Zombies in the Country
A general misleads reporters in Night of the Living Dead.
The most memorable scenes in Night of the Living Dead are arguably the lingering shots of zombies standing underneath a tree, greedily devouring human remains. But the most revealing scenes of George Romero’s 1968 reboot of the zombie movie genre are the few that replace the peril of zombies with a different peril: technology and our failures in wielding it.
Technologies (and their users) are shown failing from the very beginning of the film, with cars, telephones, and gas tanks all proving to be useless in helping the characters survive. The technologies that do operate—initially a radio, and later a television— do so only in a narrative sense, explaining to both the characters and the viewer the events of the outside world. On one of these television broadcasts an anchor reports on a failed satellite. Sent to orbit Venus, the satellite was destroyed by NASA on its return after the organization discovered it was carrying with it “mysterious” high levels of radiation.
The screen then switches to a view of a reporter chasing down a group of experts leaving a panel discussion of the Venus probe. The group, consisting of a general, a professor, and a doctor, hurry down the streets of Washington as the reporter hammers them with questions about the explosion of the probe and what he refers to as the “mutations” of the dead. Both the professor and the doctor confirm that these events are related, believing that the level of radiation associated with the probe could be extremely damaging.
On its face, this can be interpreted as a story about Americans’ fears of radiation, spurred by growing space exploration (Night of the Living Dead was produced during the Apollo program) as well as lingering reactions to atomic weapons. The ultimate devil, however, lies in the aftermath of exploration and explosion. Frustrated by the frank responses of the doctor and the professor, the general steps in to deny their statements, stating categorically that there is not a link between the space probe and the violence, before rushing the group into a car.
Romero clearly intends the general to be an untrustworthy and even comical presence, a mustache-twirling parody of every bureaucrat who has ever insisted that his own actions contributed nothing to a disaster. But the general also foreshadows the film’s conclusion, in which the nighttime dead are being summarily shot by an early-morning militia. Just as the general denies any and all responsibility, the militia men roaming the countryside take no responsibility for their indiscriminate shooting.
In the final scene, the leader of the militia puffs his chest and encourages a man to shoot at a figure moving inside the farmhouse where the movie’s main characters spent the night. Without so much as a second look, he takes his shot and murders the movie’s protagonist, the only character to have survived the bloodbath of the night before. In the Pennsylvania countryside, radiation may have raised zombies from the dead, but unchecked power destroyed what they left behind.
Come back on September 5 for the final zombie installment. If you want to find out more about the life of zombies, check out our #histchem conversation that includes Deanna. If you want to read more about zombies, Deanna suggests this collection: Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011. It's edited by Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro.
P.S. The entire movie is available to stream on Hulu, due to an interesting side story involving a missed deadline to renew the movie's copyright.