I was in my early adolesence when Night of the Living Dead first appeared in theatres (yes, I’m that old, make of it what you will!). I had been used to the usual fare of horror movies; my mother would force my older sister to take my younger sister and I along on drive-in dates. I was humiliated, to be sure, until I realized my sister and her fiance, Frank, could not have cared less if we came along: the young couple had more ways to connect than my mother could have imagined, and besides, Frank enjoyed the opportunity to make gross-out comments to a younger audience.
My future brother-in-law adored drive-in horror movies. I remember Frank’s comments about the action on the screen better than I remember the movies. There is something comfortable and familiar in the memories of his recitation of a recipe for blood-and-guts pie while Vincent Price strutted his stuff, or comments about what might really be in our drink cups while Christopher Lee did his thing. The air was full of “Eewwws” and giggles. A good time was had by all. And suddenly, all that changed.
I had overheard some of the boys in school talking about this new movie,Night of the Living Dead. They spoke in awe. They spoke in fear. They said very little, and thus spoke volumes. I couldn’t wait, and had planned a Saturday matinee with my younger sister.
I announced my intentions to attend the movie on that Thursday evening. Frank had been invited over for dinner, and I knew I could count on him to be a back-up voice; offering a note of humor to diffuse my mother’s reservations. The young couple had attended the movie the night before. Easy as pie, right?
Imagine my shock and disappointment when the two of them looked at my mother as one and said,”No!”. My sister gave me her, “Babe, I’m sorry.” look. Frank wouldn’t look at me at all. He looked determined. He looked…frightened. This was a man who had spent his military time on a ship in Southeast Asia. This was a man who trained in the Martial arts in South Korea. He built and raced fast cars. He was a diver going for his deep sea certification. The man who swam with sharks and had the pictures to prove it didn’t want me to see this movie! You gotta be kidding me.
My memory of this part may be a little hazy, but it seemed like I remember the newspaper running an article about Night of The Living Dead shortly after my disappointment. I remember the gist of it: the comfort of sending your children off to a Saturday afternoon movie has been changed. No more tame bug-eyed monsters. Parents, beware! Blah,blah, yackety-yackety.
My older sister confessed later that this was the first time a movie had ever scared Frank. She would reiterate that over the years. It was much later when I finally saw this masterpiece of modern transgression. I finally understood.
The Zombie is truly the terror from within, a transgression owned and paid for by human action. George Romero hacked through boundaries in ways that few could fully comprehend. You have to go back almost 200 years prior to find the archetypal notes in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but the melody of the tune is the same: man acts with hubris and creates life made from death. The natural order has been turned over. Balance must be restored by further death, or, in many cases, Pandora’s Box has been smashed open and cannot be put back together again.
We have messed things up and we know it. The sins that bring about the Zombie are myriad,obvious, and as familiar as the evening news. Night of the Living Dead is a holocaust brought about by a satellite carrying a strange cosmic radiation. The horror of the Living Dead at The Manchester Morgue (a.k.a Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) is brought about by tampering with pesticides. Fulci’s lush images of evil are fueled with original sin. Darabont’s Walking Dead? David Moody’s Hater? Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later? Viruses we have facilitated in one way or another. David Wellington’s Monster Trilogy runs on the premise of tampering with supernatural forces.
And now? We have seen the rise and fall of the Zombie jokebook. Like Frankenberry cereal, the Zombie has gone far into the zeitgeist. To twist a paraphrase by an old cartoon character, we have seen the monster and it is us. Romero spent time emphasizing the acceptance of the living dead in two of his three most recent movies. Acceptance of transgression is nearly impossible. Denial, as in the best Dionysian stories, is even worse.
Where do we go from here?