I love superhero movies. I’ve seen all of the Marvel movies, most of them in the theatre. I like the heroes of literature too–Beowulf, Van Helsing and Aragorn. I think it’s an essential character trait of every hero that he or she is usually concerned for the wellbeing of others–often to the point of death.
Zombie movies don’t have heroes like that.
Our heroes have changed because we have.
Literary heroes represent ideals and ideas that are valued by a society– self-sacrifice is often one of these ideals, but certainly not the only one. Like monsters, heroes change to reflect their contemporary cultural context.
The Immanent Hero
Like all heroes, the heroes in zombie films “face crisis situations in which they must assume extraordinary personal responsibility and make exceedingly difficult choices” (Robinson [Fear] 23). The modern hero has to make these choices in a modern world and that means there is no transcendent ideal to guide these decisions. Their choices are often between some moral principle and their survival. The focus in these moments of crisis is on the agony of the choice, rather than on the sacrificial nature of the hero. And despite the agony, the choice is almost always in favor of survival.
Thus, in zombie narratives, it is not really appropriate to call any of the protagonists heroes. For with the emphasis on survival, and without transcendent ideals, it is more accurate to call them “would-be survivors.”
Simon Pegg points out that “the protagonists of zombie invasion movies are not superheroes or professional monster slayers like Van Helsing – they are common, average folk forced to ‘step up’ and defend themselves” (Bishop 117). So, just as the zombie is an immanent monster, the hero in the zombie narrative is an immanent hero.
Heroism in Night of the Living Dead
In Night of the Living Dead, the fate of the character Ben reveals the demise of the traditional hero. Despite his failings, Ben is “the closest any of the human beings in Night of the Living Dead come [sic] . . . to being the sort of hero that is found in previous monster narratives” (Waller 295-96). For lack of any better place to put it, the audience puts their faith in Ben.
This faith is regularly challenged, however. Ben is protective of Barbara, but only somewhat so. When Barbara first enters the farmhouse, she discovers a partially consumed corpse and flees. Ben, having just arrived in a pickup truck, intercepts Barbara, and with a tire iron gallantly dispatches several lurching men, who are becoming numerous, and finally leads the hysterical Barbara back into the house.
Ben is a hero defined, not by knowledge or depth of belief, but by his actions (Waller 284). As soon as he arrives at the farmhouse and discovers Barbara, he gets to work barricading the doors and windows. His heroism is rooted in a material and practical—the immanent domain.
After the others are discovered in the cellar, he seems to expect they “will prove to be as competent as he has proven and that help will come to those who help themselves” (Waller 285). He does not see himself as one who supersedes the others in ability. Whatever capacity he has, he expects it to be present in everyone else as well.
The radio reports widespread attacks by people seemingly in a trance; later there are reports of widespread mass murders and cannibalism. The situation is stressful, and Ben does not always deal with it very well. He obviously lacks leadership skill, For example: he engages in bickering with Harry; he overreacts in anger on several occasions, the last of which results in his shooting of Harry with the rifle.
It is further obvious that he is not a traditional hero when he fails to save Barbara or any of the other temporary residents of the besieged farmhouse. He merely survives the night.
The Death of Heroism
In the morning, a posse, which has been killing the remaining zombies, approaches the house. Hearing them, Ben cautiously goes up the cellar stairs into the living room and is mistakenly shot dead by a posse member who takes him for a zombie. His body is carried from the house and burned with the zombie corpses.
Rather than standing next to the vanquished foe, or at least honoured by the survivors for his sacrificial victory, the hero instead lies, undistinguished, on a pile of dead monsters.
In Night of the Living Dead, the action is bookended between two scenes that “intimate that the zombie-human distinction is not that easily made” (Cooke 167). In the first sequence, a zombie is mistaken for a man, and, at the end, a man is mistaken for a zombie, and shot and burned as one.
Thus, the movie gives its viewers a picture of a flattened world, for in the death of each character, we see the death of every previously-held source of fullness or meaning. In Ben’s death, we see the utter meaninglessness of everything in a world without the transcendent.
The immanent “hero” of this film burns like the great hero Beowulf, but this is no funeral pyre, but a garbage fire. There is little difference between hero and monster, given that Ben is laid upon a bonfire to be burned.
Waller’s explanation of the action around the final bonfire reinforces the absence of any meaning that we can take from the film. The men in the posse have no idea they have misinterpreted the situation in shooting Ben; the movie audience alone is privy to this information.
McClelland orders a deputy to burn the grisly heaps of the formerly undead. Because McClelland is the final human being we see in the film, Waller calls him the survivor. As such, we can look to him, and his fire, for those things that endure. He is “unemotional and almost cynically mater-of-fact. He is concerned not with explanations, but only with getting his job done. The work he is engaged in is just work and not a mission, much less a holy crusade” (Waller 297).
Ben suffers exactly the same fate as the monsters, and the tragedy the night before is nothing more than a day’s work for McClelland and his men. McClelland’s attitude is what is required of secular man in the flattened world. The death of the thoroughly immanent hero symbolizes this symptom of the modern identity “whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it” (A Secular Age 303).
In Night of the Living Dead, “every convention of heroism is overturned by Romero’s script” (Russell 68).
Zombies and The Modern Malaise
In its treatment of the hero, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead reflects what Charles Taylor called the modern malaise. One of the effects of modernity is a malaise in which we get the sense that our lives “have been flattened or narrowed” (Malaise 4). The movie clearly illustrates the loss of the “heroic dimension of life,” at least of a sense of what we might call a higher purpose, “of something worth dying for” (Malaise 4).
Taylor says that this sense of loss is inevitable given the “eclipse of the transcendent” (307). He distinguishes three forms that “the malaise of immanence may take.” First, is a “sense of the ‘fragility of meaning,’” the search for an over-arching significance; second, is the felt flatness of special moments in life; and lastly, is “the utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary” (309). He suggests that this everyday lack can be the most painful and seems most significant for “people of some leisure and culture.”
This malaise is, then, particularly acute for those who live in a consumer culture, who “feel [the] emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape” (309). The malaise of immanence that is felt so deeply in consumer culture is exploited in Romero’s second movie about the undead.
Next zombie post: Consumer Culture