“Oh, America. I wish I could tell you
that this was still America, but I’ve come to realize
that you can’t have a country without
people. And there are no people here. No. my
friends. This is now the United
States of Zombieland.” Columbus, Zombieland.
George A. Romero’s zombie cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, continues to be regarded as a remarkable piece of filmmaking, spawning sequels and spinoffs, a film that in many ways transformed the horror genre, forever. Jordan Peele's Get Out, nearly fifty years later, continues what Night began, unflinchingly calling attention to racism and its impact upon black lives. This essay will explore this message of both films, examining their differences as well as bringing to light their similarities and shared themes.
Deadly Among the Living
Upon its initial release, Night of the Living Dead was heavily criticized for its extreme violence. Such was the outrage, some people questioned the moral health of those who went to see this “orgy of sadism,” as one critic put it. However, as time went on, its depth of insight—the way the film, for instance, could be interpreted as calling to account the political ideology of the day, especially concerning the Vietnam war—was praised. The potential for its political message grew, and many people began to see Night of the Living Dead as a work that directly challenged domestic racism. This message was powerfully displayed, most especially, within the final moments of the film.
A large posse of white townspeople, armed with guns, are making their way towards the farmhouse where the events of Night have centered. Sheriff McClelland leads the party, accompanied by a character called Vince, and some patrolmen handling large German Shepherds. As they get closer to the house, we see a staggering zombie (or ghoul as they are referred to in the film) get shot by McClelland’s posse, falling to the floor. “You,” McClelland says to one of the group and pointing at the zombie, “drag that out of here, and throw it on the fire.”
Whilst this is happening the camera keeps cutting to Ben, Night’s main protagonist. Ben, played by Duane Jones, has been holed up in this abandoned farmhouse fighting the walking dead all night long. He is the lone survivor having barricaded himself in the cellar, that is until he hears gunshots from McClelland’s advancing clean up crew. Cautiously making his way out of the cellar, he goes into another room and approaches the window.
Meanwhile, McClelland and Vince are looking at the house.
Vince: “There’s something in there, I heard a noise.”
Ben, holding a gun, peers out of the window. The scene cuts back to Vince, sighting his rifle at the house.
Sheriff McClelland: “All right, Vince, hit him in the head, right between the eyes.”
Sheriff McClelland: “Good shot! Ok, he’s dead, let’s go get him. That’s another one for the fire.”
The true horror of Romero’s film is not the zombies, but its ending as Ben’s dead body is
dragged off and thrown onto the fire with the bodies of the ghouls. What is interesting is how McClelland refers to Ben as “he” and not “it” as he had done moments earlier about the ghoul they had killed. Did they think Ben was a ghoul or not? It appears that Romero is reminding the audience how Ben, as a black man, is regarded by the white police and posse as nothing more than just “another one for the fire.” It doesn’t matter to McClelland whether Ben was a ghoul or not—his being black is reason enough to kill him.
There is little doubt that this scene would have evoked strong emotions and reactions within the African American community, especially in light of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. earlier that year, and the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. Night rejects society’s refusal to confront its reality, holding up a mirror that signals how communities continually get rid of, or subdue, anyone who is deemed a threat to the will and desire of those in charge.
The stark nihilism of the film would have been a shock to audiences of the time (perhaps similar to modern reactions to the end of Se7en), a work of desperation that was unusual for a film in the 1960s. Yet it echoed a harsh reality for persons of color.
Between 1865 and 1968, the year Nightwas released, nearly six thousand five hundred black lives were murdered by lynching. The terror and brutality of lynching in America is part of black history, a history that must not be ignored. Burning the victim for hours—and remember what happens to Ben at the end of Night—became the primary method of torture as white crowds gathered in their thousands to watch. Men, women, and children would pose next to a victim for a photograph that would then be made into postcards, a souvenir sent to family and friends. These bodies swinging on trees, with the smell of burning flesh, is the “Strange Fruit” Billie Holiday and Nina Simone would hauntingly sing about.
The nihilistic ending is an important aspect of the film, for it highlights the ongoing struggle of persons of color against racism, a struggle that cannot be whitewashed by Hollywood’s happy endings; racism is an evil that must continually be spoken of with deep honesty and spoken out against with unremitting passion. In 2017 Get Out provided that honesty and passion, continuing in the tradition of Night, a film of deep significance to the cinematic and cultural world in its refusal to allow black people to be silenced.
A significant moment in Get Out sees the main character Chris, while visiting his white girlfriend’s parents for a weekend away, subjected to a form of hypnotism by the mother, Missy. Struggling to sleep, Chris goes for a cigarette and is invited by Missy to join her in the front room. Sitting opposite him, Missy slowly stirs a cup of tea, suddenly asking him deep and personal questions about his traumatic childhood. Through subtle suggestion, and the hypnotic sound of the spoon scraping on china, Chris starts reliving painful memories, seeing the night his mother died, tears falling.
Missy: “How do you feel now?”
Chris: “I can’t move.”
Missy: “You can’t move.”
Chris: “I can’t move.”
Missy: “You’re paralysed . . . Now, sink into the floor.”
Chris slides down the chair into a dark abyss, suspended within nothingness, the face of Missy high above him on what looks like a television screen: “Now you’re in the Sunken Place,” he is told by Missy.
The film’s director, Jordan Peele, describes the Sunken Place as America’s long and dark history with racism, a place that continues to silence and abuse black people. In a tweet he said that, “The Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.”
Throughout the film the audience feel increasingly unnerved by Missy and her husband, Dean, a neurosurgeon. Initial kindness and warmth give way to uncomfortable fascination around Chris as a black man. Eventually we discover that Dean and Missy steal the bodies and lives of black people, imprisoning their consciousness within the Sunken Place, and transferring the brains of rich, white people into a black body.
Get Out masterfully examines the fetishization of the black body and experience. The white characters each view Chris as a supreme physical object; rather than regarding Chris as a somebody, his body is something to own. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade is an obvious example of this devastating reality in black history, yet I suspect Peele is also calling the audience to pay attention to the ongoing struggle. From economics to politics, crime to education, health to employment, the system dehumanises black lives, often determining their reality according to the desiresof the white experience.
Western white fetishization of the black body was starkly observed at the 2012 Olympic Games. The BBC showed a short, five minute documentary called “Nature or Nurture” exploring the reasons why “not a single white athlete has contested the men’s 100 metre final for thirty two years.” The film argues that the black experience of slavery evolved their genes in such a way that they became stronger, fitter, and faster than white people. Aside from the absurdity of such a position, the fact that a national broadcaster fetishizised the black body with such overt racism highlights how deeply ingrained such ideology is. Not only that, but it seeks to strip away black excellence for what it is, ‘whitewashing’ it, using white history and actions against the African-American community to explain away (or perhaps even to perversely take credit for) the successes of black people.
Get Out also plays with ideas of inverted racism, like when Dean tells Chris, “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.” Here Peele expertly reminds the audience that voting for Obama, or your daughter dating a black man, doesn’t mean you’re not racist. In stark and needed ways, Get Out doesn’t allow us to ignore white privilege, forcing audiences to recognise the uncomfortable truth of racism, the way, through history, Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) have been nothing more than a means by which the powerful can exert control and dominance; its message is meant to make us uncomfortable. It is a film that holds our face to the fire of racism, condemning society in its justification of its violence toward persons of color. Not only that, but the film demonstrates the way white privilege has sought to take hold of other cultures, consume, and whitewash them, willfully deaf to the BIPOC community’s voice.Get Out gives that voice back with unflinching power, a film that demands us to be roused from a culture of numbness that fails to hear abused voices.
As moderns we marvel in our individualism, convinced by the power of our individual autonomy, and the freedom we possess within that power. ‘My’ ability to choose whatever it is ‘I’ desire is a compelling message that serves advertisers well as they seek to sell us their latest product. Remarkably they convince us that, even though everyone else is buying it, we retain our uniqueness, and somehow enhance it, through such a purchase. Zombies terrify us because they expose the absurdity of such beliefs, revealing the collectivity of the societies we inhabit, and the ease at which we are each consumed into the unthinking hoard; we are not as unique as we like to think. Throughout history, the ‘other’ has always been scapegoated by the collective mob as they are compelled by a contagion of violent desire to eliminate those who are ‘odd’, ‘odious’, or resistant to the mob’s desire.
In Ben’s character, Night of the Living Dead shows us what it looks like to resist and fight against the collective power of zombies or white privilege. Yet the system is a monstrous force, and any attempt to be defined and identified over and against such forces often results in violence. Zombies symbolize our consumption into that very collective, every part of our identity and uniqueness lost within the brain dead totality. In Night of the Living Dead, racism is the elimination of uniqueness, the destruction of those who are different, a message that Get Out builds on, inviting the audience to consider how racism consumes difference through dominance and whitewashing, silencing the experience of people of color. Get Out builds on this social commentary that Night ends with, taking the zombie mythos and inverting it; the brains and bodies of black people are consumed and controlled by the desires of white privilege. Get Out is, then, a retelling of the zombie genre as personalities are replaced, identities taken by the force of a powerful collective. But, unlike Night, black people are not destroyed within the universe of Get Out, but, rather, controlled and remade in the image of white power and ideology. The power of the zombie mythos within Night of the Living Dead, and by its inversion in Get Out, is its ability to reveal the truth of the societies we live in, challenging us towards an alternative future where we no longer walk aimlessly and brain dead along the path of our discrimination and racism.
Both films revolve around a single house, and in both cases the house symbolizes death, destruction, and the system of oppression, the castle of white privilege and power. As Chris’s friend, Rod, tells him at the end of Get Out, “I told you not to go in that house.”
--About the writer
Rev Joe Haward is an author, poet, and heretic. Born into an Indian family, Joe was adopted with his identical twin brother and grew up transracial. Alongside two published nonfiction books, he works as a freelance journalist challenging political, societal, and religious corruption, with articles regularly featured in the national news site, Byline Times. His work can be found in various publications, where he writes horror, noir, and transgressive fiction. His poetry has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His debut novel, Burning the Folded Page (Cinnabar Moth Publishing) will be released in 2023. Find him on Twitter @RevJoeHaward.