“No Time for Sentiment” in Night of the Living Dead

In Tom Ford’s 2009 film A Single Man, protagonist George Falconer is briefly accosted by a colleague who insists that he prepare for imminent nuclear attack. They live in the mid-1960’s and the threat of mutually assured destruction hangs over them constantly. So much so that this colleague has constructed a bunker as Nemo constructed the Nautilus–piecewise, so that none of the contractors would know all of its specifics. His paranoid attempt to win George over includes the line, “There will be no time for sentiment when the Russians fire a missile at us.” George responds, “If it’s going to be a world with no time for sentiment, Grant, it’s not a world that I want to live in.” It is a world with no time for sentiment that George A. Romero is discussing in his landmark horror film Night of the Living Dead.

The film follows seven characters as they try to outlast the titular night. They have collectively barricaded themselves in an abandoned house, but the zombies are growing in number, and they won’t last all night. They concoct an escape plan, but due to a misfired Molotov cocktail two of them die as their truck explodes.

Before the zombies take over completely and their fate is sealed, these characters embark on a different path, one that will come to typify the zombie film: They begin attacking each other. Upon Ben’s return from the explosion, he finds that Harry has locked him out of the house. Harry and his wife are bickering constantly. For some reason, the presence of a threat beyond comprehension causes them all to fear each other.

By the time morning arrives only Ben is left. When the zombies storm the house, Barbara’s undead brother shows up and pulls her into the horde. Harry and Helen retreat to the basement, but what they find downstairs is more horrifying than what they escaped from. Their daughter has been turned into a zombie, and proceeds to attack and eat them, as they are unwilling to “kill” their daughter. Ben clears a way to the basement, shoots the remains to eliminate further danger, and barricades himself until the cavalry arrives in the morning. When they show up and clear away the zombies, Ben thinks it is safe enough to join the living, but the rescuers mistake him for a member of the undead and dispatch him too.

The characters in this film partake of a certain type of mass fear that audiences in 1967 would have easily recognized. The fear of communists, augmented by the work of Joseph McCarthy (his Red Scare and blacklisting in the 50’s could still be felt), and the fear of nuclear disaster were all-consuming; they allowed little room for sentiment. It was considered un-American to neglect reporting anyone, even your closest of friends and family members. Communists “obviously” sided with the Soviets and sought to cause harm to America. This led to fathers turning in their sons, people betraying their friends, and mass hysteria on all sides.

In the film, that fear is manifested in the form of the zombie attack. Having no time for sentiment causes the downfall of almost every character. Tom and Judy stick together, only to die together; Johnny and Barbara are attacked while visiting a grave (among the most purely sentimental acts, as Johnny points out, because it serves no “purpose”). Karen kills her mother and father because they are unable to fight back–Harry was willing to kill Ben, but he is unable to turn on his daughter, however ghoulish she has become. Having passed beyond the realm of sentimentality, she takes advantage of him, just as she does her mother a few minutes later. Even Barbara is swallowed up by the sea of the undead because she recognizes her brother.

Sentimentality is the direct cause of Barbara, Judy, Harry and Karen’s deaths. (The case for Tom is flawed, as his death is caused by an accidental explosion; Judy, however, refuses to be anywhere without him.) These characters inhabit a world with no time for sentiment, in which the only way to survive is to forsake those who have the potential to drag you down. The only way to ensure that one is still standing at the end of the plague is to never look back.

But to do this is to lose the very thing that makes one human. In forgetting those you love, in succumbing to the overwhelming impulse to ensure just your own safety at the expense of everyone else’s, you sacrifice the very aspects of your humanity that separate you from the zombies.

A world without time for sentiment is not one that George Falconer wants to live in. And there is a good reason for that. Sentiments are what make us human. In the 1950’s, McCarthy tried to smear the Communists, even the domestic ones, as lacking in this selfsame sentimentality. They were depicted as malevolent individuals who didn’t care about individualism. In fact, they were depicted as resembling zombies, with the sole intent of killing you or converting you, and with no sense of self, only of belonging to a larger entity.  While some of this is true with respect to communist ideology, much of it was exaggerated in order to perpetuate paranoia.

What McCarthyism led to, then, is a succession of increasingly fearful cultural attitudes. Being “American” was equivalent to fearing these so-called communists. But this simple fear morphed into a vast suspicion; anyone caught doing something strange could be a communist. Even someone you just didn’t like could be a communist. The Red Scare turned America into a nation of citizens afraid of their neighbors, afraid of people they had known all of their life, and what’s worse, afraid of family members.

Just as survival in the Zombie Apocalypse requires a strict separation of self from community, so too did life in the 1950’s and 60’s. In order to protect the country from communism, you had to remove all sentimentality from your judgment of others. They could not get a free pass just because you had known them for a while – everyone was under suspicion. In order to survive in the post-nuclear age, you had to remove the very things that separated Americans from their feared nemesis. You had to lose a sense of self, and seek to imprison your fellow countrymen.

This world, a world infested with zombies and imagined communists, a world where one must be perpetually on guard, is not one worth living in. To live life, one must give up the constant suspicion and maintain sentiment, or all is lost. Suspicion, fear, and paranoia destroy community, and destroy humanity. These are the things we must give up to survive in the Zombie Apocalypse–not our relationships with one another.  We must make time for sentiment, or else the world is not one worth protecting, and we might as well be zombies anyway.

Perhaps today, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we no longer fear the communists or nuclear holocaust of 1967. But when you open your eyes to the world we do live in, it is filled with just as many people mongering fear. Our demons have changed from Joseph McCarthy to Rush Limbaugh, from communists to liberals or tea partiers, and with that simple transposition, it is evident that our world hasn’t much changed. We still imagine our friends and loved ones to be enemies. We worry about ludicrous problems like “the homosexual agenda.” And of all the evils in the world we could focus on and seek to alleviate, we instead focus on petty, unimportant bullshit. The people in the film are besieged on all sides by the imminent zombie attack and yet they choose to fight each other instead of facing the true danger outside. These fear mongers, these pundits with an axe to grind, are the people constantly telling you that there is no time left for sentiment in the world today. We must refuse. We must never give into that fear. We must have time for the sentiment.

– Ben Creech

*One last note: When I re-watched this with some friends, it was interesting to note their responses to the actions of the characters. They pretty much agreed that in that situation, they would not respond in that manner, they would be smart about their resources, be prepared to “kill” infected loved ones, etc. In spite of how we think we would deal with a zombie attack, it is evident from watching the news, whether it is Jon Stewart or Fox News, that we are prepared to fight each other, even our family members, over things as meaningless as politics or economic principles. This film isn’t about how we might respond in the future if zombies were to attack. It is about how we are already responding, and how we have been responding from the time people began taking advantage of tragedies.

One response to ““No Time for Sentiment” in Night of the Living Dead

  1. Pingback: Mercy for Monsters: Humanizing child killers and Nazis in M and Inglourious Basterds | The Filmsmith

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