A still from the 1968 film 'Night of the Living Dead.' (Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)
When you think of zombies, it’s likely you envision something like the flesh-eating, immortal creatures created by George Romero, who defined a new genre of horror with Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Thanks to Romero, who died this week at the age of 77, the zombie movie has become more than a chance to feel scared. It’s also an essential lens through which we can view pop culture, politics, and society. In honor of the great director, here is some our favorite writing about the terror of the living dead.
One of Romero’s most famous narrative coups was casting a black actor as the hero of his 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. It was a decision that turned a run-of-the-mill horror movie into a complex commentary on the civil rights movement, and imbued other zombie films with the ability to criticize society.
The thing about good zombie fiction (and I say this as someone who enjoys an awful lot of zombie fiction) is that the zombies are never the most horrific thing. Zombies don‘t typically have the capacity for complex thought — they don‘t execute stratagems, play politics, torture people. All they do is feed. The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.
In George A. Romero’s classic 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, the murder of Ben, the black character, by a mob of white vigilantes who think he’s a zombie — even though he spends most of the movie protecting people from zombies — serves as the quintessential political message of the civil rights era: black men endangered by senseless white violence. But making overt political statements about race through horror movies all but disappeared by the late ’70s, when commercial filmmakers began establishing the suburbs as the exclusive setting for horror and stayed there for the next three decades. Black characters were often confined to filling a quota in ensemble casts, or waiting until a franchise chose to move its narrative to the inner city — see Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) or Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995). The horrors rumored to take place in black ghettos were much too real for something fantastic or supernatural to seem plausible. (Except in the case of 1992’s Candyman, which is set in the Cabrini Green projects and depicts the titular villain as the son of a former slave.) Instead, black people were relegated to films where they engaged in the gun-toting, crack-slanging, and welfare-check-cashing that was apparently their exclusive province in that day.
Not until films like the Purge trilogy and Peele’s Get Out have black men been allowed access to the countryside, and depicted as vulnerable — a privilege they are rarely afforded in real life — rather than caricatured by the associations usually attached to their mythic bodies or the rumors of their sexual prowess. These films grant black men a rare aura of grace precisely by staging their moments of vulnerability in a suburban landscape, traditionally depicted as pristine and white. By doing so, they dismantle nearly three decades’ worth of associations that have rendered black men denizens of lawless urban spaces, undeserving of an empathetic gaze. They also remedy the lack of imagination that so often leads to the death of real-life unarmed black men (and children) like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Joe McKnight.
At BuzzFeed, Frederick McKindra examines how James DeMonaco’s The Purge and Jordan Peele’s Get Out work in stark opposition to the ways the American horror genre has depicted the suburbs as white, people of color as simplified pawns in the plot, and denied black men’s full range of emotion and humanity. Black Horror turns the old tropes upside down and realigns stories’ moral compasses, and it pushes the horror form into more realistic and interesting directions.
Adrian Daub’s fascinating essay in the LA Review of Bookson the Stephen King classic IT — now 30 years old — reveals that the real horror of IT wasn’t Pennywise the supernatural clown, but our own, entirely human ability to forget the horrors of the past.
I realize now that I can’t even remember when I finally picked up one of these errant copies of It and started reading. But perhaps that’s a strangely appropriate mode of reception for a horror novel that reserves its greatest terror for the vagaries of memory. It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it. It strikes me only now, rereading the book decades later in English, that there’s something distinctively American about the pervasive, dreamlike fog of amnesia that envelops the town of Derry, Maine, in King’s novel. Not for nothing does It make its home in the town’s sewers; as one character puts it: “Nobody knows where all the damned sewers and drains go, or why. When they work, nobody cares.”