Night of the Living Dead: Social Commentary in Horror Cinema

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Featured Lifestyle Scary Movies and Series

Night of the Living Dead (1968) was hardly the first zombie film—in fact, it was the fortieth, for those of you who like useless trivia facts—but it is possibly the most memorable of the older zombie classics. It’s not hard to see why it has persisted for the last fifty-three years, enduring beyond the renown of such modern zombie sensations, such as The Walking Dead (2010 – Present) and Train to Busan/Busanhaeng (2016). What most modern films and television shows of the horror genre seem to gloss over is their captive audience. Therein lies the opportunity for commentary on the civil rights issues that are still incredibly relevant in the present day.

One notable exception to missed opportunities for commentary being Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017)—but we can get to that one later. For now, we’ll just focus on the message of Night of the Living Dead. As Tom Gunning explained in his essay, “confrontation rules the cinema of attractions in both the form of its films and their mode of exhibition. The directness of this act of display allows an emphasis on the thrill itself—the immediate reaction of the viewer,” (“An Aesthetic of Astonishment”, 122)—this thrill that we get from controversial messages and images on display within films is one of the main reasons we watch horror. Excitement is king.

They’re coming to get you, Barbara!

Johnny in Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A line of undead ‘zombies’ walk through a field in the night

What is Night of the Living Dead about?

At face value, this movie is just a story about survivors of a zombie apocalypse stumbling upon one another, clashing personalities, and finally a begrudging combining of forces to fend off the zombie hoard that surrounds the farmhouse that they each found and decided to hunker down in for safety. One by one, these survivors each ends up dying, until we see the last man standing—Ben, emerged cautiously from his secure space in the cellar of the farmhouse to find that police and other volunteers were roaming around, killing the zombies, and reclaiming their land for the safety of the living.

Unfortunately for Ben, these rescuers are less focused on finding survivors and more focused on mindlessly putting down anything they find that moves. While that might simply be interpreted as bad luck for our main character, Romero’s decision for this ending was actually fairly controversial considering the time in which it had been created. Now you might be asking yourself, where does the conversation of civil rights factor into this? Well, buckle up, buttercup—we’re just getting started.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Movie Poster
Night of the Living Dead (1968) Movie Poster

Controversial Social Commentary

“Curiositas draws the viewer towards unbeautiful sights, such as a mangled corpse, and ‘because of this disease of curiosity monsters and anything out of the ordinary are put on show in our theatres,’” (Gunning, 124). Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) gives us these “unbeautiful sights” in spades. Consider the special effects that were available to directors at that time—the glimpses of a woman with her face eaten off at the top of the stairs and zombies ripping flesh off of bones after an unfortunate accidental explosion of the getaway vehicle were the literal encapsulation of this concept. The intangible concepts within this film are the reflections of society and how little progress has been made since 1968.

Ben giving Barbara slippers in Night of the Living Dead
Ben giving Barbara slippers

Freud pinpoints the appeal of the horror story. He begins by discussing the etymological root of the word “uncanny” in German, a word long associated with the horror genre, demonstrating how both the word and its opposite are very close in definition and usage… ‘it may be true that the uncanny [unheimlich] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimlisch], which has undergone repression and returned from it, and that everything is uncanny fulfills this condition.’ … Freud … hit upon the key to understanding the core of the horror genre. Horror is dissimilar from much of [the] science fiction genre in which the threatening ‘monster’ (often created because of the interference of science or technology)—whether it be alien, atomic mutant, or cyborg—is portrayed as the Other which must be destroyed or controlled by science, often in conjunction with the military/industrial complex, in order to save humanity. Horror tends rather to concentrate on another type of ‘Other,’ an ‘Other’ which is very familiar and because of that much more frightening, an ‘Other’ which is rooted in our psyche, in our fears and obsessions.

James Ursini, pg. 4 of the Introduction in The Horror Film Reader

The Civil Rights Movement

From 1954 to 1968 the Civil Rights Movement empowered Black Americans and their like-minded allies. They battled against systemic racism (or institutionalized racial discrimination), disenfranchisement, and racial segregation within the United States. The brave efforts of civil rights activists and innumerable protesters brought meaningful change to the US, through changes in legislation; these changes ended segregation, voter suppression for Black Americans, as well as discriminatory employment and housing practices.

The Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

There were tragic consequences for two of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. With the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, and the subsequent assassination of Civil Rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Each of these losses to the movements provoked an emotionally-charged response; looting and riots put even more pressure on President Johnson to push through civil rights laws that still sat undecided.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968

The Fair Housing Act became law on April 11, 1968. It came just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; too little too late, but it prevented housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, and religion. It was also the last piece of legislation that was made into law during the civil rights era.

Casting a Black Actor in a Non-Ethnic Role

The way the lead character Ben was written originally with Rudy Ricci. Surprisingly, however, when 31-year-old African American actor Duane Jones auditioned for the part, the decision to cast him was unanimous. Even Rudy Ricci was on board with the change in plans, stating that, “Hey, this [was] the guy that should be Ben.”

Duane Jones—the Anti-Ben

Romero recalled that Jones had been the best option when it came to casting the part of Ben, and remarked that, “if there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme.” He even saw fit to mention that he resisted writing new dialogue for the part just because they had cast a black lead. It was assumed that Jones was the first black actor to be cast in a non-ethnic-specific starring role, but that barrier was broken by Sidney Poitier in 1965.

Interestingly enough, the role of Ben was supposed to be a gruff, crude, yet resourceful trucker. His essence was that of an uneducated or lower class person. On the other hand, Jones happened to be very well-educated, with fluency in several languages, obtained a B.A. at the University of Pittsburgh, and an M.A. at NYU. Jones was the one who flipped the script, improvising through the dialogue to portray his interpretation of Ben as a well-spoken, educated, and capable character. Therefore, as originally written, white Ben was a stereotype whereas Jones turned the character into the antithesis of a stereotypical black ben.

So why was Night of the Living Dead so controversial?

Even though Ben is the protagonist, he was never meant to be the hero—in fact, Ben was supposed to represent just an everyday Joe, who “simply reacted to an irrational situation with strong survival instincts and a competence that, though far from infallible, surpassed that of his five adult companions trapped in that zombie-besieged farmhouse,” (Kane). What we would expect in terms of racially heated arguments, we only witness the palpable tension that displays what goes unsaid. What also may not occur to modern viewers as being controversial, is the portrayal of a black man and a white woman being locked up alone in a house together. Segregation may have begun over a decade prior, but racism doesn’t die overnight just because laws are changed.

The “Final Guy”

The tragic ending of Night of the Living Dead was a commentary on real injustices that were happening at the time, as well as a foreshadowing of an issue that has doggedly limped into the systemic racism of the twenty-first century. The world was facing its end of days. The threat of the undead rising from their graves and feeding off of the living was enough to pull everyone together to stay alive—but racism was still alive and well. Unlike most of his African-American male successors of horror, Ben does not fall victim to the black character stereotype by being the first character to die. Ben makes it to the end—the so-called “final” guy—he was able to save himself when the house was overrun by the living dead. Then, after all of his hardship, he ends up dying at the hands of the gun-toting police officers.

Ben was wielding a gun, he was clearly not a revenant, and the sharpshooter who put one between Ben’s eyes could very obviously see this—his death affected not a soul in that situation, his life in plain language was unworthy of continuing in the eyes of the men who were supposed to serve and protect the living, who instead of seeing a human being, perceived a threat. The ending that Romero’s film allowed to linger in the minds of the audience was controversial because it made people think. It made them look at the social and political issues that were washing over the United States all around them; Romero delivered in that two minutes ending, a message that was unforgettable. It has thusly endured through the culture of horror and has continued to inspire modern horror cinema.

Final Thoughts

If classical Hollywood style is posited as the norm, then filmmaking practices that deviate from it risk becoming seen as “primitive” (such as early cinema) or “excessive” (such as genres where spectacle often seems to trump narrative, including musicals and horror films).

Adam Lowenstein, “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film”

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Interested in watching the full film now that you’ve read this article? Well, you’re in luck—this film is now in the public domain and can be watched online for free.

Work Cited

Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, by Linda Williams, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 1995, pp. 114–133.

Lowenstein, Adam. “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film.” Representations, vol. 110, no. 1, 2010, pp. 105–128. JSTOR. Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.

Kane, Joe. “How Casting a Black Actor Changed ‘Night of the Living Dead’.” TheWrap, 1 Sept. 2010.

Harper, Stephen. “Bright Lights Film Journal: Night of the Living Dead.” Bright Lights Film Journal | Night of the Living Dead.

Ursini, James, and Curtis Harrington. “Introduction/Ghoulies and Ghosties.” The Horror Film Reader, by Alain Silver, Limelight Ed., 2006, pp. 3–19.

Nostradamus and Ancient Predictions About Pandemic: Did We have Prophetic Warnings?

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Featured Horror Mystery and Lore
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Still rubbing your eyes and thinking you are in some kind of bad B rated horror movie about a viral epidemic that spreads throughout the world?   We tried that whole thing where you take a nap and wake up hoping for an alternative reality; yet here we are.  Global pandemic. Just like some of our favorite apocalyptic movies.  Except we’re living it, and we don’t know when things will ‘go back to normal’.

The writers are Puzzle Box Horror have been spending some time on the couch (not the therapists couch —(yet) just our regular couch with our dogs and favorite horror books or movies). And we’ve been watching some pretty ‘out there’ claims about ancient prophesies about plagues.   So, we thought we’d do a bit of digging to see if oral tradition, history and lore have provided us with a warning about a global pandemic.

Meet Nostradamus the Prophet Most Likely to be Misquoted on Social Media

You can’t really talk about eerie futuristic predictions from prophets, without hearing Nostradamus’ name come up in conversation.  But do you know why this unusual and uncannily accurate contemporary prophet is thought to be one of the more reliable sources for future predictions?

Nostradamus was born in France in 1503, and he became a renowned physician who specialized in treating plague victims in both Italy and France.  He was surrounded by death and the battle for life constantly, and many people believe he suffered both a psychotic break and psychic awakening at the same time as he began to delve into occult practices.   He wrote a book called “The Prophecies” in 1555.

While dealing with the plague, Nostradamus developed some innovative and highly effective therapies, that focused on hygiene (which was revolutionary at the time in medicine) and the use of natural extracts including rosehip, Vitamin C, low fat diets and fresh air and exercise for his patients.  Because of his celebrity status as a successful physician and healer, he was financially supported by wealthy families in Provence.

While Nostradamus was traveling on a medical mission to Italy, his wife and children succumbed to the plague.  The fact that he was unable to heal or save his own family, did significant damage to his celebrity reputation as a renowned healer, and he lost much of his patronages from the upper class in Provence as a result.

 In 1547 he remarried a rich widow named Anne Ponsarde, and they had six children together.  Nostradamus published two medical books “Galen, the Roman Physician” and “The Traite des Fardemens”, which was a recipe book of medicinal concoctions for treating the plague as well as preparations for cosmetics to hide symptoms of illness effectively.

The prophet would spend hours before a bowl of hot water, in which a secret blend of herbs was steeped which he would inhale.  After imbibing the infusion, he would then begin to write his prophesies, many of which have come true throughout history, since the publishing of “The Prophecies” in 1555.

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Some suspect that the use of psychedelic compounds was used by Nostradamus to acquire the state of mental levity and clairvoyance, where he could see into the future and predict events and disasters.  We may never know what ‘herbs’ he used, but there are an impressive number of predictions that seem to have come true over the past 465 years.

The Meme About Nostradamus Predicting COVID-19 Pandemic is False

Of course, in a high-stress super surreal “what kind of horror movie has our reality become’ moment in human history, there is going to be a meme that gets everyone going.  We’re not against memes that are funny, but this one is pretty convincing and terror inducing if you are already feeling more than a little unhinged about the current world events.

When you read that meme, you are probably thinking… ‘woah, that’s pretty coincidental considering the current pandemic’.   Well, that’s the thing about fake memes; they are meant to convince you that they are true and freak you out more than little.

Snopes fact checked the meme, and guess what? In all the quatrains in Nostradamus, there is no reference as indicated in the meme.  So, you can scratch that one off the list of lore and legend; and if you think about it, Nostradamus lived in a time of plague, lost family to plague, so predicting a dire plague in the future wouldn’t have been that revolutionary for him.  Plague was kind of part of their daily back in the 1500s.

The Prophecy from a Buddhist Monk That Made Us Lose Sleep

We don’t debunk paranormal, and we are explorers into horror and the unexplained.  So, even though the meme about Nostradamus was a wash, that doesn’t mean that there are not other kinds of prophesies out there that DO strike that creepy note for accuracy, beyond circumstantial evidence.

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“The year 2020 – The year all of China will weep. The omens will be so bad that the New Year will not be celebrated. Then the plague will come. It will come with a fury – the tigers and the wolves will hide in the mountains. The plague will encompass all the land – and will eventually spread to the whole world. Very soon – rice will become so expensive that no one can eat. Then the rivers will sink all the boats. People in that year will only be able to harvest rice in the very early spring. There will be no harvest of late season rice, beans, wheat, and oats because vast clouds of locusts will lay waste to the entire countryside.”

This was written by a Buddhist Monk in the Forbidden City (Gentleman Zigong) in the 20th century, and excerpt from the “Ancient Internal Bible”.  Then the Buddhist Monk furthers:

“I, Gentleman Zigong, will tell you Chinese in 2020 how to survive. Remain very close to your families and your neighbors. The best is to have stored up plenty of gold and food to live and share freely with those you love. Tolerate no thieves among the people. Be uniters and not dividers. If you can do all these things, you will survive.”

Have you heard of any other prophesies that seem to point toward the current COVID19 global pandemic?  Share a link with us in the comments below.

Novels, Television, and Film Adaptations of Robert Bloch

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Featured Horror Books Horror Mystery and Lore Scary Movies and Series

From the past articles in which we have discussed Robert Bloch and his creative works within the horror genre, we decided to talk a little bit about his most famous novels, especially Psycho, the film that almost overnight made Bloch a writing sensation.

The Scarf (1947)

The Scarf (1947) by Robert Bloch
The Scarf (1947) by Robert Bloch

This novel was originally published twelve years before Bloch’s most famous work, Psycho (1960) and while it was originally published without much publicity and was largely ignored for years, it along with Bloch’s other older works started to receive more notice after Hitchcock adapted Psycho to the big screen. Once Bloch’s work received such critical acclaim, his other less popular works began to gain some popularity as well. These other works tend to still be less popular and while they were all well-written, most were unfortunately as forgettable as they come. The Scarf, despite being one of Bloch’s best novels is somehow still one of his forgotten novels.

When we look at The Scarf we see a story about Daniel Morley, a man who admits to having a fetish for a certain scar he wears all the time. According to our strange narrator, Morley received this scarf as a gift from his high school English teacher; in a strange turn of events, this teacher attempted to rape Morley and whom Morley killed in alleged self-defense.

We eventually see Morley as somewhat of a wandering vagrant, one who commits small crimes to get by—and then also there’s the women he murders with.. the scarf.

Psycho (1959) by Robert Bloch
Psycho (1959) by Robert Bloch

Psycho (1959)

For those who have been, somehow, untouched by Bloch’s infamous novel Psycho (1959) this synopsis might be somewhat of a spoiler—but that doesn’t mean you can get away with not reading the book, watching the movie, or checking out the television series inspired by the original novel!

Within the story proposed by Bloch in this psychological thriller, we meet Norman Bates, a middle-aged bachelor who is mentally dominated by his mother—a puritanical, mean-spirited woman who prevents Norman from having any kind of normal life outside of taking care of her and the motel they run together in the small town of Fairville. Unfortunately, since the state relocated the highway, Norman and his mother have been struggling to maintain their business which at one point had been a fairly busy highway adjacent place for people to stop for the night.

Enter Mary Crane, an impulsive woman who, after stealing $40,000 from one of her real estate clients, is on the run from the law. Mary arrives just when Norman and his mother are in a heated argument and as the situation progresses, Mary is under the impression that Norman’s mother would benefit from a mental hospital. Norman denies that there is anything wrong with her, suggesting that, “we all go a little mad sometimes.” After finishing her dinner with Norman, Mary returns to her room having decided to return the money she stole and face the consequences so she doesn’t end up like Norman and his mother, but in an unforeseen change in circumstance, while Mary is taking a shower, a figure that looks like an old woman ambushes Mary and beheads her for her offenses.

Norman, who had passed out drunk after dinner finds Mary’s bloody corpse and is instantly convinced his mother murdered their customer—briefly considering letting his mother go to prison, he instead decides to get rid of the body and dispose of Mary’s belongings in a swamp before returning to life as usual. Mary’s fiance catches wind of her disappearance through Mary’s sister, who with the help of a private investigator hired by Mary’s employer, begin the search for her together. Arbogast, the private investigator, is eventually led to the Bates Motel where he questions Norman about Mary—Norman of course lies, telling Arbogast that Mary had only stayed for one night and left. Wanting to cover his bases, Arbogast asks to speak with Norman’s mother, but Norman refuses and by doing so, rouses Arbogast’s suspicion. The mystery continues and what awaits those searching for Mary Crane turns into a psychological thriller that goes beyond the standard criminal mind—who could have known that Norman Bates was such a pscyho?

Psycho (1960) Adaptation into Film

Immediately after publishing, Bloch was made an offer for the film rights to the book that put him on the map, it wasn’t until well after the rights were purchased that Bloch found out the person who purchased them was actually Alfred Hitchcock. We discuss more of the surrounding details in our article Robert Bloch: The Man Who Brought Us Psycho.

Psycho (1998) Remake

Bates Motel (2013-2017)

A disturbing and driving force of psychological horror, Carlton Cuse and A&E provided a reimagined version of Bloch’s original creation, having a more in-depth backstory and an interesting narrative and twist on dissociative personality disorder and how the extremes of such could result in such a violent psychological break even from someone who was at first depicted as being so docile and sweet.

Works Cited

Bloch, Robert. Psycho. Blackstone Audio, Inc., 1959.

Bloch, Robert. The Scarf. Dial Press, 1947.

Cuse, Carlton. Bates Motel, A&E, 2013.

Sergio. “THE SCARF (1947 / 1966) by Robert Bloch.” Tipping My Fedora, 13 May 2012, bloodymurder.wordpress.com/2012/04/20/the-scarf-1947-by-robert-bloch/.

Van Sant, Gus, director. Psycho, Universal Pictures, 1998.