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Night of the Living Dead (1968): A Feminist Perspective

In 1968, George Romero released Night of the Living Dead, a film that grossed more than $30 million worldwide and quickly became a cult classic despite its trifling production budget of $14,000.[1] The film is most famous for the way in which it redefined the modern zombie, introducing the flesh-eating, bloodthirsty monsters that we still see in cinema today, but it has also been lauded for sharply criticizing the Nixonian “silent majority” and the involvement of the United States in Vietnam.[2] In addition, film critics have analyzed Night as cultural commentary about how the faults of self-interest and functionality can result in personal struggles that devolve into madness or death.[3] In my blog post today, I am going to focus on how, in particular, the interactions between the female and male characters are reduced to functional tropes that inhibit self-sufficiency and perpetuate systems of domination, resulting in social disasters like the one metaphorically depicted in Night

Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Steiner) in the cemetery. Image source.

Although the movie starts in a cemetery, it does not begin to feel uneasy until we see a man aimlessly wandering around in the background, slowly encroaching on Barbra and Johnny’s visit to their father’s grave. The two characters do not suspect foul play until it is too late and the man attacks them. Johnny is knocked unconscious from a blow to the head, but Barbra escapes from the monster and runs to a remote house where she finds shelter from the growing number of zombies coming her way. By this point, Barbra has basically entered a state of catatonic helplessness that appears to be a result of her fear of the zombies. In this state, she goes almost mute, does not appear to listen to anyone who is speaking to her, wanders aimlessly, and contributes almost no assistance to Ben, Helen, Harry, Tom, or Judy, strangers in the house who are also seeking refuge from the zombies. For the most part—save for a few episodes of panic—she remains like this until a scene at the end of the movie when she appears to momentarily snap out of it in order to rescue Helen; however, Johnny reappears, now as a zombie, and grabs Barbra, pulling her into the horde of monsters, presumably to be eaten and turned into a zombie herself. 

I am drawn to the character of Barbra because I think she offers rich insight into the experience of many of the women who were living in the United States during the time of Night‘s release. Anyone who has read The Feminine Mystique, a book that was written by Betty Friedan in 1963, five years before the release of Night, is aware of the “problem that has no name:” an ailment that spread across the United States in the 1950s and 60s, afflicting—for the most part—white, middle-class women[4] who decided to marry young, have lots of children, and live their lives as suburban housewives. When the allure of feminine fulfillment as a housewife and mother lost its propagandized charm, many of these women came to the realization that by narrowly focusing their attention on home and family, they had lost any identity of their own.[5] I think this can be seen most prominently in two female characters from Night: Barbra and Judy. Although Karen Cooper, the third female character, embodies many of the qualities of a suburban housewife, she also has the audacity to insult her husband with snide comments, as if she is aware that they are playing roles.

A suburban housewife from the 1950s. Image source.

 In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan describes how many women who experienced “the problem that has no name” did not communicate their feelings to anyone else because they believed that they should be grateful for, and not critical of, their suburban lives.[6] From the outside, they had achieved feminine “perfection:” a beautiful family, a husband who provided for them, a spacious home, healthy children, and most importantly, they did not have to work. As housewives, their husbands earned an income large enough for the entire family, meaning that in lieu of pursuing a career, these women had the opportunity to dedicate their lives to the health and happiness of their husbands and children. However, the result did not end up in feminine bliss, but rather, it was emptiness, incompletion, and despair,[7] leading to withdrawal from life. Despite the onslaught of technology—like frozen food and vacuum cleaners—that was intended to make the job of a housewife easier, women afflicted with the “problem that has no name” still struggled with completing their chores everyday, like doing the laundry, preparing food, or cleaning the house.[8]

Similarly to Barbra and Judy from Night, these women became less like people with independent thoughts, and grew to be more like shells that were void and empty inside, seemingly incapable of making decisions for themselves. However, the idea that these women could not manage their own lives—and were therefore dependent on literal or figurative authorities to take care of them—emerged not from immutable evidence, but rather, from the overarching cultural values of the era, values that were reinforced through social institutions, such as schools, affecting the way in which children were raised, and also through social interactions and attitudes. In Night, we see many examples depicting the ways in which social interactions reinforced the idea that women were helpless, but there is one scene in particular that I think illustrates this point well: towards the beginning of the film, as Barbra is getting acquainted with Ben—the protagonist of the film—she decides to tell him how she arrived in the house; however, as she tells him this story, she slowly escalates in hysteria until she is passionately imploring Ben to leave the house with her to save Johnny, her brother. She abandoned him in the cemetery after he had been knocked unconscious and now she wants to return to the cemetery to save him. In chaotic distress, Barbra shoves Ben and says, “please, help me!”[9] Ben responds by pointing out that there is no use because he is already dead. Barbra cannot accept this and she tries to leave anyway. At this point, Ben grabs her, they struggle for a moment, Barbra slaps him, and then he punches her in the face, causing her to faint.

Barbra (Judith O’Dea) cowers behind Ben (Duane Jones). Image source.

What I am drawn to in this scene is the clear parallel between Barbra and Ben, as if they are two sides of the same coin, or better yet, two pieces of a puzzle that are made to fit together. Before Barbra starts telling Ben about herself, he seems invested in connecting with her, but as soon as she starts explaining what happened to her, he loses interest and looks visibly annoyed until he finally says, “why don’t you just keep calm.”[10] However, rather than stopping, Barbra appears to react to Ben’s disdain with increased verve, in turn, causing him to be more annoyed, which causes her to become more hysterical, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that culminates in physical violence, ultimately silencing her. I think the part of this scene that strikes me as the most representative of the reigning cultural values of that era is when Barbra desperately responds to Ben’s disregard for her needs, saying, “Please, don’t you hear me? We’ve got to go out and get him,”[11] referring to her brother. This sentiment quickly escalates to a physical altercation between the two characters that culminates in Ben physically assaulting Barbra to prevent her from leaving the house. I think by contrasting the confusion, hysteria, and instability of Barbra against Ben’s calm and reasonable reaction to her, it is not only easy to side with his perspective, but his decision to violently control her also makes sense: there are hordes of zombies waiting outside the house to eat them, so by punching her in the face, he is actually saving her from a suicidal choice.

However, this interaction reinforces the idea that women are helpless and in need of saving, even from themselves. In reality, Barbra is an individual who is capable of making decisions for herself even if other people do not agree with those decisions, and by obstructing the actualization of her choices, Ben is reinforcing the myth that Barbra cannot trust herself, which ultimately leads her to believe that she needs an authority figure, like a man, to make decisions for her. In the end, Ben’s social context—a strong and confident man who makes forceful decisions—compliments Barbra’s feeble insecurity. Barbra and Ben are stereotypical characters who enact the traditional gender roles that were expected from both men and women during the 1950s and 60s, giving rise to the nuclear American family that, by 1968, was under siege by cultural changes like second wave feminism and the hippie countercultural movement; in which case, it comes as no surprise that Barbra and Ben, a symbol of American functionality, are being brought under siege by unforeseen threats.

A nuclear American family. Image source.

Some critics have interpreted the zombies in Night as being representative of the “silent majority,” or the people living in the United States at that time who did not express their opinions publicly. For the most part, the silent majority of the 1960s and early 1970s refers to the people who did not oppose the Vietnam War or join the countercultural movement, but I think some of those people could also be thought of as the women who Betty Friedan writes about in The Feminine Mystique. These were women who had readily pursued a dream that had been sold to them through magazines, social interactions, and television shows, thinking that “the suburban housewife with an up-and-coming husband and a station wagon full of children”[12] would culminate in fulfillment. When it did not, the result was anger, disappointment, bitterness, shame, and despair, or what Friedan calls the “problem that has no name.” However, despite the unhappiness experienced by these women, they were still being told that they had accomplished feminine fulfillment—a women’s destiny is to raise children, after all—so when housewives spoke out against these roles, they were framed as ungrateful, selfish, needy, or neglectful. The symbolic violence imposed against these women was a way to maintain the functional social contract that had not only contributed to the success of the United States after the end of World War II, but was also the only way that most people had ever thought about gender. In short, if dissatisfied housewives demanded change or sought a different life for themselves, they might ruin the plans of men, so it was important to undermine these efforts by framing the women, in whatever way possible, as blameworthy.

Like the female activists of the 1960s and 70s, the women in Night also ruin the plans of men, and the residual emotion that their carelessness provokes in the viewer is one of anger, anger that is directed towards the actions and attitudes of the women. Judy, in particular, has a notably dire scene that ends not only in her death, but also in the death of her boyfriend. The three male characters—Ben, Tom, and Harry—come up with a plan to leave the house in order to seek refuge in a nearby community shelter, but before everyone can leave, they need to fill up the truck with gasoline. Conveniently, there is a pump outside the house, but inconveniently, Ben and Tom need to face the deadly zombies to get there, and even more inconveniently, Judy decides, in a moment of desperation, that she has to accompany Tom in the execution of the plan, not only putting herself at risk, but also the lives of the men. Unsurprisingly, the men take it upon themselves to save Judy from her own helplessness, and so as Tom is trying to free her jacket from the door of the truck, the truck explodes, killing both of them.

The women in Night inadvertently kill almost every man in the movie, except for Ben and Harry, whose deaths are a result of a power struggle, and yet, even Harry ends up having his arm eaten off by his daughter. In this process, the women are depicted as annoying, dependent, and at times, hysterical, as if they are beyond the voice of reason. Through the lens of feminism, I think there is a correlation between the destructive impact of the women, their close resemblance to the housewives described in The Feminine Mystique, and the overarching symbolism of the zombie apocalypse as a devastating siege on the nuclear American family. In the 1950s and 60s, it can be argued that many women, like Barbra and Judy, already were zombies who had decided, from the powerful urging of cultural messages, to sacrifice their identities in the pursuit of feminine bliss. The result of this sacrifice, and the fact that it was requested in the first place, is not only oppressive, but dehumanizing. I think Night demonstrates how processes of dehumanization contain the seeds of their own destruction, and if these systems continue unchecked, they will ultimately result in cataclysmic disaster. It is fitting, I think, that a group of white men carrying guns are the only ones left alive in the end, reminding the viewer, in perfect irony, that until systems of domination are addressed at the level of the individual, they will be reborn from the ashes of their predecessors.

Notes:

[1] Sarah Juliet Lauro, “Taking Back the Night of the Living Dead: George Romero, Feminism, and the Horror Film,” in Zombie Theory (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 213.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Dendle, “The Zombie as Barometer of Cultural Anxiety,” in Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, ed. Niall Scott (New York: Rodopi, 2007), 50.

[4] In both The Feminine Mystique and Night of the Living Dead, women of color—African American, Latina, Asian American, and Native American women—and white working class and poor women were entirely erased. As Kirsten Fermaglich describes in the introduction to The Feminine Mystique: A Norton Critical Edition, “most of these women did not have the economic luxury of identifying themselves as housewives, and dominant cultural images of femininity at the time almost categorically excluded women who were not white and middle class” (xvii).

[5] Kirsten Fermaglich, “Introduction,” in The Feminine Mystique: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Kirsten Fermaglich and Lisa Fine (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), xi.

[6] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1963), 21.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Betty Friedan, “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available,” in The Feminine Mystique: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Kirsten Fermaglich and Lisa Fine (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), 194-213.

[9] Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero (1968; Los Angeles, CA: Continental Distributing, Inc), 31:00.

[10] Ibid., 29:40.

[11] Ibid., 30:49.

[12] Friedan, Mystique, 25.

One Comment

  1. Georgette Mehalik Georgette Mehalik

    Very thoughtful piece that gives me an interesting insight into the times in which I grew up. I feel your observations are very true and kind of sad. It’s also true that this lifestyle was something that was sought after and valued. Who wouldn’t want “a beautiful family, a husband who provided for them, a spacious home, healthy children, and most importantly, they did not have to work.” It sounds like utopia, but it was only after those ideals were achieved that women realized that working, dreaming, and striving to be better people is what makes us happy. Not being pampered and shielded from the realities of life, but being an equal parter who shared responsibility and accountability for the family. The intentions of the time were good, but unfortunately there were unforeseen negative consequences to women.

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