Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Favorite Zombie: Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero's 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead easily makes its way into my list of the best 25 movies of all time because it's so philosophical. I could easily write a volume about how great this movie is, scene by scene, but I will try to limit it to a few high points and hopefully you'll want to watch it and then you can make your own decisions.
The first item to be noted is a shot of the car once it has entered the cemetery grounds, and we see it in a frame with a close up of an American flag: the "hold" on this shot reminds us explicitly that America was founded for religious freedom. As we find out, however, siblings Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbara (Judith O'Dea) are there to honor their dead father, symbolically, God the Father, who is dead to His children, Americans.
"They're coming to get you, Barbara!"
Barbara kneels and begins to pray a rosary and Johnny starts making fun of her. Barbara's reverence is undermined by her brother and these first few moments makes it clear that this "zombie invasion" coming to America is because America hasn't been true to its founding: the freedom to worship. Johnny is enslaved to a host of petty other activities (doing anything but honoring the father, even on Sunday) and that is the reason they are the dead, they are dead to God. Barbara, while faithful, isn't strong in her faith, and fails in the trials that would make her so.

From the colorized version of 2004, the original is in black and white.
The list of complaints Johnny has from the moment they arrive at the cemetery until he's "killed" includes a waste of time,  a waste of money, no one remembers anyway, etc., complaints that are self-centered and demeaning to all those at rest in the cemetery and their mother who is 200 miles away but wanted them to make the trip anyway (symbolically, Holy Mother Church). While he's saying these things, he puts on black gloves. We know it's summer, about 8 o'clock in the evening, so it's not cold, therefore, there must be a symbolic purpose: hands, as part of the arms, symbolize strength, and black is a symbol for death (it can be good to be "dead to the world," for a priest, for example, but there is also black for being "dead to God") and Johnny is "dead to God" as his conversation reveals. The gloves, then, symbolize how his "strength" is being spiritually dead.
Irritated that she's taking so long, Johnny says, "Come on, Barb, praying's for church." To which his sister responds, "I haven't seen you in church lately," and Johnny sardonically replies, "I don't think going to church would do me much good anyway," and Johnny reminds Barbara of when they were little and he would hide behind the tombstones and jump out at her and their grandfather told him that he was going to hell. Johnny doesn't like being in the cemetery because it reflects how he himself is already dead. This "spiritual strength" which comes from him being dead really just means that he's capable of pulling Barbara down with him, of impeding her following her instincts to honor their father and their Father.

Note the black gloves he's wearing, they're important later on.
Noting that she's still scared, Johnny utters one of the most famous lines in movie history, "They're coming to get you, Barbara!" As with most things in art, the reason the line is so creepy is because it's true: they are coming to get her, and you, and me. Seeing a "man" walking around the cemetery, Johnny acts as if the man is "one of them" coming to get Barbara. Trying to be decorous, Barbara doesn't look at the man who attacks her as he walks by. It's important that the "cemetery zombie" (S. William Hinzman) attacks Barbara first, because attacking Barbara's what Johnny has been doing this entire time.
Barbara watching as Johnny struggles with the zombie.
It seems that Johnny comes to the aid of his sister to save her from this madman, but in truth, Johnny is the madman because only a madman would attack God and his church ("Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Christ called out to Saul who would become the Apostle Paul, for murdering Christians) and that is exactly what Johnny has been doing. When Johnny starts struggling with the zombie, he's struggling with himself, and that his eyeglasses are knocked off first thing, indicates that he can't see what is really happening, he doesn't have the vision to know why he is this dead man. After struggling, the zombie knocks Johnny's head on a tombstone and he "dies."
The cemetery he mocks is the cemetery that kills him.
The "cemetery zombie" after he''s killed Johnny and coming for Barbara.
Now, the zombie's coming to get Barbara.
If I am right and this monster is a psychoanalytic double for Johnny (please see The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Battle For America and I Am Legend: Psychoanalytic Doubles for more examples) then why is it coming for Barbara? Death is contagious. Especially spiritual death. When one person "dies spiritually," it brings others down with it, and that's what's happening to Barbara now. How do we know this? When the cemetery zombie turns his attention to her, she starts running and, of course, she falls but she also looses both of her shoes. This fall is a fall from grace, that is, Johnny's taunts have effected her and she has lost some of her strength that comes from grace. Her lost shoes symbolizes her will (the feet symbolize the will) and her lost will to honor God means that she's weakening. She still has grace and strength left to get to safety, but her brother plays an important role in this, too.
The zombie trying to get Barbara in the car.
Running away after losing both her shoes, she gets into their car but the keys aren't there. Johnny has them. She locks the doors and the zombie gets to the car and starts pounding on the glass, trying to break in. He goes to the passenger side and, taking a rock, shatters the glass. The car, as a vehicle, symbolizes the Holy Spirit because the Spirit is the vehicle of our life, the One who takes us where we are supposed to be (for example, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, and the Israelites were led by a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke). Like most of us, Barbara has allowed someone else to "have the key" to her heart, which takes her to God the way a car took Johnny and Barbara to the cemetery. When our heart is going towards God, so is the rest of us; when our hearts are earth-bound, so is the rest of us. Basically, Barbara loves Johnny more than she loves God. She has enough to put the car in neutral and coast, but that won't get her through the next 24 hours. (She will keep repeating that Johnny has the keys to the car).
It's important to remember, this guy isn't going to give up, they never do.
The shattered window symbolizes Barbara's reflection on herself as a Christian (remember, this is really a form of dramatization of what Johnny's mocking her really means and what his taunts really did to her from earlier). She's able to put the car in neutral, or "neutralize" the situation. Coasting down the road (her "road in life") she runs into a tree, can't get the driver side door open so she hops out and runs down the road. The tree symbolizes the cross and the sacrifice that Barbara is being asked to make, sacrificing Johnny. It doesn't mean giving him up, but it does mean putting the love of God before the love of another human, and this literally "collides" with Barbara because she's been trying to "coast through Christianity" and Christ doesn't allow any of us to do that, we have to take a stand, we have to be strong.
Duane Jones as Ben.
Barbara makes it to an "abandoned" house where there is a door wide open for her. She closes the door and goes in, walking around the house. Outside, she sees the cemetery zombie pulling out the phone line; she tries to make a call, but the phone is dead. Literally, this reflects, again, Johnny making fun of her for praying, and that now, she can't pray because "Praying's for church," and she's not in church.... she thinks, but this house will become a type of church because the "live" people will be protected from the "dead" outside, at least for a while. The dead phone is Barbara's prayer line that she no longer has due to Johnny's influence. Seeing that the house is now being surrounded by the dead, (think of it as the liberal media ganging up on Christians to try and destroy us) she does a smart thing: she goes up the stairs.
Death at the top of the stairs. The reason Barbara sees this is because this is how she sees the sacrifice that Christ asks us to make, that making that sacrifice is the "death" that Christ wants of us, when he really asks us to die to our sins (the control they have over us) so we can be alive to the Spirit who gives us real life.
As I mentioned in Decoding the Decoding: Scream and Mary Poppins: Frankenstein and Animal Farm, going up the stairs symbolizes a higher plane of thought, so that's good for her to do, asses the situation. But she finds a rotting corpse at the top of the stairs. Barbara sees this as herself in her own mental state, that this is what she is or what she will become with the sacrifice that God is asking her to make (you can read it either way). She's now undermining herself, instead of being hopeful, she's becoming her own zombie and destroying herself by morbid thoughts instead of being hopeful. Then a miracle happens... well, sort of. She runs back down the stairs and, in a fit of despair, throws open the door to get out and a pair of bright car lights shine on her. A man gets out (Ben, played by Duane Jones) and looks at her to see if she's "living," decides she is okay, takes her arm as the cemetery zombie and others gather around, and goes back in, locking the door. The reason this is a miracle is because this is the "salt" that Barbara needs to be able to refresh her own faith (What good is salt if it loses its flavor? It must be thrown out. Please see Salt in How To Eat Art). When we are weak, someone who is strong re-enforces what has become weak in us; this is validated when Ben finds a pair of shoes and puts them on Barbara, he's giving her a new will to survive.
The problem is, Ben isn't very strong himself.
We know he isn't strong because his car (again, a sign of the Holy Spirit) is out of gas, which means that, spiritually, he's out of gas, too (and this explains the ending). He starts talking and tells Barbara he noticed there is a gas pump outside but the key isn't there... again, a missing key like the key to Barbara's car. The gas needed for the car is the energy that comes from the Holy Spirit, but the key is prayer, because it's prayer that unlocks the energy of God, literally God's own life force, Grace. But, "Praying's for church," so don't expect to find it.
Now would be a good time to asses where we are up to this point.
The dead are those who, like Barbara's brother Johnny, are dead in the spirit and dead to God because God is dead to them. Others, like Barbara, who were practicing their faith, but are weak, find out just how weak they are, because this is the "night" of those who are dead: the dark trial of the soul. In Psalm 42, it reads, "Deep is calling on deep," which means, when we are in a deep crisis, we have to respond with deep faith, and Night of the Living Dead is that moment, as it is everyday for a Christian. This is where the spirituality of "running the race" that St. Paul discusses comes into cinema: if Barbara and Ben (and all the other characters) had been exercising their faith strongly, none of them would be in this position: for example, if Barbara had been making sacrifices each day, the sacrifice of Johnny's love would have been easier, and with her making those sacrifices, her love for God would have grown so she would be stronger. She would know who the dead are and what they are going to do to her but she would be ready. The house they are in doesn't seem like a church? You're right, it doesn't, and I bet in 1968 when it was made, most churches probably didn't seem like churches either, as it is still today.
What gives the dead their strength?
Eating human flesh.
Watching the news to understand what's going on.
We know these are not "rising from the grave" zombies because of the clothes they wear (the last time you went to a funeral, what was the deceased buried in?) rather, as stated above, these are living people who are spiritually dead to God. That they are "flesh eating zombies" means that they do not "eat the flesh of Christ," but devour other humans by destroying the life of Christ in them. Christ said, whosoever eateth my flesh will have eternal life, and knowing that, by definition, a zombie is someone who doesn't have life in them, they do not have Christ, but seek to destroy Christ in us. This is the same basic principles as vampires, who do not drink the Blood of Christ, but drink the blood of humans instead: it is a matter of being earthly-centered instead of Christ-centered.
Using fire to scare them away.
On a news broadcast, the "zombies" are described as a mass of assassins committing random homicide, which is like the early martyrdoms of Christians when they were being killed and it is only effecting the 1/3 of the eastern United States. What is Ben doing about it? What would be a natural reaction, but not the spiritual reaction: he's boarding up the house. By putting boards over the doors and entry, he's boarding up his faith so that he can't be martyred for it. This is the natural reaction that most of us would have, but instead of letting his faith out and be a weapon of witnessing, he's hiding it.
If you think I am exaggerating this, watch the most famous spoof of Night of the Living Dead, Night of the Living Bread:
Let's hear it for the Bread Wranglers.
Why do zombies not like fire?
There are two types of fire: there is the fire of the Holy Spirit (such as at Pentecost) which burns away our sins and purifies our souls; then there is the eternal punishment of fire in Hell, because we did not succumb to the fire of the Spirit, so that fire eternally feeds on sins as regular fire feeds on wood. When zombies see the fire, they are repelled because it reminds them of the Holy Spirit to whom they do not yield in trials but it also reminds them of the fires of hell (as Johnny mentions in the cemetery). This is the reason why this house is such a great "character" in the film: the animal heads hanging up symbolize the animal passions of the people living there, the music box Barbara accidentally opens is the tune to which their hearts danced and that it is abandoned means that the Holy Trinity did not make their home in that place. And this is the shocking thing about it: it's so normal. That probably looks like most houses then, and even today, and yet it's the symbol of a person dead to Christ.
Feminists criticize the film for Barbara seeming to be so helpless.
As Ben attempts to board up the house, Barbara can do nothing but walk around in a state of shock, as if she herself is becoming a zombie. The little bit of grace that had been in her is dying, and she doesn't have much left to hold onto. This is the opposite effect of the zombies who "can't die." Any little thing will deter Barbara from her Christian faith, but the zombies can't be stopped. Why? Literally, if you shoot them down, they come right back, just like in our culture, if you "shoot them down," secularists still don't accept the answers you give for your faith. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, when they ask for a black swan and you give them a black swan, they want a different black swan. Another great example comes from Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction: Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) asks Vincent (John Travolta) what his definition of a miracle is; "Something that's impossible," he responds, and Jules tells him that having a gun unloaded on them without being scratched is impossible and hence, by Vincent's own definition, a miracle, and Vincent refuses to accept that (please see Pulp Fiction: A Study In Plato and Aristotle). The "recently dead" coming back symbolizes those who have recently died in their faith and are now trying to destroy those still alive in their faith. 
Flesh eating zombie.
This is all I am going to say about the film (unless, of course, there are questions or comments) but I would like to add this: the news reporters link a satellite that had gone to Venus with an increase in radiation with the outbreak of mass homicides. If this is the reason for it, and the makers of the film would never say either way, then let's remember what we saw at the very beginning: there was the American flag, which invokes our freedom to worship. If people were becoming spiritually dead because they were sending satellites into the heavens, instead of sending their prayers into heaven, then perhaps that explains the phenomena of Night of the Living Dead.
Johnny, towards the end of the film, "comes to get Barbara."
There are several fascinating characters in this film, Mr. Cooper being one of the most despicable characters I have ever witnessed, but truthfully, how many of us have a Mr. Cooper lurking in us, just waiting for a crisis to happen until he can jump out and show his ugly face? I hope that I have given you some reasons to watch the film if you have never seen it before, and if this still isn't enough, consider that critics on Rotten Tomatoes have given it a 96% approval rating  and it is available on Netflix instant viewing this month.