Wednesday, November 28, 2012

BEN & HARRY: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MAJOR MEN OF NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

In 1961, a director out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was making his debut with an independent horror film by the title of Night of the Living Dead. Made on a budget of only one hundred and fourteen thousand dollars, George A. Romero’s first installment in his monumental and iconic “Living Dead” series, completely changed the face of the modern horror film and introduced audiences into the basis for the most popular subgenre of horror cinema. Romero’s slow moving, reanimated, undead humans surviving off of eating the flesh of the living became a staple for the modern zombie film and changed the face of undead monsters forever. Night of the Living Dead follows a group of people seeking refuge in an abandoned farmhouse amidst what would appear to be an epidemic where the recently deceased were reanimating, then attacking and eating the flesh of the living. An exposition on the true horrors of humanity as well as introducing a monster that had never been seen before, Night of the Living Dead is one of the most influential horror movies of all time.

Although George A. Romero consistently claims that his casting of Duane Johnson as the African-American protagonist “Ben” was solely based on the actor’s merit and wonderful audition, it would be giving the director a great disservice by not focusing on the importance of a leading African-American character as the main source of salvation, especially in 1968. At this time in America, society was slowly losing grasp on the hopeful ideals of a utopian society in the wake of the Vietnam War. The civil rights movement was growing in full force, but Americans were still hesitant to view African-American citizens on the same plane as their Caucasian counterparts. Ben single-handedly revolutionized the position of African Americans in the horror genre, and potentially, cinema as a whole. As a calm, collected, strong, and cool-headed hero overcoming an attack of not only monsters but also the hysterical antics of the white people surrounding him, Ben was one of the most prominent figures of African Americans in films portraying something outside of a parody or stereotype. Ben does the unthinkable for an African-American man at this time. Ben knocks a frantic white woman out cold, shoots a white man, acts as the voice of reason in the state of chaos, and stands as what would have been the sole survivor (if he hadn’t been mistaken for a ghoul and shot by a white militia). While it may be uncomfortable to address these issues in 2012 with an increasingly more welcoming attitude towards minority groups, the importance of Ben’s position cannot be ignored.

Throughout the course of the film, Harry Cooper is the antitheses of Ben’s character. Harry is distrusting, frantic, stubborn, selfish, and white. Harry was a strong symbol for the “old school” view of most of America at this time. A racist white man hiding out in the basement, Harry was a coward that used bullying and threatening actions as a means to achieve his wants. The older generations in 1968 were living amongst a growing youth of flower children fighting back the government and welcoming change at every turn. The old school disposition was hesitant to follow suit with their younger counterparts, and Harry Cooper is a shining beacon of that mentality.

One scene in particular, is the altercation between Ben and the Caucasian antagonist of the film, fellow refugee Harry Cooper. After a botched attempt for the two young adults trying to escape the ghouls by vehicle, Ben finds himself trapped outside the house after failing to save them. Harry Cooper and his family are the only ones inside the locked house, and Ben remains on the front porch trying to get in while fighting off the horde of the undead. Harry could easily open the door, but he stands hesitant in the opening of the cellar door with the option of either aiding in Ben’s safety, or letting him die. Ben frantically pummels himself into the doorway until finally kicking the door open. At a moment of change in character, Harry Cooper runs to the door to help Ben barricade it shut. Once the door is nailed shut, Ben immediately turns on Harry and begins to punch him numerous times before throwing him into an armchair and threatening to throw him to the ghouls.
 This scene may have appeared to be nothing more than a cowardly man locking out another, but when analyzed further, it represents society’s attitudes towards change as a whole. Most of the initial shots of Harry show him in shadowed lighting while Ben is almost always in full light. It was as if Ben was the white light and Harry was left in the darkness. Harry and his family represent the traditional standards for the American family as set up by the ruling white class. The Cooper family remains within the home, a place of comfort, safety, and white familiarity. Outside of the confines of the home contained a world of potential danger, the unknown, and an African American man. When Ben kicks the door in, he’s a personification of the new changes that were happening to society whether or not the ruling white class was prepared for it. Ben is reality. He was a force to be reckoned with and his advancements weren’t going to be stopped.

Following Ben’s initial emergence, Harry is seen hiding in the doorway to the cellar. Harry had the choice between helping to keep out the monsters outside, or running even further downstairs into the cellar. The cellar would have solidified Harry’s desire for familiarity, but he reluctantly helps Ben nail the door shut. It can be interpreted that Harry had a change of heart when deciding to nail the door shut, but it could also be analyzed that his only motivation for barricading the door was to further protect himself and keep out the unknown. However, when Ben and Harry both nail the door closed, it symbolized that regardless of differences, the two were going to have to work together in order for things to move smoothly and to keep themselves protected. Once order was restored and Ben began to hit Harry, he was literally giving the old school mentality a reality slap. The terrors of the societal changes happening in 1968 were difficult for many of the older generations to handle and it wasn’t until the changes were forced upon them that they began to try and accept them. These cultural advancements needed to come with a heavy hand otherwise these changes wouldn’t have come at all.

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