Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Comparison Between White Zombie & Night Of The Living Dead

By BJ Colangelo (@bjcolangelo)
*Originally posted at Day Of The Woman: A Blog For The Feminine Side Of Fear on February 18, 2013 by BJ Colangelo

Although it is Women In Horror recognition month, it is also Black History month. In honor of the monthly celebration, I present an analysis of two of the most prominent zombie films of all time, and the historical context of African American characters.

Zombies are arguably the most well known and universally adored of all horror movie monsters. Although the Universal Horror films presented fans with horror staples like Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man, zombie films are the undisputed kings of monster movies. Although George A. Romero is the incontrovertible father of the modern zombie film, film companies were cranking out zombie films as early as the 1920s. By analyzing what critics and theorists have accepted as the first solid zombie film, White Zombie and the “first” zombie film of the modern era, Night of the Living Dead, we can see a transformation in not only the treatment of the zombie subgenre, but horror storytelling in general. Focusing on the two most pivotal films of the beginning of history within the zombie subgenre creates a stronger through line and aides in presenting a clearer analysis.

Before the Cold War, there was a strong emphasis on fantasy and escapism in American cinema. However, in a post World War I America, movies became more socially responsible. The zombie sub-genre of horror films is no exception. Low budget filmmakers and brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, found a way to spawn an entirely new creature in the midst of the Universal Studios explosion of movie monsters. While big budget Frankenstein’s and nocturnal bloodsuckers were challenging sexual and social mores, the early zombie film was a safe haven to reinforce the discriminatory ideals by setting up a racial dynamic within a fantasy setting. 1932’s White Zombie is typical of the blatant racism that was commonplace in society at that time. 

The very concept of zombies in the 1930s came from an American obsession with the voodoo practices of Haiti. Americans found themselves intrigued with the “exotic” and “fascinating” practices unlike the typical Catholic/Christian backgrounds most Americans at the time were a part of. It was the idea that the Haitians’ own religion offered an opportunity for white commanders to enslave the Haitian people to do their bidding for as long as they desired that appealed to a pre-World War I America. The zombification of yesteryear was a statement on not just the social classes, but also the discrimination of the time before the civil rights movement. 

By setting the film in an exotic setting, the racism doesn’t appear to be white Americans acting racist towards other Americans, but rather white Americans acting completely justified in a world of savage undead Haitians. The fear of the zombie creature was not so much an attack that society has become accustomed to today, but rather the fear of actually becoming a mindless zombie with no other purpose than to serve the needs of others. Film critic Elizabeth A. Kingsley has drawn special attention to the discrimination in place amongst even the zombie characters. "Clarence Muse stands out like a sore thumb amongst the “black” characters in this film, many of whom are white actors in blackface. The zombies who slave in Legendre’s sugar mills are given only a passing glance; it is the white zombies, they who form Legendre’s bodyguard, in whom the film’s horror is located. 

Her statement agrees that is almost insinuated that the black characters are without soul and it is a much more devastating occurrence for a white person to be transformed into a zombie. This is further proven by the treatment of the white zombies vs. the black zombies. White zombies are seen to be Murder Legendre’s right hand men while the black zombies slave away in the factories and are shown in large groups, almost like cattle. It isn’t until analyzing from the mindset of a new-millennium individual that using monsters as a scapegoat for enforcing racism is apparent.

George A. Romero ushered in the modern zombie movie as the world accepts it today in a post-Civil Rights Movement, post Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. society. It was now deemed unacceptable for filmmakers to write characters, African Americans in particular, in the same light in which they were previously exploited. Instead of portraying African Americans as useless, or even worse, actively evil, this time around George A. Romero created an African American protagonist as the voice of reason. The closest thing to a hero in Night of the Living Dead, Ben, was a black male character. He is the protector, the leader, and even the one person to order around a white woman. 

Unlike White Zombie, in which the entire basis is the subjugation of the blacks and the untouchable nature of white women, it is accepted that Ben had the liberty to speak as he pleased, not because he was black, but because he was a fellow man. Romero even went as far as to add depth by making the character flawed, just like every other human being. Ben loses his temper, and not all of his decisions are correct. He's not perfect by any means, but he's a real person rather than a caricature. Much like White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead was a great example to exploit the mentality of society at this point in time. 

Kendall Phillips states in his book Projected Fears,“Not only does Night draw on the political images and concerns relevant to the counterculture of the 1960s, but also its narrative structure parallels the emergence and dissolution of the counterculture’s political aspirations.” At this time, the flower child and civil rights movements were emerging in the wake of Vietnam, and African Americans were finally beginning to be recognized as more than just second-class citizens. By Romero utilizing an African American as a protagonist, he helped enforce the changing political and social norms of the time. Unlike White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead takes place in rural America, a very familiar territory for most audience members. 

By bringing this fear into the backyards of those watching the films, it removed the safe sense of separation audiences had when watching White Zombiewith its Haitian background and now forced audiences to see the world how it really was by pointing the lens at Middle America.  Romero firmly claims that when Duane Jones auditioned for the role of Ben, he earned the role because he was the better actor, and not because of the color of his skin.  It is still debated whether or not this is fully true, but regardless of intent, Ben still remains to be one of the most progressive characters for African Americans in horror films. 

Although George A. Romero is a white man, his progressive viewpoints helped to influence a greater thought process towards minorities in cinema. Instead of reinforcing or exploiting the racial fears that white Americans possessed (and showcased in the 1930s), he condemns them and even shames the viewer for feeling that way. Phillips continues to say in his book, “Even for audiences not directly identified with the racial frustrations implicit in Ben’s actions, Ben is an attractive protagonist because he embodies a pragmatic militancy” The narrative story shows Ben as the protagonist and the major antagonist to be a white man. 

Regardless of an individuals feelings on racial acceptance, the story is written to where the white man, Harry Cooper is impossible to root for and in turn, forces the audience to support the black man, Ben. Ben was one of the most prominent figures of African Americans in films portraying something outside of a parody or stereotype. The existing through line between both 1932’s White Zombie and 1968’s Night of the Living Dead clearly both utilize the setting and narrative properties in order to showcase the underlying correlation between the American zombie film and society’s viewpoints towards African Americans. While the 1930s used exotic landscapes and foreign practices to excuse their racist beliefs, the civil rights empowering late 1960s forced the horror in our own backyards and forced us to take a closer look at the way we treat our fellow man.

About the Author

BJ Colangelo is a contributing writer for Icons of Fright, Blumhouse, and the creator of Day of the Woman: A blog for the feminine side of fear.  She’s also an actress, screenwriter, film theorist, plus-size model, and dessert flavored vodka connoisseur (@bjcolangelo)

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