I have been an aficianado of horror films ever since my discovery that the genre is primarily social commentary in a dreamlike guise. Of course, in slasher horror this nearly always means that sexually active teens get murdered and the chaste ones survive, as if young people need to experience vicarious punishment for their forbidden urges on the screen to resolve their inner guilt.
Horror isn’t always about hidden guilt, but it often is. I first saw “Night of the Living Dead” when I bought it from a Blockbuster store for $1.50. I couldn’t pass up such a good deal, and VHS was sold very cheap by video stores when DVD finally went mainstream. I became an immediate zombie fan after seeing it, and this was long, long before zombies became so popular as they are now, a phenomenon I’ll write more on in future posts. I subsequently bought all of George Romero‘s zombie films, searching for their hidden meanings, some agreed on by many who had seen them decades before I did, and some interpretations I think were all my own.
The first scene of “Night of the Living Dead” is a story all into itself. It begins in grainy black and white, a solitary car on a lonely country road in rural Pennsylvania, with two young people arguing as they drive.
Johnny: Do you think I wanna blow Sunday on a scene like this? You know, I figure we’re either going to have to move Mother out here or move the grave into Pittsburgh.
Barbara: She can’t make a trip like this!
Johnny: Oh, don’t tell me she can’t! Is there any of that candy left?
Johnny looks in back seat and pulls out a cross with a wreath attached.
Johnny: Look at this thing. “We still remember.” I don’t! You know, I don’t even remember what the man looks like?
Barbara: Johnny, it takes you five minutes!
Johnny: Yeah, five minutes to put the wreath on the grave and six hours to drive back and forth. Mother wants to remember so we trot 200 miles into the country and she stays at home.
Barbara: Well, we’re here, John, all right?
They get out of the car. Eerie music plays.
Johnny: Well, there’s no one around.
Barbara: Well it’s late. If you’d gotten up earlier—
Johnny: Oh, look, I already lost an hour’s sleep with the time change.
Barbara: I think you complain just to hear yourself talk! There it is!
Johnny places cross on grave.
Johnny: I wonder what happenned to the one from last year? Each year we spend good money on these things; we come out here and the one from last year’s gone.
Barbara: Well, the flowers die and the caretaker or somebody takes them away.
Johnny: Yeah, a little spit and polish you can clean this up—(thunder in background) and sell it next year. Wonder how many times we bought the same one?
Barbara kneels and prays. More thunder.
Johnny: Hey, c’mon Barb, church was this morning, huh?
Lightning. He turns to look, then sees a man walking stiffly, some distance away from them.
Johnny: Hey, I mean prayin’s for church, huh? C’mon!
Barbara: I haven’t seen you in church, lately.
Johnny: (Laughs) Well, not much sense in my going to church. Do you remember one time when we were small we were out here? It was from right over there (He points). I jumped out at you from behind a tree and grandpa got all excited and shook his fist at me and he said “You’ll be damned to hell!” Laughs. Remember that? Right over there! Well, you used to be really scared here.
Johnny: Hey, you’re still afraid!
Barbara: Stop it now, I mean it!
Johnny: They’re coming to get you, Barbara!
Barbara: Stop it! You’re ignorant!
Stiffly walking man appears in background.
Johnny: They’re coming for you, Barbara!
Barbara: Stop it! You’re acting like a child!
Johnny: They’re coming for you! Look! There goes one of them now! (He indicates the stiffly walking man).
Barbara: (Scolding) He’ ll hear you!
Johnny: Here he comes now! I’m getting out of here!
Embarrassed, she attempts to walk by the man as though nothing had been said. The man grabs her. She screams and begs Johnny for help. He comes and grapples with the man but the man kills him. Thunder. Lightning. Dramatic music. Barbara runs, gets to the car. The man attempts to break into it and smashes a window. Barbara, who does not have the keys, finally releases the emergency brake and the car rolls down hill. She then gets out and runs to an abandoned house.
The change of the seasons was celebrated as a supernatural occurrence in ancient cultures. We know it must be spring because Johnny mentions the time change, and it’s something he hasn’t prepared for. The dead were said to walk the land during these special times, and Walpurgis Night in Europe was more or less the spring season version of Halloween. When the dead were out and about, it was customary to give them an offering of food. After all, dead people were the ancestors of the tribe, and the ancestors provided supernatual aid to assure the prosperity of their living descendants, so it was a necessary courtesy to honor the dead. Over time, leaving food out as an offering to the spirits changed into a ritual in which living people would dress up as the spirits and go door to door and collect the food offerings. This became “Trick or Treat.” If you didn’t provide food for the dead, they would curse you and misfortune would come to your house, which was the “trick” if there was no “treat”.
So the problem developing here is this: Johnny doesn’t want to honor the ancestors, he thinks it’s a waste of time and money, and in fact he doesn’t even want to remember his own father, which is especially callous. The brother and sister apparently brought candy with them, which is the modern traditional food given to “spirits” on Halloween, but Johnny has eaten it all himself. He ate the offering for the dead.
He asks why they have to buy a new wreath every year when the same old one would do, and Barbara says “someone” or the “caretaker” takes the offerings away. This implies the dead are actively accepting the gifts and are aware. Once they get to the grave, Johnny is impatient and irreverant, reminding Barbara of the time their grandfather cursed him on that very spot for being frivolous. The curse of the dead is already on him. We know Johnny is a goner. Then, a zombie suddenly appears. I can’t help but think this is actually Johnny and Barbara’s father. He seems to want to make contact with them in a desparate sort of way, but Johnny grapples with him and ends up getting killed. Take that you little brat!
So what happens when the dead are not presented with offerings of food? They get really hungry, and come out of their graves to eat the living, of course! Metaphorically, you could say young people have become “consumed” by guilt.
Many commentators of “Night of the Living Dead” have mentioned the influence of the controversy of the Vietnam War on this film. The youth of the 60’s were angry at their elders, but probably also felt some guilt over that. By 1968, when this film was made, the cultural revolution was coming to an end and the consequences were being felt. Rejecting the values of the previous generation, the youth felt lost and worried by the chaos around them. Rebellion against the parents may have been necessary and inevitable, but left a tinge of guilt, and horror.
Later in the film a young child becomes a zombie and stabs her mother to death with a trowel. This is one of the beginnings of a developing horror theme of the 1970’s: the demonic child.