American director George A. Romero made a revolution in horror movies industry, being a pioneer in using the genre’s tools to describe social, political and cultural background of contemporary America. In his horror trilogy, Romero went far beyond thrilling the viewer with imaginary monsters. Conversely, in his movies, he raised up such eternal issues as war and peace, love and fear, egotism and devotion, as well as referred to burning items of contemporary American society. Therefore, in order to see the true value of Romero’s contribution in reinvention of the genre, cultural background of America of his time should be examined.
Being one of the first directors who enriched the horror cinematography with realism and allegoric narration, Romero created monsters that were not simply artistic reincarnation of mystical voodoo fiends. Variety of scholars give their own assumptions on the abstract notion Romero’s zombies is referring to, suggesting such issues as growing consumerism or destructive capitalism, examining his works from psychoanalytical perspective with reference to Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” and his ‘return to repressed’. It is difficult to disagree with the scholar Steven Shaviro, who suggests that Romero’s zombies are metaphorical creatures that personify issues and burning items of ‘postindustrial society’. In his “Night of Leaving Dead” and “Dawn of the Living Dead”, created in successive decades, the author materialized action fears of citizens of postindustrial USA. The movies drew attention to different issues that were topical at the time of their creation; at the same time, they share some common messages. Thus, one of the topics that runs through “Night of the Leaving Dead” and “Dawn of the Leaving Dead” is confrontation of communitarianism and individualism, with individualism being considered as characteristic of capitalism and its consequential growing consumerism. Taking as leverage Bishop’s assumption that in “Night of the Leaving Dead” Romero illustrates two main oppositions – ‘invading zombies and surviving humans’, we may go further and assume that the image of instinct-based zombie illustrates what extremes individualism may cause to a human being. Hence, Romero may have allegorically suggested that in case we follow individualistic model of behavior and care only about ourselves, we can turn into scary individualistic creatures, whose main concern is visiting a mall and consuming as many goods as possible.
Understanding the reasons of growing individualistic tendencies in 1960s is indivisible with the insight into controversial political and social backgrounds of that time. Meanwhile ‘cultural revolution’ in America is generally referred to the time period from late 1950s till the middle 1970s, 1960s had its own distinguished issues. 1950s were marked for most Americans by exhausting anticipation of threats Cold War may bring, and this fear was traced to a successive decade. Thus, voluntary confinement of protagonist Cooper of himself and his family in the basement seems craven and extremely egotistic, although many Americans would understand his actions. During the Cold War, some families were hiding in the cellar, being driven by a dread of nuclear war.
The impact of Vietnam War on consciousness of Americans also cannot be underestimated. Being criticized by the world community and American citizens, this war, in some Americans, provoked mistrust in authorities’ ability to protect their citizens in any situation. Thus, this situation was alluded in the movie through the way author depicted vague and controversial solutions suggested by authorities in TV news.
According to Christie and Lauro, the pre-historical political background had sharpened in 1960s the fear of losing ones own individuality and contributed to the reinforcement of family, home and community’s institutes. The painful issue of gaining and protecting the own individuality goes along with the idea of being a part of community, with the latest to be an essential part of American culture. This complexity had found its illustration in Romero’s movie through opposition ‘individualism – communitarianism’ in the actions of protagonists.
Unlike vulnerable 1960s, the next decade seems to be undistinguishable in terms of great political, social or cultural shifts. Thus, one of the critics mentioned that among the other decades of the century, it is difficult to find one with less recognizable character. Nevertheless, the era had reshaped political and cultural background to a bigger extend than the revolution did. The global decrease of trust in state programs and the ‘power of community’ with the duties the citizens should share in the interests of government took an unusual course. People started anchoring their hopes in a market, as their fundament of social changes and guarantee of prosperity. Reinforced with economic boom and growing bourgeois tendencies in the US, consumer world started growing rapidly. Thus, 1970s was the time when the notion ‘consumption’ was slightly transforming into ‘consumerism’. Meanwhile, consumption is the purchase of items and goods, consumerism is a much wider notion, underlying the way of living and thinking that aims at attaining more and more goods. Going further, private entrepreneurs were hoping that majority of services, including spaces, where one may buy, eat, or be entertained may shift from governmental to private sectors.
Under such circumstances, it is difficult to think of any other scenery Romero may have chosen to illustrate consumerism tendencies of 1970s other than he picked – the mall. Being confined in a big mall, four protagonists may not allegorically, but literally live in their shelter for undesignated term with all their needs to be satisfied. Moreover, they may live an abundant and chic life, having in their disposal the whole ‘consumer paradise’ with cloths, entertainment and provision. An interesting fact is that in the middle of unfolding catastrophe four protagonists hold armor in their hands, ready to fight against apocalyptic monsters, all four being dressed up in the most fashionable clothes they could choose in the mall. We may assume that one of the messages transmitted through this scene is extirpated nature of individualism, as a part of human nature even in the face of impending death.
As Murray suggests in the essay on Romero’s movies, one of the main oppositions the author depicts in his ‘Night’ and ‘Dawn’ is individualism vs communitarianism. We may assume that the concept of individualism, its pros and contras are disclosed in different directions in Romero’s movies according to diverse scales of the scenery depicted and film’s various social backgrounds.
In the ‘Night’ narration takes place in a small farmhouse with the bulk of individualism- communitarianism to take place between protagonists. Thus, viewer may observe a distinguishable contradiction between communitarian Ben who cares about the helpless girl and the interests of other ‘prisoners’ of the house, meanwhile Cooper’s main concern is his own safety and the safety of his family. To some extent, we may consider Cooper as stubborn, unwilling to leave the basement to be caused exclusively by extreme care of the family. Nevertheless, Cooper’s wife commented on his refusal from getting out of the cellar indicates another possible reason that stands behind such behavior. She quietly answers her husband: ‘It is so important to always be right, isn’t it?’ It provokes a thought that Cooper is driven not by the care about his family, as rather by the own stubborn adherence to conventional individualistic lifestyle, no matter how superannuated it may be under depicted circumstances.
As stated above, Cooper’s family represents the image of post-war category of people who were threatened with nuclear damage and would likely lock themselves in the cellar, rather than would co-operate with others to save their lives. Events in ‘Night’ illustrate a failure of adhering to the old way of thinking and confidence in the own rightness of choosing individualism over communitarianism. Hence, Cooper found a terrible death, being eaten by the creature who used to be his daughter. As Harper suggests, such a terrible death indicates the end of the old, to some extend monarchial lifestyle. In relation to the topic, it may be assumed that terrible death of Cooper’s family indicates that extreme individualism does not find its justification under new circumstance in the face of inevitable changes.
Nevertheless, the death of communitarian Ben was also terrible. He was shot seamlessly by mistake by one of the volunteers from the armed group of zombie shooters. Some may assume that Ben’s death illustrates inconsistence of communitarian approach. Although, we suggest that it is more appropriate to examine Ben’s death in the light of Vietnam War critic that consisted the background of the 1960s. Thus, Azevedo suggests in his essay that one of the author’s messages transmitted through Ben’s death is that ‘dying together isn’t going to solve anything’ in terms of meaningless deaths during Vietnam notorious events.
Unlike ‘Night’, ‘Dawn of the Living Dead’ illustrates threatening scenery of apocalyptic world in a much larger scale. Instead of a small urban area, it depicts a large city with its frozen life because of the uncanny zombie-invasion. Instead of finding a shelter in a farm house protagonists in ‘Dawn’ are getting into ‘Mecca’ of 1970s – an abandoned mall. By shifting the scenery in his movies, the author accentuates the shift in social life of the US – from thinking ‘locally’ and making the first steps to liberalize themselves to the vivid result of liberalization and consummation. In terms of individualism, the author shifts the accent from failing individualism of post-war lifestyle till expansion of individualism of new category – the one that makes a part of consuming culture of the nation.
Taking Murray’s suggestion of opposition ‘individualism- communitarianism, we may say that support and care between the four protagonists cannot be argued. As Harper mentioned, one of the factors to solidate people is a shared fear. It is understood that under the circumstances of being surrounded by cannibalistic creatures, individualism inside the group would be a guarantee of their quick death.
Therefore, we may assume that the author personifies extreme individualism in the form of uncanny monsters. Being former ‘us’, these creatures occur to be instinct-driven, and the strongest instinct – the one that was prominent in their pre-zombie existence – evokes in their memory an inevitable need to consume. The distinguished feature that becomes more and more apparent in the ‘Dawn’ is that zombies’ intentions to get into the mall are not just caused by their wish to get provision, but are provoked by the strongest memories and desires of their ‘pre-selves’ that are apparently connected with this premise. Another distinguished features about monsters is that they act separately, each being driven by the own instinct and thinking exclusively about the own saturation. There is no other feature besides individualism that such behavior can illustrate.
Unexpectedly for viewers, zombies are not the only enemies of protagonists. When the gang of bikers are breaking into the mall, communitarianism of the group is changed into individualistic unwillingness to share the mall and its ‘treasures’ with others. A vivid illustration of this tendency is when Stephen says that the mall was their territory and they were not going to share it with anyone else. Inability of the two groups, protagonists and bikers, to meet halfway results is the fact that bikers are all killed or eaten by the monsters, and Stephen becomes a zombie. The situation may find its explanation in various ways.
Firstly, gang of bikers, driven by individualistic willingness to possess, becomes so blind with the greed for grain that they are not capable to evaluate the real threat of zombies and opposition of protagonists. We do not know for sure, but such a behavior presupposes that there hardly exists communitarian relationship inside this group. Therefore, quick and terrible death of bikers illustrates inconsistence of individualism in its extreme form.
Secondly, unwillingness of protagonists to share the mall with bikers illustrates that communitarian relationship can easily be changed into individual one when it goes about something that belongs to a person. We may assume that Stephen may be the one who had paid a high price for such an individualistic intention.
Issues about a person’s readiness to co-operate with others or protect their own interests are ever-topical, but they were viewed by Romero under the unusual angle – through the social changes in 1960s and growing consumerism of 1970s. When asked about his message, Romero transmitted in ‘Night of the Living Dead’, the author simply answered that it was 1960s, everybody had a message. Having depicted reality of his times with the instruments of horror genre, the author might not have thought how many researches may his works cause. Nevertheless, Romero’s movies are intimidating viewers not only with threatening images on the screen, but, to a greater extend, due to their plausibility. Severe death of Cooper in ‘Night’ also alludes to inconsistence of individualism under the circumstances of the upcoming danger. Meanwhile zombies wandering around the mall remind to a contemporary viewer the reality of the world we are living in. Placing the zombies into such scenery and leaving their human look provokes a thought that, in case we would blindly follow the ideas of consumerism, we may become just like ghouls.