Cinema is littered with allegory, from movies as far back as Metropolis(1927) & its allegory of a fear of mob rule, fear of being overcome by technology to current day, such as with The Chronicles of Narnia and their allegory of Jesus Christ of Nazareth as the lion Aslan. Allegory is everywhere, whether it’s meant to be there or not. Ever since the first zombie dug its way from out of the earth, zombies have been a widely used and popular symbol of our science run amok. You can look at a zombie film and see it as an allegory/symbol for out of control technology, as they are often brought into being by a spill of some highly toxic experimental chemical, re-animated through the means of some bio-engineered/man-made bio-weapon, or even though less often than other cases they are brought into being due to mans meddling in forces far beyond their understanding.
With Night of the Living Dead you have the possibility of all of these allegories, yet one that stands above them all is that of racism. The role of the lead character of the film (Ben) is played by Duane Jones, a black male; though the role does not call for a black male specifically. Ben is noticeably the sole non-white character in the film. Some saw this casting as significant, but George A. Romero says “he simply gave the best audition.”
Looking at the film, you can see the interaction and the distinction between the black and the white characters in the film. Racism is defined as “The belief or doctrine that all members of each race possess inherent differences or abilities specific to that race that determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.”
As noted by one Steven Russell, within the film Night of the Living Dead “despite the fact that Ben is the only member of the house that survives the night and in spite of his success against white zombies, he is killed quickly and cleanly by the living white, the zombie lynch mob, as he emerges into daylight.”
As I stated at the beginning of this blog, there are zombie films where the dead are often brought into being by a spill of some highly toxic experimental chemical, re-animated through the means of some bio-engineered/man-made bio-weapon, or even though less often than other cases they are brought into being due to mans meddling in forces far beyond their understanding. Most of these cases easily show in the titles 28 Days Later & 28 Weeks Later where you have a zombie outbreak unleashed by means of monkeys who’ve been tested on using a “rage virus” which infects unsuspecting and slightly militant “animal rights activists” early in the film. These two titles(28 Days Later & 28 Weeks Later) also highlight how quickly man can go from reasonable and rational to irrational and just plain immoral.
Though lacking subtlety, in Zombies of Mass Destruction we see less the folly of man in his becoming overwhelmed with aftermath of his own machinations and a more racist, sexist, homophobic underbelly not of the undead, but of the people in the town who are plagued by the undead. The virus in this movie is described as a “terrorist” virus and being in a small town, one of its inhabitants believe the sole Middle Eastern girl in town to have had a hand in the virus attack. Here you see the racism brought to light by the zombie outbreak. It is not that the outbreak caused the racism, but that because of the outbreak we are allowed to more clearly see racism’s presence. You have sexist mayor who flouts the campaign of his female opposition, but more-so you have homophobia brought to light by the homophobic yet quite closetly gay preacher. In the film, before the outbreak takes place you have a cute gay couple who are coming to visit with the mother of the not soo openly gay half of said couple. The mothers reaction shows a lesser degree of homophobia than the aforementioned preacher. Through “re-education” he believes he can change someone from gay to g-d fearing straight. The themes of racism and homophobia lay strewn about the story this movie tells.
Regardless of the film title or director; zombie films have come with some lesson or parable that we as human beings should probably take to heart. Till that happens, there will always be a zombie movie pointing out the bigotry, violence, hate, racism, and just plain worse that humanity has to offer…while occasionally…possibly offering us a laugh or scream or two to lighten the tone or not focus soo heavily on the meat of the films.