Not only is it difficult to attribute the term “evil” to this most modern of monsters, but it is also difficult to attribute the term “good” to the “heroes” of the zombie movie. In fact, the primary victim of the zombie horde is not the humans that battle the undead for survival; the primary victim is “Good” itself.
“Night of the Living Dead” and Traditional Values
In Night of the Living Dead, each character seems to offer some gesture toward a source of fullness or a transcendent value, but these are ultimately shown to be meaningless, for in each case the virtue does nothing to improve the condition or survivability of the protagonist. As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies.
All transcendent values and ambitions are consumed by the zombie horde.
The first victim: religion (and its opposite). The film begins with siblings Johnny and Barbra making the annual trek to visit their father’s grave. Barbara’s religious devotion and respect for the dead is apparent as she kneels and prays at the graveside. Her reverence is contrasted by the cynicism and selfishness of Johnny, who complains and mocks his sister’s observance of religious ritual. A man lurches toward the pair and attacks Barbara. Johnny defends her but is seemingly killed in the struggle when his head strikes a gravestone. That Johnny is the first victim “could be taken as a dispensation of justice: Johnny pays for being a self-centered, materialistic, cynical non-believer.”
But Barbara’s initial survival does little more than ensure she “will face a much more horrible and ironic fate at the hands of the undead” (Waller 282). In the meantime, Barbara flees, pursued by the strange man, to a nearby farmhouse where she will eventually be killed. Christian faith and devotion, then, are clearly shown to be no greater help than mocking disbelief.
Christianity and religion are not the only traditional values that fall victim to the undead; the values of collective action, romantic love, and the nuclear family are also useless. These traditional values are represented by characters who emerge from the cellar of the farmhouse later in the film. Tom and Judy, a young couple, represent “sticking together” and romantic love respectively.
Tom’s advocacy for collective action in combating the creatures begins immediately. When the two other men are heatedly debating their plans for survival, Tom says, “We’d be a lot better off if all three of us were working together” (Night). His views are shown to be naïve and idealistic, for in the one attempt to work together he is killed and the only hope for escape, the truck, goes up in literal flames.
Romantic love suffers the same fate. Judy, Tom’s girlfriend, cannot be without her love and runs to be with him as he attempts to fuel the pickup truck. One of the torches used to hold off the zombies accidentally gets into contact with some of the fuel Tom spills. Tom attempts to move the truck to safety, but it is clear that it is too late. He jumps free from the vehicle, but Judy’s jacket gets caught. He jumps back into the truck to rescue her just as it explodes and both are killed.
Rather than being a powerful force of salvation, romantic love leads instead to the death of the young lovers who embody it. These deaths “serve no purpose,” once again showing that “the real horror of Night of the Living Dead is that there is nothing we can do that will make any difference at all” (Dillard [in American Horrors] 28).
The Coopers represent the nuclear family. The Coopers, Harry and Helen and their daughter, Karen, had been hiding in the cellar of the farmhouse with Tom and Judy. The little girl Karen has been bitten by one of the undead and is feverish and weak. Barbara, whom the audience associates with a traditional heroine or damsel, saves Helen from the clutches of the undead only to be dragged out the window by her re-animated brother, Johnny. The family violence continues as Helen stumbles into the cellar only to see her daughter, who has become a zombie, eating her slain husband. She is defenseless as the little girl attacks and kills her with a cement trowel.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”In #NightoftheLivingDead, each character offers a gesture toward a traditional value, but each is shown to be meaningless. As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies. #zombies” quote=”In Night of the Living Dead, each character offers a gesture toward a traditional value, but each is shown to be meaningless. As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies. “]
Romero shows that “whatever the living do in the film, whether they are brave or cowardly, rational or hysterical, in love or embittered, the result is the same: death” (Cooke 168). As a matter of fact, Dillard asserts that “those virtues that have been the mainstay of our civilized history seem to lead to defeat in this film even more surely than the traditional vices” (23).
The monsters aren’t really evil, and values and virtues are really of no good; the next post is about the hero of the zombie narrative.
Next zombie post: The Death of Heroism