Possession of Minds and Decision-making Quandaries in Night of the Living Dead
From The Grindhouse Cinema Database
“Survival Command Centre at the Pentagon has disclosed that the ghoul can be killed by a shot in the head or a heavy blow to the skull. Officials are quoted as explaining that since the brain of a ghoul has been activated by the radiation, the plan is, kill the brain and you killed the ghoul.”
These are the words appearing in the final telecast heard by the group in Night of the Living Dead. They have been surrounded by the undead and have just experienced a cataclysmic failure which has led to two deaths. Soon all of them will be dead, with a few unlucky ones to be counted among the undead.
Night of the Living Dead by George A. Romero is considered a cult classic today, a strong influence on the zombie genre and known for having spawned the ‘Living Dead’ series. It was made on a paltry budget and was a runaway hit; capturing the imagination of the audience by being able to deliver something that was novel yet able to hit upon the primitive fear of the inexplicable.
The majority of the film takes place in a house where the survivors have boarded up to save themselves from the vicious creatures which populate the outside world. The biggest currency in that house is fear of what lurks outside. Also spreading in the house like a slow poison is panic, which has been brought forth by this fear.
The Video game Alan Wake begins with “Stephen King once wrote that “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” In a horror story, the victim keeps asking ‘Why?’ But there can be no explanation and there shouldn’t be one.” It can be said that this movie pretty much follows the same rule.
The radio and TV broadcasts in the movie add to the tension, filling in the viewers as to the events taking place in the outside world from time-to-time. While the broadcast refers to the fact that a recent mission to Venus might be the reason for these events and ‘radiation’ somehow has a role to play in it, the exact causes and explanations are largely left unsaid.
We can add though that while the radiation supposedly makes it the night of the ‘living dead’ by ‘activating’ their brains; the ‘living’ inside the house, have nightmares of their own in terms of fear and panic which take hold over their minds and issues which arise due to personality clashes and disagreement over the future course of action.
There are seven people inside the house, the first two seen entering the house are Barbara, who forces her way in after she has been attacked by an undead and Ben who follows soon after fighting off the zombies as he tries to secure the house. Later, we see Harry and Helen along with their daughter and Tom and Judy, another couple, hiding in the cellar who join them upstairs after the commotion has died.
A small personality sketch of these characters would be helpful in understanding their conduct throughout the movie.
Barbara is visiting a cemetery along with her brother Johnny (who utters the famous “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” when a ghoul is approaching them, unaware of what it really is) when they are attacked by an undead. Johnny loses consciousness while Barbara runs away, finding refuge in a house nearby. There is more horror awaiting her, as she discovers a half-eaten corpse in the house and finds that several ghouls are approaching the house. Eventually, she is helped by Ben who fights off the zombies. She enters a catatonic state, unable to process what is going on around her and being of little help to Ben, who wants to board up the house completely. Her reaction of ‘freezing’ in the face of terror is realistically depicted as she mumbles about her journey to the cemetery and the attack (“And he grabbed me! He grabbed at me! And he ripped at me, He held me and ripped at my clothes!”), is distressed through the movie and only exits the state when she is finally confronted with the reality of the undead breaking into the house.
Ben is the man of action. He fights off the monsters and boards up the entire ground floor single-handedly. He looks for supplies and arms as he tries to stave off the horde of zombies. He realizes pretty early into conversation with Barbara that she would be of little help in the cause of keeping them safe from the attack, as well as the fact that her own narration of the ordeal is affecting his ability to think on the feet. He tells her repeatedly to calm down and tries to bring her back to reality. (“Now look… don't you know what's going on out there? This is no Sunday school picnic!)
A headstrong individual, he has theorized early on that the undead can be fought off (based on the experience of defeating three of them as he wrestles control over the house) and the best way out would be to face the menace and figure out a way to escape. A fighter to the core, he takes the leader’s role when confronting Harry over the control of the house. He is not pleased that others didn’t come to assist him while he was trying to board the house (even entering into a futile argument with Harry over whether they could hear what was going on upstairs “Now, wait a minute, you just got finished saying you couldn't hear anything from down there. Now you say it sounded like the place was being ripped apart. It would be nice if you got your story straight, man!”) and not happy when Harry tells him that the best way for them would be to hide in the cellar.
Harry and Helen Cooper are hiding in the cellar along with their injured daughter. Harry Cooper is another determined individual, who takes up the authority over the cellar and believes it to be the safest place in the house. According to him it would be best if people stayed there, they’ll stay safe in case the undead break into the house. He is not thrilled at his ideas being challenged and protests against Ben’s plan by stating that the horde of zombies can overrun them and it would be futile to attempt to face them person-to-person. (“Did you hear me when I told you those things turned over our car?")
Helen is concerned about her daughter and engaged in a tumultuous marriage with Harry. (“We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn't going to solve anything.”) She contests his ideas and questions his judgment. When he gloats over the fact that they are safer downstairs and how he’d be proven right eventually, (“We'll see, when they come begging me to let them in down here.”) she challenges him. (“That’s important, isn’t it?... To be right, everyone else to be wrong.”)
She has some hold over him, and forces him to get Judy downstairs to look after their daughter, as they go up and listen to the telecast.
Finally, there are Tom and Judy taking refuge in the house. While Tom initially comes across as an everyman, not taking the leadership role for himself while Ben and Harry seek to wrest control and define their dominions; he plays a crucial role in calming the nerves (convinces Judy to go downstairs to be with Coopers’ daughter, as a sort of midway solution to the trouble they are in- when both Ben and Harry don’t want to budge from their positions), becomes the antithesis to Ben and Harry: analysing the situation as an independent observer, an individual with a weaker will might have simply given up and backed one of the two, here Tom comes with his own answers to the troubles affecting them. (Tells “Now wait a minute, Let's think about this! We can make it to the cellar if we have to and if we do decide to stay down there, we'll need some things from up here! So, let's at least consider this a while!” to Mr. Cooper who is completely against staying up)
He cares deeply for Judy, as she does for him, and knows that it would take some convincing to get her to understand their plan, which involves an element of risk for himself.
The night doesn’t turn out that well as all the decision-makers make small errors which seal the fate of the group (barring Ben) that very night.
Ben, the man who spurs everyone into action, boards up the house and sets up the TV set to keep himself informed is driven by a strong will to survive. He becomes the natural leader of the group. However, he lacks the ‘emotional quotient’ to understand the needs of others to communicate with them. (Though he cares for Barbara, he doesn’t really understand the state she has entered in) He is not able to bring others to his thought process. (Harry remains unconvinced, while Helen and Tom are the ones who initiate a dialogue) He also bickers with irritable Harry over things like resources in the house. While these in themselves are not great character flaws, his biggest mistake comes in terms of planning after he has assumed the role of the leader. While the idea to get to the gas-pump is an excellent one with Tom and himself best suited for the job, he leaves Harry with too much to do- directing him to toss Molotov cocktails from the upper floor and then run downstairs to lock the door to keep away the zombies. This coupled with the fact that Harry is a hesitant and selfish actor, leaves enough space for Judy to escape the house. Maybe Helen Cooper, who was more than willing to be of help, could’ve been told to guard the door.
Harry Cooper is a man with many flaws. While in the end it is proven, that the cellar indeed is the safest place in the house, his approach through the movie puts others in danger. He has a medieval mindset: believing that hiding in a corner might help them save the day which is immediately called out by his wife, he is a coward who closes the door on Judy and then refuses to let Ben inside. After Ben naturally angered by this turn of events hits him, he keeps a grudge and directs his wife to get the gun from Ben. His wife rebukes him with “Haven’t you had enough?” Later he tries to wrestle the gun from Ben even as the Zombies try to overrun the house and is shot in the process.
Tom understands that Judy deeply cares for him. He discusses about a previous incident (‘The Big flood’) wherein it was difficult for them to persuade her that it was right time to leave. She repeatedly implores upon him to not leave, yet he tries to convince her otherwise. He makes the minute mistake of underestimating the extent of Judy’s attachment to him. Perhaps in the past when the flood had occurred, he was with her in person to get her to leave, as here when left alone, in her deep concern for Tom, she makes a rash decision of going with Tom at the very last moment. (And regrets it almost instantly after running out of the house, but Harry has shut the door on her) This has the effect of throwing Tom and Ben in disarray for a moment but proves fatal for Tom and Judy later on, as the truck catches fire and she’s stuck inside it. He goes back to retrieve her, however, both of them end up getting caught in the inferno.
The next morning the only survivor is Ben who under circumstances most tragic (because they aren’t under his control) ends up losing his life as well.
Viewers might tend to agree with Harry’s point of view regarding the cellar. As the movie ends, we realize that it is indeed the safest place in the house, the horde is unable to break in and get to Ben, who has sought refuge there. However, other than the fact that we are looking back in hindsight there are several other issues with this.
Firstly, not much is known about the outside world if one is cooped up inside the cellar, it might be that the undead wave goes away but the group would’ve missed out on any possible help as well. Secondly, the daughter of Cooper’s was unwell and in need of immediate medical attention. As it turns out towards the end, she dies and turns into an ‘undead’. Imagine the same scenario but with the group inside the cellar. It could’ve only gotten worse for the lot, where a decision would have been needed to decide the fate of the ‘undead’ girl. One can assume that Ben (the one with gun) would have little qualms in going ahead with it but Harry and Helen, the girl’s parents would have protested strongly, having seen the undead but unaware of its impact on one of their own. Also, the deep emotional bond with one’s own blood might have led them to act irrationally. This sort of violence might have deeply affected Barbara as well.
So, Night of the Living Dead is as much a story of human condition as it is a haunting tale of the undead coming to life. Laypersons made to face an unprecedented and undaunting situation fail to come to terms with it. As we arrive towards the end, we realize several important things. The ‘undead’ disaster would’ve overrun the group at one point or another in the night. All the group has to go by are pieces of incomplete information, wherein they are filled in by their own experience or Television broadcasts and even these spawn out several disagreements such as whether they’d be able to face the undead or not.
All show their best and worst sides when confronted with disaster of this magnitude. Tom is able to hold everyone together like a glue, but his death breaks the uneasy truce between Ben and Harry. As the movie goes along, it is easy to understand why Helen doesn’t enjoy living together with Harry. Barbara has entered in a state of shock but when she sees Helen being attacked, she comes to her assistance. Ben is the most skilful in the group but instead of hiding away, keeps looking for solutions and understands the need of sticking together in such a situation. Harry for all his failures, makes sure that he has seen his daughter one last time before dying.
It is these small bits of humanity that make Night of the Living Dead a magnificent cinematic experience.