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Social-Sexual Images in Night of the Living Dead

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

"They're coming to get you, Barbara." Movie Poster for Night of the Living Dead

"They're coming to get you, Barbara." Movie Poster for Night of the Living Dead

Night comes heavy upon the remote farm country of Pennsylvania. A single house sits in the landscape; light comes through boarded up windows in broken slits. Outside is a mass of cannibalistic undead, wandering silently save for the occasional moan or hiss that passes over putrefied lips. They swarm around the nexus of a farmhouse, drawn to it like a river pulled downhill. Inside hide several frightened people, betrayed by the cacophony of their struggles among each other. In George A. Romero's horror classic Night of the Living Dead a ramshackle collection of survivors struggle to make it through the night and it becomes clear the social dynamics of the group present as much a danger as the mob of living dead.

The characters inside the house could easily be identified as a tribal group, come together for the most basic of human concerns: mutual survival. Inside the derelict farmhouse, one would think enlightened self-interest would be the order of the day. However, Jonathan Crane accurately catalogues the situation saying, “Endless bickering, futile escape plans,cowardly insults, selfish priorities, and vapid dialogue (should love be mentioned) dominate the claustrophobic interior action. The virility with which the temporary survivors go at one another is further distinguished by the relative lack of malevolence with which the zombies try to capture and consume their venal prey.”[i]

The most obvious and heated contest of wills takes place between Ben, the sole black protagonist, and Harry Cooper. Their conflict extends to every possible subject their constricting environment will allow. As Zoologist Desmond Morris explains, “Animals fight for one of two reasons: either to establish their dominance in a social hierarchy, or to establish their territorial rights over a particular piece of ground.”[ii] Ben and Harry take turns fighting over both reasons. When Harry first comes out of the basement with Tommy, another survivor, he clearly asserts his opinion of its strengths as the best place in the house to hide. Ben, who has already dispatched several ghouls and boarded up most of the weak spots, will have none of it. He considers the basement a “deathtrap” as they would have no way out should the swarm of undead break into the house.

Harry, the all-American white-collar worker with a wife and daughter hiding in the basement, adamantly refuses to put himself or his family in danger by bringing them upstairs. As he moves to take food and water into the cellar, Ben stops him. Tired of dealing with the abrasive and egocentric Cooper, Ben draws a line in the sand by declaring all the food and water belong upstairs since he’s fought this long to keep it there. Harry’s protests are cut short when Ben orders him back into the basement saying, “You can be the boss down there. I’m boss up here.” Frustrated and casting insults, Cooper slinks back into the basement to sulk.

Harry’s stay in the cellar is short lived. He attempts to console his ego by acting as though he is in control of the situation. Harry brags, “We’ll see who’s right. We’ll see when they come begging me to let them in down here.” He is already constructing a power fantasy to lick his wounds like a jilted lover who imagines the significant other crawling back. Harry’s delusions of grandeur are smashed again almost immediately. Telling his wife about the radio upstairs, Helen demands to know why he locked them in “this dungeon.” After Tommy yells they found a television upstairs, she takes matters into her own hands by telling Tommy they’ll unbolt the door and come up. Harry is denied the autonomy of leadership he desires, only this time his wife robs him of his megalomania.

Once he returns upstairs, Harry immediate comes back into conflict with Ben. Wandering around the house, he comments about Ben’s shoddy workmanship and the uselessness of the windows but does not do anything constructive to help. Unwilling to tolerate Harry’s caustic personality or rough treatment of the mentally fragile Barbara, Ben wheels on Cooper shouting, “If you stay up here, you take orders from me!” Having already lost the territorial dispute, Harry is now relegated to a subordinate position in the microcosmic hierarchy of the farmhouse.

The means of maintaining power within this hierarchy are tied to the gun. In several major ways, the gun is a symbol of masculine power. First, it is a phallic symbol. On this subject, Morris says, “almost any long, stiff, erect object can take on a phallic role [. . . .] They include everything from candles, bananas, neckties, broom-handles, eels, walking-sticks, snakes, carrots, arrows, water-hoses, and fireworks, to obelisks, trees, whales, lamp-posts, skyscrapers, flag-poles ,cannons, factory chimneys, space rockets, light houses, and towers.”[iii] This list could go on forever, but the gun is not bound to the masculine identity simply because of its shape. As long as one has the gun, destroying the unliving cannibals outside becomes an easier task.

However, since there is only one gun, only one of the trapped inhabitants can actively annihilate their attackers without the danger of hand-to-hand combat. On this same token, the gun is used only by male characters and only the male who is, essentially, in charge. Thus, the capacity to eliminate the threat outside (i.e. kill the ghouls with minimum risk) is tied to leadership. Ben and Harry understand this concept at least on an instinctual level. When Ben goes to check the fuse box,Harry tells his wife, “I have to get that gun [. . . .] Two people are dead already on account of that guy,” as though he knows he is powerless to effect change without the gun as a defensive tool and status symbol. Unable to control circumstances outside the house, Harry demands to have control inside. To this end, he must possess the gun. When the farmhouse comes under assault from an uncountable mass of the living dead, Ben drops the gun to hold up the crumbling barrier, and Cooper leaps at the chance to obtain the gun and interior control. The irony here is just as Harry claims leadership of the interior of the farmhouse, the cannibal mob forces their way in and panic becomes the order of the day. As with all Harry does, his success is fleeting. Almost immediately disarmed and shot by Ben for his selfish action, all Cooper has left to do is stumble into the basement where he dies.

The other major phallic symbol is the trowel in the basement. Helen goes down into the basement near the close of the movie, to check on her daughter who was previously bitten by an undead assailant and has been bleeding to death. After such an extended period without medical supervision, the Coopers’ daughter, Karen, died and became one of the living dead, an obvious fact in that she is chewing on her father’s corpse. By in large, the ghouls remained unsexualized since they have no drive but to consume. However, when Karen attacks, she does not do so tooth and nail in the typical undead fashion. Morris explains another characteristic of phallic images is their relation to the sexual act itself. He states, “The original, straitforward [sic] pattern of copulation is, for the male [. . .] a fundamentally assertive and aggressive act of penetration.”[iv] Karen takes hold of the trowel in both hands, stands over her prostrate mother, and stabs her repeatedly in the chest with vicious overhand thrusts. The use of a phallic piercing tool for the murder casts the assault in light of masculine aggression. Not only is the audience confronted with horror of matricide but also the perversion a little girl acting in a decidedly aggressive, masculine fashion. The hostility of Karen’s attack is also amplified by the previously unsexual status of the living dead.

On the other end of the hierarchy are the women. Barry Keith Grant writes, “zombie films are so powerful because Romero’s undead demand the suspension of normal (bourgeois) values, particularly those of patriarchy.”[v] In the instance of each major female character, she is endangered by her gender-specific role. Romero’s creation of such a pattern suggests dissatisfaction with traditional modes of female expression. This evaluation is supported by the image of the farmhouse itself, for it is a symbol of the stifling nature of the domestic sphere to which women are tied.

As the movie opens, Barbara is cast as a lead character and set against traditional symbols from horror movie. With Johnny, her brother, Barbara has come out to the country to place a wreath on her father’s grave. She is immediately conceptualized as the dutiful daughter and sister as she puts up with Johnny’s teasing and crass disrespect. This is the moment when Johnny delivers the now classic line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” as he teases his good natured sister. Crane explains, the audience expects this dichotomy and is not surprised when Johnny, a disrespectful, materialistic, probable atheist, is killed by the first ghoul of the movie. Barbara, the sweet and innocent girl next door, barely escapes and should, if horror movie tradition holds, survive long enough to be saved by a strong, intelligent, white, well-intentioned young man.[vi] Suspicions set in when the character who comes to Barbara’s aid is unexpectedly a black man, Ben. About one third of the way through the movie, the audience realizes they’ve been tricked. Romero is not going to play the traditional game, and he starts by leading all the women who are defined by their gender roles to their graves.

Barbara does fit into her stereotyped role in a major way: near-total uselessness. She explains to Ben, in a nearly incoherent narrative, how she came to the house. The audience does feel the horror of her situation when she tells Ben of her attack. Her description of how the ghoul “grabbed me” and “ripped at me and ripped at my clothes” carries all the subtext of a sexual assault. After experiencing this type of trauma, no one is shocked when Barbara falls into a catatonic state for nearly the remainder of the film. Ironically, Gregory Waller claims her helplessness “would seem to support certain sexist assumptions about female passivity, irrationality, and emotional vulnerability.”[vii] While such an interpretation may be true, it does not dismiss her ultimate fate. As Barbara comes out of her state of mental detachment to aid Helen, she is confronted with the reanimated cadaver of her brother, Johnny. Barely putting up a fight, her brother’s corpse pulls her from the house to be devoured by the hissing hoard of undead. Her loyalty as a daughter pushes her into the cemetery and conflict with the ghouls in the first place, and her gender defined role leaves her unequipped to resist an attack from her brother even if he is an unthinking cannibal.

Another female trapped in the farmhouse, Judy, is a second stereotyped image. She is, first and foremost, Tommy’s girlfriend. Outside this definition, there is little if any way to characterize her. Judy is understood almost entirely by her relation to a man. She is the type of empty woman Casey Hayden and Mary King complained were the product of the sexual caste system.[viii] Without the means to express herself, a woman is forced into predetermined roles subservient to men. This stock character couple is typical of previous horror films, and they nearly always made it through in the end. However, Crane points out that, under Romero’s new rules, “If a couple exchange tender sentiments, usually in the most cliched fashion, they will expire in the near future.”[ix] Judy signs her own death warrant when she leaves the house to help Tommy and Ben unlock the gas pump. A woman leaving her domestic sphere, in this case the farmhouse, will only lead to disaster.

Just as Judy’s life is tied to her unassertive and non-confrontational boyfriend, so too is her demise stitched to his in the macabre tapestry of death. She leaves the relative security of the house and jumps in the truck with her boyfriend. Tommy, in a damning attack on his already low-key masculinity, spills gasoline from the pump all over the truck and on the torch Ben was used to keep the pyrophobic ghouls at bay. His symbolic premature ejaculation is the end of him and his girlfriend. Panicking, Tommy tries to escape from the potential explosion at the pump. He drives the truck a short distance before trying to exit the vehicle with Judy, but it’s too late. The truck explodes, incinerating both Tommy and Judy. However, their fate is made all the more tragic as Ben, by staying calm, manages to put out the fire at the pump. However, there is no longer a truck to use for escape. Should anyone entertain the questionably comforting notion of Tommy and Judy being together in death, the audience is given several scenes were the living dead rip apart Judy and Tommy’s scorched remains and devour them.

The last of the significant females is Helen Cooper. In a strange twist, Helen is not defined by her relationship to her husband. In fact, she dislikes him nearly as much as everyone else in the farmhouse. When arguing with Harry in the basement, she says, “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve anything.” Because she breaks the traditional role as a wife, she is not destroyed by her relationship to Harry. Unfortunately, it is Helen’s role as a mother that kills her. Helen says her daughter, Karen, is “all I have.” She manages to escape all the other dangers, and the audience would certainly expect a mother and her daughter to survive. However, as stated before, Romero is not interested in following the traditional rules. When Helen comes downstairs to find her daughter eating Harry’s flesh, there can be no doubt Karen has become one of the living dead. Unable or unwilling to fight her own daughter, Helen only mutters “poor baby” before tripping. Lying on her back, Helen is brutally murdered by her daughter.

The ultimate assertion of all this unexpected violence is danger is linked to understood forms of gender expression. The masculine drive for competition between Ben and Harry is so great they will fight even when to do so risks their lives and the lives of those around them. Likewise, the claustrophobia of the farmhouse is a physical manifestation of the suffocating restraints associated with female gender roles all of which are self-destructive. As Tony Williams asserts, movies like Night of the Living Dead “questioned the very nature of the nuclear family and implicitly (though never coherently) argued for a new form of society.”[x] That the farmhouse inhabitants are destroyed more by one another than the monstrous threat of flesh eating corpses is certainly an attack on social values at large, and Romero’s subversion of previous methods and images of horror film mythology is a statement that those traditional methods and images are no longer adequate for making comments within the medium.

[i].Crane, Jonathan, Terror and Everyday Life(London: Sage Publications, 1994), p 13.

[ii].Morris, Desmond, The Naked Ape (New York:McGraw Hill, 1967), p 147.

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[iii].Morris, Desmond, The Human Zoo (New York:McGraw Hill, 1969), p 107.

[iv].Ibid. p114.

[v].Grant, Barry Keith, “Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism, and the Horror Film” in Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film ed. Barry Grant (Austin, Texas:University of Texas Press, 1996), p 210-11.

[vi].Crane, Jonathan, p 11-12.

[vii].Waller, Gregory, The Living and the Undead (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), p 283

[viii].Hayden, Casey, Mary King, “‘A Kind of Memo’ to Womenin the Peace and Freedom Movements, 1965" in Mary Elizabeth King, Freedom Song (New York: William Morrow) appendix 3, p 571-574.

[ix].Crane, Jonathan, p 14.

[x].Williams, Tony, “Trying to Survive on the Darker Side: 1980s Family Horror” in Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, p 164.

  • Night of the Living Dead (1968)
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© 2009 Seth Tomko


Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on August 04, 2011:

That's right, ruffridyer. Ben's ethnicity and the time in America when the movie was made/takes place carries a lot of implicit tension and danger that has nothing to do with the zombies.

ruffridyer from Dayton, ohio on August 04, 2011:

The fact that no one survives makes the movie more powerful than most thrillers of the time. The hero ben is shot by a posse thinking he is a zombie but the implication remains that if they knew he was living as a blackman he might have still have been shot.

That is another hub.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 26, 2010:

Thank you, girlincape. Let me know when you hub goes up, and I'll put a link to it.

Kasey Rubenstein from California on June 26, 2010:

This film is probably the only horror film with deep social commentary that I can think of. I'd be really interested to see your thoughts on how the film handles race and the battle between modern and postmodern worldviews. Actually, I've written an essay on it that's somewhere along those lines, maybe I'll post it up! With credit to you of course for inspiring me.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on June 05, 2010:

Thank you, liber. Barbara's change is one of the most significant changes in the 1990 remake, but Romero clearly had his reasons for for making her so passive in the original.

liber on June 03, 2010:

Very nice! I'm a zombie film buff myself. This is the deepest interpretation of Night of the Living Dead I've heard that's for sure.

Doesn't Barbara leave her submissive role and become a total badass in the 90s remake? I forget, I think so. Sort of interesting that that was the most significant alteration.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on September 19, 2009:

Thanks donotfear. Gender roles tend to be important in a lot of horror films in that they either reinforce or destroy traditional concepts about masculine or feminine identity. To some extent this ides is explored in the movie Scream, too.

Annette Thomas from United States on September 19, 2009:

Good psychological observations. Great insight into gender roles. You'd get an A +++ from Social Psychology!!

Chris Friend on July 20, 2009:

You really have excellent skill as a critic. Brilliant stuff. PLease consider one on The Exorcist!!! I love to see you analyze that one. Would be highly interesting indeed.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 20, 2009:

Thanks, Chris. I'm glad you liked it. I've thought about the basement, too, but usually how it parallels a grave. The irony is that the dead are all evacuating the ground while the living seek shelter in it.

Chris Friend on July 20, 2009:

This was a really good hub. Very unusual and provocative. The basement could be seen as the Underworld, a Chthonian womb of nature which offers no real protection since nature has been defeated by the zombies. It was a great hub.

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