When the Ebola controversy was still stirring in Dallas during the Fall of 2014, Brother Tony and I had a conversation about how his co-workers were panicking about it. I told him this seemed understandable since (1) Ebola is scary, (2) Tony and his co-workers all live and work in Texas, and (3) the hospital handling this situation didn’t handle it very well at first. However, Americans actually had very little to worry about at the time, for while that particular hospital might have dropped the ball, the U.S. still has one of the best medical systems in the world. Despite the mistakes that were made, the idea of Ebola sweeping across the entire United States is actually fairly remote. That being said, I think the real reason everyone was afraid had more to do with our 24-hour cable news networks. I caught a bit of CNN while the situation was still unfolding, and the “report” playing at the time was just some guy pointing a camera at the hospital in Dallas from a helicopter. That’s literally all there was; nothing was happening, there was nothing new to report at the time, and nobody was discussing anything important. CNN (and everyone watching it, including me) was just staring at the hospital, waiting for something – anything – to happen. Personally, I think the fact that our news media try to scare us into watching them like this is horrific.
Tony’s co-workers also seemed to be obsessed with the threat of apocalypse; this Ebola controversy was simply the latest twist in what was apparently a regular discussion at his office. This may seem unusual and disturbing to some who are reading this, but I’m telling you, people in Texas are like that. There’s an unusually high number of people in the Lone Star State who are involved in politics, law enforcement and/or public education and who seriously believe that the Rapture will happen at any moment and that the Antichrist is physically walking our Earth. I’m not trying to say that anyone who believes this stuff should be prohibited from working in any of these fields; but personally, I think there’s something very wrong when public schoolteachers are allowed to tell their students that evolution is false or that “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” So when Tony told me his co-workers often talk about preparing for doomsday (complete with buying weapons they aren’t trained to use and investing all their money in foolish things like gold), I didn’t even bat an eyelash; it’s nothing unusual in the land of Chuck Norris and the Alamo.
But the most interesting point in this conversation was when Tony told me what his co-workers said about helping people during the apocalypse. These harbingers of doom all said the exact same thing: “I hope you take this stuff seriously, because when the Big Blow-UpTM happens, you’re not going to get any help from me. You come begging me for help, I’ll shoot you right where you stand.” And mind you, these same people also claimed to believe in an undead hippie who went around healing the sick and feeding the poor. Something about that doesn’t quite add up, does it?
The original 1968 poster art for this film
Speaking of the undead, this all makes me think about George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is yet another of the scariest horror films I’ve ever seen. In case you’re unfamiliar with the film, it begins with Barbara and her brother Johnny, who drive halfway across Pennsylvania to visit their father’s grave. Once they get there, Barbara is attacked by a madman; Johnny tries to save her, but he gets his head bashed in for his trouble. Barbara is then chased by the raving lunatic to an abandoned farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere, where she soon descends into delirium. She’s then joined by a man named Ben, who’s been trying to escape an entire mob of people who are behaving exactly like Barbara’s stalker. Ben boards up the house to prevent any of these crazed psychopaths from getting inside, and while doing so, he notices that the people outside are eating each other. Then he and Barbara discover a bunch of people hiding downstairs in the basement. These people aren’t acting like the psychopaths outside, but at least one of them is dangerously nuts. What follows is one of the most intense character studies I’ve ever seen as these people alternate between working together and fighting each other during a global disaster that’s never really explained (or resolved).
There’s one part in which some TV news reporters offer a possible theory as to why all this shit is happening, but we’re never given any definitive explanation. The only thing we know for sure is that the crazy people outside Ben and Barbara’s adopted farmhouse are recently deceased, that they want to eat everyone inside the house, and that this is happening all over the world. While the term is never used at any point in the entire film, the antagonists are the first cinematic “zombies” as we know them today. To be true, zombies appeared in earlier films like White Zombie (1932) and I Walked With a Zombie (1944), but those were just hypnotized sleepwalkers who were being controlled by malefic witchcraft. (This is, in fact, what zombies actually are in folk religions like Vodou.) It wasn’t until Romero’s film that we were given the popular modern concept of zombies: uncontrollable reanimated corpses that devour (and outnumber) the living like a goddamn plague.
But the real monsters in Night aren’t necessarily the zombies; it’s the human beings. This movie seems to argue in favor of Anton Szandor LaVey’s Seventh Satanic Statement: “[Man is] just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours.” At least with other animals, resorting to the “fight-or-flight” instinct is literally all they can do to survive; we, on the other hand, are capable of so much more. But when the chips are down, we’re almost always revealed for the mindless, frightened beasts that we really are. This is exactly what George Romero shows us in Night of the Living Dead, and it’s both chilling and authentic. Forget that the film involves zombies for just a minute and pretend it’s about an Ebola breakout instead; would anything be different? I doubt it; I think you’d still have survivors turning against each other, competing with each other over power and resources. Never mind the fact that our best chances of survival would lie in compassion, group solidarity and trust; you’d still have selfish, stupid humans looking out for “Number One” and trying to lock everyone else outside of the basement.
I mentioned above that a potential explanation for the zombie outbreak is offered. Apparently, Night takes place soon after a satellite was sent by NASA to investigate the planet Venus. At one point in the film, the newscasters wonder if perhaps the dead aren’t being resurrected by some unknown form of radiation that the satellite has brought back from Venus. This, of course, is never proven to be the case, and the concept is conveniently dropped in George Romero’s subsequent Dead films (probably because he thought it sounded too cheesy, like something from a 1950s atomic horror film). But this is actually one of the more intriguing aspects of the story from my perspective. Venus is also known as the Morning Star, which is sacred to the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar (as well as to many other Deities). At one point in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ishtar threatens to raise the dead all over the Earth so that they will outnumber (and eat) the living. This makes Her the very first individual in recorded history to have ever conceived of a zombie apocalypse.
Many people interpret Ishtar in this story as just being an evil psycho bitch who throws a temper tantrum because Gilgamesh won’t marry Her. Nobody seems to notice that Gilgamesh himself is a tyrant, a rapist and a selfish bastard who’s only a “hero” for himself. Ishtar, on the other hand, is a Goddess of pure animal lust whose job is to bring new life into this world and to send old life back to the Otherworld. As such, Her role in the Epic of Gilgamesh is really to talk Gilgamesh into accepting his own mortality and laying his overblown narcissistic ego to rest. So when he resists Ishtar’s advances, it’s much the same as Lucifer trying to elevate himself above Yahweh (in the conventional Christian context, at least). Gilgamesh is therefore a personification of man’s hubris before the Gods, and there was an awful lot of him to see during the 1960s. The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the urban race riots, the various assassinations that happened; Romero has stated before that in Night of the Living Dead, “God changes the rules” to punish us for these various moral transgressions. But if you ask me, it isn’t the biblical God doing this; it’s Ishtar.
So THIS is why we shouldn’t piss off Ishtar…
Night of the Living Dead is also relevant for many social reasons because it features a truly powerful subtext concerning racial tension in the 1960s. (To begin with, its hero is a black man, even though the role was actually written for a white male lead. For another thing, this guy gets to beat the shit out of a white man on screen, which is something that would have gotten him lynched in real life at the time. And that ending…Oh, that ending…) Laugh at me if you will, but even big name film critics agree that Night holds a very crucial place in the history of cinematic art. I would discuss this aspect of the film further, but it’s already been discussed pretty deeply by lots of different people, and I don’t really have anything new to contribute. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Jerad Walters and Marco Lanzagorta’s Studies in the Horror Film: Night of the Living Dead should bring you up to speed pretty nicely.
Unfortunately for Romero and his cast and crew, someone forgot to include a copyright notice on the title screen of the film, rendering it public domain from the moment it was released. (This means that no one who worked on the film made any money from doing so.) Thankfully, Night of the Living Dead made such a huge impression on popular culture that Romero was able to build a career for himself by the sheer brute force of his reputation alone. He’s made several other Dead films since then, the best of which are Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). But Night has also inspired a truly staggering number of rip-offs, spin-offs, remakes, non-canon sequels, parodies, and re-imaginings. It truly amazes me that something like The Walking Dead TV series (2010 – present) has become so popular despite the fact that it doesn’t accomplish anything that wasn’t already done in the original Night. (At least 2004’s Shaun of the Dead is legitimately witty and clever.) But I guess the zombie subgenre is rather like the zombies themselves; it just won’t fucking die.
If you’ve never seen this film before, I highly recommend viewing it. Since it’s in the public domain, it’s incredibly easy to find; there’s almost always a copy of it on YouTube for free. Even if you have already seen Night of the Living Dead, I recommend giving it another go. And I want you to think about what kind of person you might become if something like this were to actually happen (whether it’s actually a zombie apocalypse, an Ebola pandemic, or something else). Would you become a primitive asshole and kill and steal from anyone who was weaker than yourself? Or would you do your best to help those who can’t help themselves? Perhaps this is just pointless conjecture, in light of how things actually turn out in the end…But then again, maybe there are some things we should be more concerned about than just survival. Maybe it’s better to die with some honor and dignity than it is to live on by victimizing others. And if we don’t stop and take the time to think about this very subject, perhaps we’re the real zombies after all.