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Horror in Humanity

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead redefined the zombie by tapping into an unusual type of fear that overturned the conventions of fantastical horror. The film’s effectiveness stems from Romero’s ability to stage the invasion of normality by monstrosity.

Zombies in Night of the Living Dead operate in an atmosphere of generic verisimilitude, allowing Romero to strip away the unrealistic notions that have been attached to the zombie in films prior. The plausibility of the apocalypse is reinforced through various stylistic elements, including the setting, characters, and sequence of events. Drawing on the work of film critic Robin Wood, I contend that Romero’s Night of the Living Dead successfully reimagines the zombie as a representation of the destructive tensions underlying familial relations, through its ability to induce the idea that true horror is present in the ordinary worlds of American life.

The subtle genius in Romero’s direction of Night of the Living Dead is encapsulated through his ability to show that the ultimate in horror was in humanity itself. Romero explains this theory, claiming his attraction to “the monster-within idea…zombies being us.” Multiple elements in this cult classic horror film contribute to the atmosphere of normality, a decisive technique Romero employs to depict that every day, normal existence has become monstrous. For one, the choice of a farmhouse setting for the majority of the action instills a sense of familiarity in audience members, suggesting that the terror experienced inside the house is feasible outside of the screen. The sense of normality is furthered through the medley of characters and the relationships that develop among them, as they are grounded in the farmhouse in the endeavor of surviving the flesh-eating corpses attempting to break in. NOTLD’s cast of characters are notably relatable, not one of them more superior to the average human being nor displaying any type of fantastical heroic traits that are common in the horror genre. Their ordinary status is evidenced by the confusion and lack of knowledge that is present among the house, as they constantly debate their best plan of survival. Ben, the only character with no ties to anyone else, occupies the dominant position in the film. Ben’s persistent arguments with Harry, the father of the typical nuclear family, suggest the breakdown of communication that was common in the American social life of the late sixties. By illustrating this eminent disintegration among the characters, Romero successfully triggers the feeling that true horror is coupled alongside the ordinary worlds of American life.

Additionally, Night of the Living Dead’s normal atmosphere is emphasized through Romero’s ability to insinuate real-time action. The film’s entire plot is abridged into a single night, as the title suggests, deepening the uncomfortable sensation in viewers that the apocalypse is actually happening. Just as the characters grasp the reality of their situation, through newsreels and television broadcasts, viewers of the film do as well- connecting the two. The newsreels and broadcasts contribute to the film’s realism in a documentary-like fashion. The effect of this technique is to engender the feeling that history is genuinely collapsing by means of a monstrous force. With the film’s lack of excessive violence and gore, Romero manages to redefine horror through the unsettling ordinariness of the real world. As foolish the idea of a zombie outbreak may be, the film is still able to push the agenda that the horrific events depicted onscreen really happened, and perhaps still could happen. This phenomenon reflects what Freud calls “the uncanny,” in which the supernatural is explained rationally. The sense of the uncanny actively lies in the film’s portrayal of the fear of the known dead- relatives or kindred- evidenced by Barbara’s zombified brother attacking her. It is within this uncanniness that Romero is able to reimagine the figure of the zombie as a metaphor for the common issues among partners and families in the late sixties, transforming NOTLD into a social commentary on the horror in humanity itself.

In conjunction with the various elements of realism, Night of the Living Dead successfully manages to represent zombies as a metaphor for the toxic tensions underlying patriarchal gender, sexual, and familial relations that were common in the late sixties. Although the plot indicates that the outbreak has been caused by improbable radiation from space, film critic Robin Wood attributes the attacks as having “their origins in psychic tensions that are the product of patriarchal male/female or familial relationships” (Wood 103). Wood’s theory is supported throughout the film, as each group of characters, other than unaccompanied Ben, experience tragedy and death at the hands of their own destructive relationships. For instance, in the film’s opening scene, the appearance of the first zombie, as well as the first death, results from the familial resentment between siblings Barbara and Johnny. This pattern continues within the nuclear family, as an unsatisfied wife and raging husband meet their demise via their zombified daughter. By associating the zombie outbreak with male/female and familial tensions, the film not only gives viewers a rational explanation for the zombie’s existence, but also serves to enhance the uncanny presence. The very thought of cannibalistic corpses arising from something as commonplace as an argument between siblings is how Romero manifests unnatural horror into the realm of the realistic.

In closing, the theme of normality becoming monstrous in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead allows the film to expose the destructive norms of familial tensions in the late sixties. Romero’s choice of a farmhouse setting, ordinary characters, real-time action, and lack of gore all contribute to the feeling that the unnatural events unfolding onscreen are plausible in real life. With parallels to what Freud deems “the uncanny,” this film deepens its meaning by suggesting that zombies are the physical projection of psychic tensions between patriarchal male/female and familial relationships, as suggested by Robin Wood. By associating the disintegration of human relationships to the brutality of the zombie, Romero simultaneously revolutionized the figure of the zombie and unveiled the horror in the bane of humanity.

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