A few days ago, I co-hosted a screening of Night of the Living Dead for our school’s “American Studies” and “Philosophy and Religion” student clubs. My main job was to briefly introduce the movie by waxing eloquent on the history and philosophical significance of zombies. For the history stuff, I mostly stole what I can remember of a fascinating talk by former U. Chicago co-Fellow Greg Beckett, who’s an actual expert in this area. And then I added some philosophical speculations of my own. Anyway, here’s what I ended up saying:
Night of the Living Dead is a 1968 cult movie by George A. Romero. It was the director’s first film, produced on a shoestring budget, with a cast of complete unknowns. Nonetheless, it was surprisingly successful, spawning numerous sequels—and becoming the model for all future zombie movies, T.V. shows, and other literature.
In many ways, it’s actually a very simple movie, with a straightforward plot. And yet it somehow seems to call out for further interpretation. And over the years, many have been given. Coming out at the height of the cold war, it’s been viewed as an allegory of U.S. / Soviet relations. (Think: the proud, democratic, individualistic Americans—threatened by a horde of collective, soul-less communists.) Alternately, it’s been interpreted as a stinging critique of American capitalism. (Here the zombies symbolize a kind of relentless, mindless consumption of goods—in this case: human brains.)
Another obvious theme is race. (This will quickly become evident when we watch the movie.) Again, it’s useful to recall that the movie came out at a key moment in the civil rights movement of the sixties—in fact, in the very year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. At the time, race weighed heavily on everyone’s minds.
Now, Romero himself tends to downplay these political and social interpretations. For him, it was always—first and foremost—a horror movie. And what I find most fascinating about Night of the Living Dead is the peculiar monster he chose to induce this horror.
Romero himself didn’t invent zombies. They actually go way back. Their origin lies in the traditional Voodoo religion that was practiced in Haiti. Basically, zombies were bewitched people, trapped in a mindless state, enslaved by their voodoo sorcerer-master, and then made to toil in the sugar-cane plantations. In the early and mid-1900s, there were a number of books and movies about these zombies. They weren’t villains, and they didn’t really do anything. They were simply the helpless victims of their cruel slave-master.
Romero’s zombies are very different. It was his idea to make them the Living Dead: grotesque, decaying beings (beyond any person’s control), who act relentlessly on a single, overwhelming desire: to devour the flesh of the Living.
Clearly, Romero’s version of the zombie struck a nerve. We’ve had zombies ever since, and they’re more popular now than ever before. But all of them—whether it’s Michael Jackson’s “grizzly ghouls in search of blood”, the British epidemic victims in 28 Days Later, or the Walking Dead in the hit TV show—all of them hew closely to Romero’s original conception.
So, let’s pause for a moment and take a closer look at these zombies. (But don’t get too close!) As movie villains, they have an oddly ambiguous status. They’re certainly repulsive—ever more so as movie budgets get bigger and special effects improve. But they’re not really evil—after all, they don’t even know what they’re doing! (You kill them to protect yourself, but you don’t really blame them for their actions.) In many ways, zombies are tragic figures. You can still see the lost humanity in them: in their rotting resemblance to their former selves; in the frayed outfits and disheveled ties that they continue to wear.
But there’s also a second sense in which zombies are an odd choice for a horror movie. As villains go, they’re just not terribly effective. They’re easily distracted; they don’t work together at all; they’re not especially strong or fast; and they don’t use any tools or weapons. (Vampires and werewolves surely pose a much greater threat.) Zombies do become dangerous in large numbers, but outsmarting them is still fairly easy. What makes them horrifying is something that goes beyond their danger to us.
And this, I think, is what makes them philosophically interesting creatures. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defined the human being as the uniquely rational animal. His teacher, Plato, had a similar view. For him, a good or just person is one in whom reason rules over our base desires. Rightly or wrongly, philosophers have long viewed the bodily desires with suspicion. Lust and greed and hunger can be overwhelmingly powerful; they routinely get us into trouble; and it’s widely believed that these urges should be controlled as much as possible.
Zombies, however, represent the complete loss of this control. They really are pure bodily desire, unregulated by any conscience or reason. My suggestion is that this horrifies us precisely because we’re often uncomfortable with our own desires and appetites. — It’s a fear of our own selves that we project onto these Undead monsters.
No doubt, Romero would be just as suspicious of my interpretation. Fair enough! Since we’re not zombies, let’s just call it food for thought.
OK, on with the movie!