What’s your zombie apocalypse survival plan?”
The question invites the liveliest discussions of the semester. I teach a
course on social movements in fiction and film at West Virginia University,
where George Romero’s first film, “Night of the Living Dead,” is on the
syllabus. The film was groundbreaking in its use of horror as political
critique. Half a century later, Romero’s films are still in conversation with
racial politics in the United States, and Romero’s recent death calls for
reflection on his legacy as a filmmaker.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, an English professor and at George Washington
University, that “Like all monsters, zombies are metaphors for that which
disquiets their generative times.”
Romero shot “Night of the Living Dead” in 1967, when Americans’ attention
was focused on powerful televised images of race riots in cities like Newark
and Detroit, and on the Vietnam War, the likes of which were Romero
reimagined scores of bleeding faces, twisted in rage or vacant from trauma,
as the zombie hoard. He filtered public anger and anxieties through the
hoard, reflecting what many viewed as liberals’ rage and disappointment
over a lack of real social change and others saw as conservatives’ fear over
disruptions in race relations and traditional family structures. This is the
utility of the zombie as a political metaphor – it’s flexible; there is room
enough for all our fears.
In “Night of the Living Dead,” an unlikely cross-section of people are
cornered in a farmhouse by a zombie hoard. They struggle with each other
and against the zombies to survive the night. At the end of the film, black
protagonist Ben Huss is the sole survivor. He emerges from the basement
at daybreak, only to be mistaken for a zombie and shot by an all-white
militia. The militiamen congratulate each other and remark that Huss is
“another one for the fire.” They never realize their terrible error. Perhaps
they are inclined to see Huss as a threat to begin with, because he is black.
At the start of Romero’s next film, “Dawn of the Dead,” in which another
unlikely bunch faces off against zombies in a shopping mall, police
surround a public housing building. One officer remarks on the unfairness
of putting blacks and Hispanics in these “big-ass fancy hotels” and proceeds
to shoot residents indiscriminately, not distinguishing between the living
and the undead.
The officers are shooting to restore the “natural order” in which the dead
stay dead. But their actions also restore the prevailing social order and the
institutions that create and reinforce racial inequality.
In my class, I connect these scenes of dehumanization to contemporary
racial politics, using them as a springboard for conversations about racially
motivated police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. These
discussions focus on the zombie as a dehumanized creature.
In returning from the dead, zombies lose their human essence – their
agency, critical reasoning capacities, empathy and language. As Cohen
said, “Zombies are a collective, a swarm. They do not own individualizing
stories. They do not have personalities. They eat. They kill. They shamble.
They suffer and they cause suffering. They are dirty, stinking, and poorly
dressed. They are indifferent to their own decay.” Zombies retain a human
form, but lose their individuality and are dehumanized in their
Minority victims of police shootings are often portrayed in the media as
dangerous, animalistic and even monstrous – meaning they, too, argue
that perceptions of humanity are a critical part of social cognition – the way
we process or think about other people and social settings. When we see
people or groups as less than human, predictable consequences arise.
Romero’s films tune us in to our own potential for dehumanization.
relaxes our moral restrictions on doing harm to others and ultimately
facilitates against them. When people see members of a group as an
undifferentiated “hoard,” they’re susceptible to the same error as the
militiamen in “Night of the Living Dead.” When they couple
dehumanization with hatred, resentment or fear, they become like the
resentful police officer in “Dawn of the Dead.” Dehumanization of black
Americans underpins the violence perpetrated against them in Romero’s
films and in America today.
Dehumanization isn’t confined to police violence. shows that
dehumanization of Muslims and Hispanics underlies support for restrictive
immigration policies and a border wall. It also undercuts support for aid to