31 Days of Halloween 31 – Did the Venus probe cause this zombie mess?

venus2The horrors associated with nuclear fallout and radiation poisoning gave Night of the Living Dead (1968) an excuse to explain the zombie outbreak.  This Cold War anxiety has been seen in all kinds of horror movies, as social problems are masked behind monsters and mayhem.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954) is probably the most obvious and forward about its message, and even Godzilla contains social commentary.  However, Night of the Living Dead echoes themes from I Am Legend as it shows men and women surviving by their wits, fighting endless hordes of attackers, and trying to survive an apocalypse.

Unlike in Night, the main character Neville explores the vampire apocalypse dead1in I Am Legend.  He realizes that the hordes of attackers are mutating and that science is working against him.  The vampire monsters are able to survive the sun by the end of the novel, when he faces his greatest horrors.  The zombies in Night of the Living Dead are also adaptable creatures, using rocks and stones to break into cars.  They drive the main characters into a lonely house and wait them out.

The main characters in the house experience a growing anxiety, which builds and builds, throughout the movie.  Much like the Cold War anxiety or the arms race anxiety, the characters can’t escape their fears.  They’re reminded about it at every moment, because the zombies are right outside, groaning and moaning.  Zombies are everywhere, like the news or cable TV is.  Is it the media causing this anxiety?  The success of Sputnik in 1957 also caused anxiety.

venus6George Romero dismisses the Venus probe explanation for the zombie outbreak.  This NASA space probe supposedly was exploded and brought high levels of radiation back to Earth.  The explanation was left in because it was mentioned in a larger context by a news reporter on a television, but Romero never liked it.  The “news” is obviously speculation, but contains social commentary on the anxiety I mentioned previously.  George Romero was interviewed by The Film Journal and said this about the Venus probe explanation:

I just am trying, I guess, to apologize almost…because even the T.V. Guide blurbs on Night of the Living Dead begin with, “A returning Venus probe brings this plague…”, and I never meant to imply that. When we originally shot the Night of the Living Dead thing, there were three proposed causes, and we cut two of them out because the scenes were boring and the scenes around them were boring, and that one we left in because it was part of that newscast and it made it seem a little bigger. And that became for a while, people said, “Oh, that’s what happened.” You know, some Venus probe came back and brought some kind of bug. And so I was determined…I don’t want there to be a cause, it’s just something that’s happening, it’s just a different deal, it’s a different way of life. If you want to look at it as a revolution, a new society coming in and devouring the old, however you want to look at it. That’s really my take on it, it doesn’t matter. And, people just don’t communicate to get to the core of it at all, they just have their own agendas or their own concerns…you know, Band Aids.  

“There’s No Magic: A Conversation With George A. Romero” (2003) by Rick Curnutte

Despite Romero’s denial, it is interesting to imagine the collapse of science might be responsible for the apocalypse, real or imagined.  This “science gone mad” plot device has been done many times in movies, such as in The Fly or Jurassic Park.  Science is not all that solid, after all.  The fact that the “explanation” is just a passing news report is kinda funny, like it is not central to the movie at all.  At the end of Night, we don’t know any more than the news report told us originally.  Is it true?  Who knows.  The audience isn’t given any direct answers, which implies science doesn’t know either.  That’s truly troubling.  The news report challenges our whole belief system, our whole culture, our whole educational foundation in just a few lines of dialogue.  Science can’t help us anymore and may have sealed our doom.

venus3The uncertainly shown in all of the Dead films is really extraordinary.  Almost everyone in the Dead movies is uncertain about something.  There are whole speeches about people going somewhere, but they’re not sure if they can make it.  The characters become pessimistic about their chances, and about humanity’s chances versus the zombies.  Science has no answers, so they have to rely on their intuition, which really doesn’t get them very far.  Night of the Living Dead concludes that the most common outcome is violent death.  It is the most negative of the Dead films, by far.

Humanity is pretty much a failure in Night of the Living Dead, whether they caused the apocalypse or not.  Science is a failure and is shot down big time.  It doesn’t solve a darn thing.  It’s useless.  It may have caused all the problems to begin with!  Ben is an innocent victim of man regressing back to earlier social impulses to shoot first and ask questions later.  A pretty dark and depressing end.

Unlike Dawn of the Dead’s comment on materialism and shopping, Night of the Living Dead goes deeper, to our inner-most anxieties.  I wonder if Romero’s attack on science was to remind us not to be so blindly obedient to any one scientific dogma.  The zombies de-stabilize society and its easy to see these themes second hand, but as they come for us, we are left wondering what to do next.



31 Days of Halloween Movie Marathon

1 – Frankenstein and the Monster from HELL (1974)
2 – Dracula has risen from the grave (1968)
3 – The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964)
4 – Evil Dead II (1987)
5 – Dawn of the Dead (1978)
6 – Les Diaboliques (1955)
7 – The Howling (1981)
8 – Friday the 13th (1980)
9 – Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
10 – Hellraiser (1987)
11 – Let the Right One in (2008)
12 – Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1984)
13 – House of 1000 Corpses (2003)
14 – The Strangers (2008)
15 – The House of the Devil (2009)
16 – Psycho (1960)
17 – The Orphanage (2007)
18 – The Amityville Horror (1979)
19 – The Raven (1963)
20 – Blue Velvet (1986)
21 – Repulsion (1965)
22 – Dementia 13 (1963)
23 – The Vanishing (2008)
24 – Halloween (1978)
25 – Shaun of the Dead (2004)
26 – The Silence of the Lambs (1988)
27 – An American Werewolf in London (1981)
28 – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
29 – The Exorcist (1973)
30 – The Ring (2002)
31 – Night of the Living Dead (1968)