Night of the Unseen Dead: Zombies and the Societal Mechanics of Fear.
I would like to get this out of the way first. The following is riddled with spoilers for both the 1968 classic "Night of the Living Dead" and the 2017 picture "It Comes at Night". If you, dear reader, or listener, is one that is worried about that sort of thing, take 3.5 to 4 hours (if you get a snack or use the bathroom) to watch both films and get back to me. I’ll wait….
Ok we good? Good! Those were cool, right? Now we can talk about them.
Let’s talk about horror movies for a second. They are often looked down at for not being “Art,” for throwing images of violence and immorality out into the zeitgeist, and for being an all in all frivolous genre of film. I choose to see the horror genre as none of those things, but as a well-oiled mechanism.
It is a mechanism that works with orchestrated tension that is in conversation with our deepest cultural anxieties. Consequently, horror films are very much “of their time” and while they may tackle similar themes, they do so in vastly different ways that cater to their specific cultural moments.
We will examine this phenomenon through two zombie films. The original "Night of the Living Dead" and the much more recent "It Comes At Night". Both tell a story of a crumbling world under siege from a plague, and both involve small intimate settings that force strangers to interact with each other (#Hellisotherpeople). The mechanisms of horror that these films use to scare the audience play upon the fears of their respective social climates.
So much of horror is based upon what the audience does not see. Shapes in dark corners, movement on the periphery of shots, and quick cuts away from the monster are the genre’s stock and trade. In Night of the Living Dead, George Romero don’t play that game. This is a zombie movie, and zombies are what you are going to get…
The first time we see a zombie (this handsome looker pictured above) we are at a gravesite in broad daylight. We see it walk into frame almost casually. The film does not really try to draw attention to it as something to be feared, however, it is still frightening nonetheless. The mere sight of this thing is frightening. The unnatural way it walks, the way it holds its head; it’s all deeply terrifying. As the movie goes on, the audience is never shown a zombie in any way that obscures what it is. It is the corpse of a person risen from the dead to feast upon human flesh, and that's enough.
There is one moment a bit later in the film that is a perfect metaphor for what the audience is going through. The character of Barbara serves as an audience surrogate for this film. She is our way in. She is the first character we meet and the one that we follow into the house where most of the film takes place.
Upon entering the house, she is greeted by the rotting corpse of a zombie whose head seems to have gotten into an unfortunate accident with a shotgun. She immediately runs out of the house and into Ben, the film's real protagonist, who warns her not to look at the dead zombie. This is the source of fear. Ben warns her not to look at it because the mere sight of this thing will strike fear into her heart. This is the same with the audience. The movie continues to show you the zombies in graphic detail and refuses to let up.
So how is this blatant parading of the threat in a horror film geared toward scaring the pants off of viewers in 1968? I argue that it has much to do with the news. With the advent of television, viewers were no longer able to simply hear or read about world news. They had front row seats to national and cultural traumatic events as the world crumbled around them. Specifically 1968, and the 60’s in general, were particularly rough years. You may now be saying to yourself, “Okay, Kyle, calm down, that seems like a pretty hyperbolic assessment.” Is it though?
Ok, so here’s the run down. Just five years before, a young, charismatic, president with a face for TV was shot out in the open for all to see. Fast forward to 1968, which is now considered one of the most turbulent years in American history. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, then race riots erupted in LA, and then Robert Kennedy was shot; all within the span of a few months. The world really was falling a part and Americans could see it in a way that they were formerly unable to, from the comfort or discomfort of their own homes.
Night of The Living Dead presents its horror this way. It shows the audience the horror in a highly visible way, just like the news from that era. The film even ends with a photo montage that resembles grainy news footage. The horror of Night of the Living Dead is inextricably tied to the informational climate of 1968.
This brings us to a zombie movie that came out a few weeks ago, "It Comes at Night". What is especially unique about this zombie film is that is that there is arguably not a single zombie in the whole affair. It has all the trappings of a zombie film. It has the individual groups of survivalists living in their respective enclaves, the husk of what was once a society, and a plague that is going around and decimating the human population. However, we never see a zombie at all, like ever.
In this film, the threat is unknown and all the scarier for it. We see people’s reactions to whatever is out there, the barriers they have to build to keep away from it, and the hostility they have whenever anyone from the outside enters.
This conflict is the main crux of the film. The story centers on a man, played by the transformative Joel Edgerton, who is desperately protecting his family against the unseen horror. He hesitantly opens his fortress to a family of outsiders, a young couple and their son, who are ill equipped to survive. Shenanigans ensue resulting in distrust, paranoia, and confusion, which culminate in the murder of the young child. Joel Edgerton believes his family is in danger because the child may be sick with whatever zombie plague is going around. So, he kills the child to save his own family.
The audience is also unaware of what is actually going on. Is the child really sick? We don’t know. Can we even trust these new people? We still don’t’ know. We experience the fears and confusion of the character, which affects our feelings. The bedrock of the fear that "It Comes At Night" plays upon is based on a lack of information from the audience's perspective.
So why is this type of thing scary to the modern viewer? It is frightening to us for two primary reasons. First, we live in an age with unprecedented access to information. It is literally at our beck and call whenever we want it. For instance, can you tell me what year Wicket, the adorable little Ewok from "Return of the Jedi" was born? I have taken the liberty of consulting The Google half way through writing that sentence and the answer is circa 8 BBY (which stands for Before the Battle of Yavin if you aren't a big nerd like me).
The point is that any information that one could possibly want, no matter how stupid or useless, is out there for the taking. What could possibly be scarier to our modern sensibilities than taking away our information? It Comes at Night knows that we are so used to constant access to information and proceeds to unsettle us by stripping it all away.
"It Comes at Night" exploits another side effect of our informational climate as well. Since there is access to all sorts of sources, it has enabled us to cherry pick information. It has enabled us to cherry pick the ones we like and ignore the ones we dislike. This, in turn, has created tribes of like-minded people that will attack dissenters on Facebook and other platforms like a school of piranha.
Any dissenters are written off as “fake news” or barraged with a multitude of unintelligent ad hominem, straw man arguments. People today stick to their tribe just like in "It Comes at Night". We, like Joel Edgerton and his family, live in a very divided society. So, we recognize the distrust of the outsider in ourselves. "It Comes At Night" presents the fatal consequences of such a world.
Horror works on its audience through a time specific mechanism of fear that uses our collective cultural anxieties to frighten us. "Night of the Living Dead" and "It Comes at Night" are both zombie films with the some of the same tropes, but vastly different, and time sensitive, ways of scaring their audiences.
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