Jesus Christ came to the town of Bethany for a specific reason. He had received word that a close friend had gotten sick and died, and that the mourning family requested his presence. In an effort to show the glory of God, Jesus stood at the foot of the tomb and cried out in a thunderous voice, “Lazarus come forth.” And as John 11:44 states, “He who had died came forth.” Lazarus, fresh from the bosom of death, emerged from the tomb in the same burial linens in which he was placed. Now if the traditional Hollywood conventions surrounding this phenomenon were true, upon resurrection Lazarus would immediately approach Jesus, and bite him on the neck. Hollywood films approach the idea of the living dead, and the zombie, in a variety of different ways. Many would describe the zombies in these films as walking monsters with an unquenchable hunger. Mindless beasts that will stop at nothing to feed, and while these descriptions are accurate; they focus only on what the zombie is and not what the zombie represents. The Zombie is a reflection of our society. It’s actions and behaviors mimic the general thoughts and ideas of Americans as a whole. Once the viewer is able to look beyond the elements of cinematic horror, Dawn of the Dead (Romero, 1979) and Night of the Living Dead (Savini, 1990) become films that expose the darker side of American culture.
The Zombie’s primary need is to consume, and the offspring of that need is often times destruction. In Dawn of the Dead, that need was the catalyst of the entire demise of the city, which led to our four main characters haste escape in a helicopter. Peter (Ken Foree), Roger (Scott Reiniger), Steven (David Emge) and Francine (Gaylan Ross) must leave their homes in an effort to find some place that is free from the zombie’s wrath. They find no so such haven. In all their travels there is no area untouched by the destruction and devastation caused by the zombies. It should be noted that the zombies are not simply troublesome. That the problems they cause are not the result of calculated chaos, but rather unconscious frenzy. As Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead clearly illustrate, when one or two zombies are together, they can be easily dispatched. However when their numbers are large and when their appetites are peaking, when their pupils reflect only what they want and what seems so easy to attain, that need to consume becomes catastrophic.
It is in this respect that the zombie gains a familial connection to American society. Both the zombie and Joe Sixpack, wreak havoc by their unconscious need to consume. The consumption level in America is at an all time high. We eat more than what we need, we develop more land that what we can use, and expend more than our share of natural resources. In Dawn of the Dead, the main characters fled the city because it had been over-run by zombies. The trusses of the area could not withstand the flooding numbers of the living dead. The same is happening in cities across America, the trusses are collapsing as a result of the high numbers of the living. Population numbers continue to grow, unemployment rates have been enduring a steady climb, resulting in a simple but poignant conclusion. The numbers of people and the levels of consumption are causing decay in our communities, and as illustrated in the film through the usage of zombies, that combination is often a destructive mix.
The zombies in these films are often viewed as a different species. That their altered mentality and violent ways somehow make them different from their living predecessors. But aren’t these the same characteristics of a large portion of our society today. The zombies are not inhuman, their physiology hasn’t changed, their genetic make up hasn’t changed, what has changed is their psyche. The zombies are hunting themselves in a sense. They are hunting down and killing the same thing that they are, and when you eliminate the cannibalistic aspect of their hunt, doesn’t this happen in America every day? Violence in America is at an all time high, reports of violent crime and the results therein flash upon our nightly newscast with such regularity they often seem commonplace.
In Night of the Living Dead, Cooper, one of the trapped houseguests finds a television upstairs and tunes in to a special report. In the report, a newscaster is reading various reports regarding various explanations for the hordes of zombies running wild across the nation. “They’re aliens from outer space.” The newscaster looks at the camera and rolls his eyes, obviously dismissing this option as a possibility. “They’re escaped inmates from prison.” The words roll off his tongue with both belief and conviction, and with raised eyebrows and two slight nods, it is obvious that he considered his last explanation as possible one. The newscaster could only find this option reasonable if he believed that living people were capable of this destruction and violence. A common denominator between the zombie and the living is found at this moment of the film. Through the usage of the newscast, Romero found an opportunity to present the idea that the two were capable of the same levels of violence and mayhem.
At the end of Night of the Living Dead, a weary Barbara finds herself in a camp with a bunch of gun-toting, ass-kicking rednecks. The home in which Barbara found as a brief sanctuary had been overrun by zombies. During that evening she saw each of her companions fall victim to the zombie’s strength, and as the home yielded to the pressure, she escaped into the darkness. As she surveys the camp, she sees people hanging the zombies by nooses, and shooting bullets at their sprawling bodies, laughing and cheering as the zombies respond to the torment. Barbara sees the erection of a makeshift ring, where a drunken good ole boy wrestles with a zombie, as his friends cheer as he bashes him in the head. With tense eyes she utters a single statement, and the power of her words are only enhanced by its simplicity. “There us and we’re them.” Barbara’s words illuminate the comparisons between the two. As someone who witnessed and survived the horror, her perspective is a vital one. She saw a link between the behavior of the zombies and the behavior of the people. Barbara saw that unfortunately, the two often mimic each other without knowing, with both seeking to hunt and utterly destroy the other.
Since the days of Christopher Columbus, Americans have seized land and property that never belonged to them. From the Native Americans to the American West to occupied lands across the globe, if it fits our needs, we take it and will defend it from others if need be. This idea is paralleled in both films, each displaying this trend in our society. In Night of the Living Dead, Ben and Barbara find solace in an abandoned home. After fighting off a couple of wandering zombies, the two search each others minds, trying to make sense out of their experience. Unbeknownst to them, they are not alone in the house. In the basement lies another group of survivors, and when everyone becomes aware of the other, problems develop.
The main conflict revolves around Cooper and Ben. Cooper, his daughter and wife were attacked by zombies on a nearby road, and like Ben and Barbara, saw the house as the only safe area. While Ben believes that it is in the best interest of the survivors to board up the windows, Cooper is vehement that everyone should go to the basement and wait it out. Both men argue and fight, often getting hostile and violent with each other. Ignored by both of them is the fact that neither one owns the house. That another survivor, Tommy, is the actual caretaker of the home. Their differences reach a boiling point when both men, armed with pistols, decide to shoot at each other instead of at the now penetrating zombies. In a home in which neither one of them own, both of them are willing to kill in order to control it. In the end it is the fight over control that ultimately leads to Ben’s death.
In Dawn of the Dead, the four survivors stumble upon a zombie-invested mall. They find seclusion in an unused storage area near the roof, and devise a plan to find a way to raid the stores for supplies and other helpful resources. This in and of itself is not negative. Given the dire situation they were in, accommodations had to made in order to increase the chances of survival. However, after successfully retrieving the things they needed, it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to have what they needed to survive; they wanted the zombies out of “their” mall. The group proceeds to eliminate the zombie presence and convert the now deserted mall into their own personal castle. They take whatever they want from the stores, creating personal bedrooms, complete with the latest furniture and wander around the mall wearing lavish furs. Their utopia encircled by mayhem is interrupted when a biker gang attempts to enter the mall. They attempt to fight off the traveling bandits, and in the process, two in their party are killed and the zombies regain entrance into the mall. It is important to note that they did not seek to coexist with the bikers. The resources available in the mall would have been sufficient enough to accommodate both parties, but instead, they decided to wage war amongst themselves over property and materials neither group owned.
The mall in Dawn of the Dead also serves to illustrate another characteristic of American culture. As the group of survivors transformed the mall from a haven of resources to a den of luxury, they seemingly forgot about what was going on in the outside world. They forgot that people were suffering, that the world was coming apart at the seams. With the helicopter in their possession, and the mall providing a secure camp, they could have sought out other survivors and used the mall as a place where those in need of protection could find it. Instead, they decorated the walls of their rooms with expensive artwork. They ate caviar and on occasion went to the glass entrances of the mall, and mocked any zombie attempting to get in. The concept of ignorance being bliss is played out in the homes of Americans across the country. We bury ourselves in lavish homes and purchase expensive distractions from the sometimes-gritty reality of the world we live in. In many respects we do exactly what our group of survivors from Dawn of the Dead did. We find that if we as individuals are happy and content with our surroundings, then it becomes increasingly easy to ignore a world that isn’t nearly as pleasant or happy. The mall represents a large majority of the households in America, possibly more than we would care to believe, and definitely more than we would be willing to admit to.
The zombie movie is more than just a horror movie. It is a realistic depiction of our society. Examine the multitudes of zombies in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. They are factory workers and nurses, mechanics and policemen. They are male and female, black and white, they are American, they are ultimately who we are. Barbara saw it. She saw the similarities between the two. Barbara knew how the high numbers of zombies and their even higher level of consumption could not be withstood. Ben and Cooper may have grown to know it, had they not been so focused on what they could take, but rather than focused their attention on maximizing what they had. The zombies in these films are not monsters. They are not chainsaw toting maniacs, they do not hide behind hockey masks and they do not occupy our dreams. They are a reflection of a society that, much like the survivors in the mall, would rather pretend they didn’t exist. The words of Barbara ring true, “Their us and we’re them.” Night of Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead illustrate the connections between the living dead and the living. The zombie, however, has a valid excuse. The zombie is dead, and completely unaware if the damage it’s behaviors cause, our society on the other hand, has some explaining to do.