front of us. We need, perennially, endlessly, to despise The Other.
And at a time when virulent pestilence and reduced resources threaten our very lives, we may yet learn from Romero’s metaphors, symbols and signifiers, and from his message that The Other is the raging, ugly, starved specter of our own mortality. We demonize The Other in order to escape the human reality of our own finite awareness. We fear The Other because we fear our own end, which is inevitable, and as profoundly unknowable as it is intimately familiar. We must befriend The Other, if we are to survive. Romero’s vision was not a hopeful one.