The term ‘zombie’ is never spoken in what many consider the first zombie film. Neither the creators nor early viewers of the film could have imagined just how revolutionary the film would be, or how instrumental it was in creating this contemporary lore and terminology. There had been zombies before, like Bela Lugosi’s infamous and racist White Zombie from 1932, but this was the first time an undead figure was brought to life without an individual controlling them. Perhaps the zombie has become an overused trope, but in 1968, it was utterly unique.
George Romero’s film created a tool we continue to use to contextualize issues around identity and mob mentality, or who we become when we are removed from society and left with our basic instincts. The word ‘zombie’ has since developed into a scientific concept used to characterize dormant consciousness and subverted animation, which means that what was introduced as a cheap B movie villain became lore and then influenced the very way in which we view the human mind.
However, the term zombie is not the only unspoken thing in the film, as its racial and social tensions are also left for the viewer to fill in. The character’s inability to name the zombie relates to the way the film is unable to name its broader political and historical implications. The film’s characterization of light and dark, emphasis on zombie-like humans in the group, and its use of partial information, emphasize that these characters are motivated by unseen biases and forces which are left unspoken but clear in the film’s reception.
“They’re Dead. They’re All Messed Up”
I believe that this unspoken ‘zombie’ word relates to the way the film treats partial information, as characters are literally left in the dark about what threats surround them, leading them to become zombie-like and instinct based. The film thus presents two threats in addition to the zombies: the fear of looking and the fear of what is beyond our perception. Romero’s film emphasizes partial information to suggest that the undead are just one threat, and that what is left unspoken is equally dangerous. Just as the characters are unable to determine a specific term to call the undead, so too are they unable to address the broader racial and systemic issues around them. Their fixation on immediate threats thus extends into linguistic and perceptual problems.
I will first examine how the film conceals its zombies and how the characters react when they see the undead. The way these reactions mix shock and obsession relates to the way the characters treat information in the film. They become increasingly obsessed with learning and more agitated as these details become inaccessible. Without a specific voice of reason, one which comes from the outside and represent society, the group is left to be instinctual and violent. The film thereby creates two zombies, one composed of partially devoured bodies, and the other driven by partial information. Although the film ultimately destroys the literal undead, the unthinking nature of man destroys itself.
“They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara!”
The first zombie attack in Romero’s film occurs in daytime. This establishes that the film will interrupt our sense of routine and daily life. The zombie interrupts the conversation between Barbara and Johnny, but he also interrupts the ‘safe’ daylight. We expect most things in a horror film to attack at night, which makes this first zombie very abrupt. Stranger still, the zombie doesn’t rush in the shot, or even rush towards the characters. Rather, he slowly moves into the foreground before Barbara and Johnny notice him. The threat is so mundane that Barbara initially refuses to run away, as she first tries to quietly excuse herself from the zombie and then simply stands and watches as he kills Johnny. She is shocked, not because the attack was sudden, but because she has no idea why it happened. Although it had an extensive build up, the violence comes out of nowhere. Barbara is also disturbed by the zombie because she still thinks of it as a man. The very idea that this figure isn’t human hasn’t crossed her mind.
It is only after Johnny dies that Barbara begins to flee, a moment which she later recounts as sexual violence. She describes the attack to Ben by noting that the man grabbed her and tried to rip at her clothes. Barbara seems unable to remove the connotations of the living from the dead, as she creates associations which no longer make sense in a world of undead and unthinking beings. The threat of sexual violence certainly reappears in the group, particularly with Harry Cooper’s attempt to bring her in the basement with the other girls, but it is never directly discussed, just insinuated.
Night (of the Living Dead)
It is noteworthy that when Barbara does retreat, her sudden realization that something is horribly wrong mirrors the sudden nightfall in the film. The black and white nature of the film emphasizes this abrupt shift, as the film begins around night fall, but this is not translated by the medium. The film initially creates a binary environment, one which is either day or night, and not a mixture of the two. This binary approach mirrors the character’s initial understanding of the zombies as those who are not living and are thus dead.
However, the film goes on to complicate this binary environment, as the undead are not simply dead but something else. This explains why Barbara is unable to disassociate the actions and connotations of the living with those of the dead, as this black and white world is no longer binary but plural. There are too many possibilities and instances of overlap, and this multi threat drives the characters to make illogical choices. One way the film emphasizes the breakdown of this binary is by creating a contradictory environment. When the characters watch a television report at nighttime, the interview they see takes place during the day. This suggests that night and day are happening at the same time, and time is not as binary as it seemed at the beginning of the film. The ‘living dead’ is another example of this binary, as characters are forced to mix the terms ‘living’ with ‘dead’, and as a result, nothing around them seems certain. If what was dead can return, then what other unthinkable things might exist and threaten ‘so-called’ normal citizens? So, while the survivors face a literal attack, they also contend with an increasingly uncertain environment, linguistic system, and ideology.
“How Were We Supposed to Know What Was Going On?”:
There are two characteristics in Romero’s film which pop culture has since developed; the zombies’ need for flesh and their fear of light. Today, many zombie films focus on their desire for brains, which does not appear in this film. Although this is a relevant change, I want to focus specifically on their fear of light, as although fire continues to be a defining characteristic, the film implies that light itself is somewhat threatening to the zombies.
The zombie’s fear of fire makes some sense, as it is what destroys the undead and ensures that they do not return. But they also dislike electric lights, as Ben turns on all the lights in the house to keep them away, and the first thing the zombies destroy are the car headlights. This fear, if we can call it that, implies that the undead do possess thought, as their best plan for attack is to conceal how many of the undead are surrounding the house. This creates an even more uncertain environment, one where the characters are forced to imagine what surrounds them rather than seeing or measuring it. It also establishes a fear of the imperceptible, something beyond our control and sight which moves against us in invisible ways.
Fear turns us inward because we don’t know what is happening around us. When we cannot locate danger, but know its there, we start focusing on ourselves in relation to that unseen threat. We cannot see in front of us, but at least we can recognize ourselves. As a result, fear creates an us versus them dynamic between the subject and the danger they are unable to locate. The survivors in the film emphasize this through their descriptions of the undead as “they” and “ghouls”, terms which push the undead away from words like human and individual. We can read this as an attempt to classify and control what is hiding in the shadows, as although they can not determine anyone’s identity in the mob, at least they can determine that it is inhuman. However, this relationship becomes more alarming at the end of the film, as this mob is finally identified. The ending, which I will return to later, reverses this order, as the individual becomes nameless, and the zombies are given identities
Another way the film focuses on light and dark (or sight and blindness) is by leaving many of its characters in the dark, forcing them to focus on immediate threats rather than foreseeable kinds. The film emphasizes this immediacy in a few different ways, the most notable being that only the recently undead return as zombies. For instance, although Barbara and Johnny are visiting their father’s grave, their father doesn’t attack them. Instead, they are attacked by a random stranger, someone who died shortly before the events in the film. The father has nothing to do with the plot, and Barbara and Johnny can’t even remember where his grave is. This means that Barbara is only prepared for immediate threats, and she is less prepared with the slow build up towards a threat.
“Are They Slow-Moving?”
The graveyard is an interesting space in the film, as it functions as a bizarre liminal zone. It’s in a constant state of mourning, but for an unspecific and inconsequential tragedy. For example, when Barbara and Johnny first arrive, the camera focuses on a small American flag at half mast. We don’t know why the flag is at half mast, but whether recent or historic, it doesn’t matter for the film. Time means nothing in a graveyard, as everything stays right where you left it, even the bodies. Sure, they are slowly decomposing, but they are still there.
The living are only interested with immediate problems, as although Johnny isn’t concerned about his father’s grave, he is certainly concerned by how long their drive took and that they are out of candy. These figures are less interested in the slow threat, the one which takes time and doesn’t immediately attack. The film thus implies its characters are single minded, perhaps to a similar extent as the zombies.
Another example of this immediacy is how the characters react to why the zombies were created. The news describes that the undead are rising because of radiation from space, but the survivors ignore this startling information. They don’t care about the radiation, or any further damage it could cause. They are just worried about the zombies, the immediate threat. If they were paying attention, perhaps they would realize that the zombies were created because of our single-minded attitude. We had to discover what secrets space possesses, to answer what partial information we had. This single-minded approach prevented scientists from recognizing long term danger. The characters also follow this model, as there are immediate threats, but also ones which take time to develop. For example, Harry and Helen’s daughter does not pose an immediate threat, but rather, a gradual kind, one which the characters are reminded of multiple times, but refuse to see.
Because many of the characters cannot see or measure the world around them, they begin to doubt their decisions. However, the film also illustrates that the act of seeing is just as dangerous as not seeing. Barbara’s intense reaction to seeing the undead demonstrates that the zombie virus can be spread through sight. After Ben discovers her, Barbara goes into a state of shell shock, acting lifeless and illogical. This is evident by the contrast between her and Ben, as while Ben begins to barricade the house and take apart the kitchen, Barbara just stands and looks around the living room. When she returns with a few measly pieces of wood, she places them on top of the fridge and watches Ben as he tries to protect them. She is useless throughout the film, and the viewer becomes increasingly frustrated with how unable she is to assist Ben and the other survivors.
Barbara’s reaction stems from a specific moment, when she watches Ben drag the zombie outside of the house. Although Ben tells her not to look, she does, and in this moment becomes catatonic and zombie-like. She has a few lucid moments in the film, like when she tells Ben her story, but she quickly returns to this vegetative state. Barbara is transforming into a zombie, just a different kind then those outside the house. One indication of this is that Barbara is afraid of fire, just like the zombies. Barbara becomes frightened when Helen lights a match for her cigarette, which links her with the zombies Ben drives away with fire. Coincidentally, Barbara mirrors the earliest Haitian zombi model (as discussed at length by Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry’s “Zombie Manifesto”), which our culture has largely used and not given credit to. As an example, she follows instructions in a lifeless way, like collecting firewood for Ben.
Barbara’s behaviour means that the undead can multiply themselves not only by killing and biting, as the very sight of them is infectious. Barbara eventually tries to help with the barricade, but she freezes when she sees her brother. This final moment of passivity allows the zombies to kill her, or rather, to complete her transformation.
“You’re Telling us We Gotta Risk Our Lives Just Because Somebody Might Need Help?”
The ignorant Harry is also zombie-like because he is fixated with immediate things, he violently lashes out, and he refuses logic throughout the film. I base this on Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry’s definition of the zombie, where they describe it as a threatening body, brain-dead, brain-eater, and blindly following primal urges and instincts (106). Each of these traits can be said of Harry, as he makes decisions based on his immediate instinct and tries to destroy those who show any intelligence. He might not be partially devoured, like the zombies, but he is driven by partial information, which forces him to rely on his terrible instincts. He is also unwilling to take information from what he deems an ‘unreliable source’ as Ben does not represent the white voice of reason that the television provided.
Harry becomes fixated on one method; to hide in the basement. He is unwilling to consider any other options than his basic instinct to hide, which mirrors the zombies’ base need to devour humans, regardless of the cost. As such, Harry is a zombie, not because he is bitten or driven mad by the sight of the zombies, as Barbara was, but because he is removed from society and given only partial information. This implies that the film’s use of partial information mirrors the undead virus, as both create dangerous and unthinking humanoids.
The news mentions that the undead are only partially eating their victims. Why might this be? A possible answer is that it leaves enough corpse for the victim to return and move around, but the film never confirms this or answers why the dead want to eat the living. It does suggest that partiality is an inherent quality of zombies, as they have been partially devoured, and they are partially dead and partially living. Another unanswered question is how the dead woman at the top of the stairs died or how long she has been dead for. She does not return from the dead, which implies that she has been dead for a while, at least before the zombie infestation. The question remains, why is there a dead woman in the film? I certainly felt that she was going to come back to life at some point, similar to the rising tension of the little girl in the basement. Despite this feeling, the lady does not come back to life and poses no threat. She, and the zombies outside, leave room for the imagination. Neither the characters nor the viewers know what is going to happen, but we know that something will eventually happen. This uncertain and dark environment causes the characters to doubt their decisions and imagine worse outcomes. It doesn’t help that the film cuts off any information they receive, as the power goes out for mysterious reasons and we can’t see outside because they have barricaded the windows. These devices intensify the panic inside the house and encourage the viewer to join in, or rather, to fill in the narrative blanks.
There are lots of things which we do not see in the film, and lots of information is either cut off or left unspoken. The characters often receive second-hand information, or they pose questions which never receive an answer. For instance, we hear Ben’s fantastic story about how he escaped from the undead and arrived at the house, but we never see any of his description. Instead, we are stuck inside the house, forced to imagine what this encounter was like, versus our firsthand experience with Barbara. This creates a more uncertain environment, where we are never sure if we can trust Ben or the other survivors because we only know what Barbara went through. This leaves the question of if the other characters are reliable narrators, or if they might change their stories to seem more trustworthy. I have already suggested the Barbara does a version of this by describing her story through sexual assault. Because she frames her narrative in a specific way, it suggests that the other characters might also frame their narratives. The information we learn about the other characters is thus always partial, one-sided, and without visuals.
“Well, There’s No Problem”
At the climax of the film, questions which had been dismissed by the survivors return and have disastrous results. We finally discover why the little girl in the basement has been sick, as she suddenly returns to the narrative. Although she had been referenced a few times, and shown sleeping, she has had no voice in the narrative. She is not the only character who abruptly impacts the narrative at the end of the film, as an undead Johnny returns to haunt Barbara, as does the zombie who killed Johnny. These returns illustrate that characters and details which were introduced near the beginning of the film reemerge into a narrative which had seemingly disregarded them. By focusing only on immediate threats, the characters not only neglect future danger, but also threats from the past. This is the direct result of withheld information, as Helen and Harry neglected to mention that their daughter had been bitten. By refusing to pay attention to all the information, they allowed the zombie virus to manifest inside the house. This implies that while the characters are opposed to partial information, they are also motivated to suppress certain aspects. In other words, these characters, particularly Harry, are unable to speak about specific possibilities, things that they should recognize but are unwilling to put to words.
Romero released his film under the tagline “Something New- Something Evil- Something Unspeakably Terrifying” (IMDb). I believe this tagline outlines how the characters are ultimately unwilling to talk about certain issues directly, which leads to their downfall. There are connotations that they do not want to think about or deal with, and as a result, they are unable to clearly perceive the world around them. A good example of this is how the film uses the term ‘undead’ instead of ‘zombie’. ‘Undead’ is plural, it applies to both to one body and to a mob. ‘Zombie’ refers to one being, not multiple (zombies). The use of ‘undead’ implies that the characters are unwilling to think of the dead as individuals, and instead focus on them as a supernatural and inhuman threat. This is also evident in their use of the term “they”, as it always a plural threat, not a singular. The ending changes this emphasis as Johnny and the little girl’s return, which means that there are now individuals inside the undead category. Just as they infiltrate the house, so too do they infiltrate the character’s linguistic system. We know these characters, and so the survivors can no longer distinguish themselves from this undead mass, as both the living and dead now have specific names and identities.
What’s Unspoken Returns
The most prominent thing which is never directly discussed in the film is its racial tension. It is certainly found in the film’s reception, but Romero never confirmed this reading nor agreed that the film was a commentary on race relations. However, as even the term ‘zombie’ comes from a racialized place, to use the term to describe the film further exemplifies its emphasis on partial information and race. To do so means removing the term from its original connotations and culture, essentially appropriating it. As such, both the subject and reception of the film are driven by bits of repurposed material. James McFarland discusses this method, in his work on zombie history, by suggesting that zombies “are not mere continuations or developments of earlier postcolonial mythology but rather register a profound and mysterious dislocation of the racial politics” (24) as these politics are unacknowledged. Like the zombie term, the racial tension in the film remains unnamed but still present, as evident by the way the characters treat Ben.
Ben is the only character without a family member, which makes him the only individual in the film. The other characters are all linked to some family member who ultimately leads to their destruction: Barbara is killed by Johnny, Helen and Harry are killed by their daughter, and Tom dies because Judy runs after him. There is also the rigid tension between Ben and Harry, which culminates in Ben’s statement “You can be the boss down there. I’m boss up here”. The film never specifies why Harry immediately dislikes Ben, but it doesn’t need to for the viewer to make their own assumption. Like the legacy of this “boss” line, the impact of Ben’s leadership and the era the film was released are enough to acquaint Ben’s actions to broader political ones. It’s similar to the film’s inability to vocalize the history of the zombie, as its characters are unable to discuss the ideologies and racism which motivate them. Therefore, both the film and its characters deal with revenants of their society, both the undead and the unspoken. The characters fail because they cannot address these issues, as Harry continues to fight against Ben and distracts the group from dealing with the undead threat. Although Harry never voices the specific reason for his hatred of Ben, the unspoken ideologies which drive him, and the narrative, are not invisible. The unspoken thus has consequences, particularly when characters ignore the overlap between bias and inaction.
The end of the film continues to emphasize this unspoken racial tension as its zombie hunters become a racist mob. Ben is the only person to survive the night, everyone else was brutally killed. However, Ben changes the way we think about the zombies, as he sympathizes with them and thinks of them as individuals. He essentially challenges this undead category in the moment when he kills Helen and Harry. The camera focuses on Ben as he shoots the two in the basement. This scene humanizes the zombies by illustrating that although undead, they are still associated with the identities of the living. Ben’s angry and distressed face makes his action sympathetic, but also makes the zombie sympathetic.
Just as the film seems to offer this ending, it abruptly changes again. We cut to the zombie hunters, who throughout the film, have treated the apocalypse like a casual hunt, with dogs and guns. They do not consider the zombies as individuals like Ben does, but then again, they also do not consider Ben an individual. Ben’s death and the ensuing lynch imagery of hooks and fire is horrific. It is not unpredictable, but it is devastating. He never was an individual to these men, as although he was the most active and logical in the film, these hunters already associated him with ghouls, those without identities. The unjust killing of Ben completes the film’s commentary on humanity. Unlike the undead, who are both living and dead simultaneously and who Ben restores humanity to, the hunters want to define people based on a binary environment, specifically living or dead, mass or individual, black or white. This shift at the end of the film demonstrates that the real threat is society’s inability to face the overlap between these terms, or piece together bits of partial information. Like the history around the term ‘zombie’, the film asks us if the threat really was as “New” (IMDb) as its tagline suggested.
Lauro, Sarah, and Karen Embry. “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Captialism.” Duke University Press, vol. 35, no. 1, 2008, pp. 85-108.
“Tagline: Night of the Living Dead.” IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063350/.
McFarland, James. “Philosophy of the Living Dead: At the Origin of the Zombie-Image.” Cultural Critique, no. 90, 2015, pp. 22-63.