Surviving the Night of the Living Dead

This is the one that started it all. A low-budget, star-starved film, Night of the Living Dead came along in 1968 to change the landscape of horror films and introduce the world to an apparently endless stream of additions to the genre. The Fount of All Knowledge has a list that includes over 400 such movies, and that doesn’t include the various television series.

In the original George Romero film, which referred not to zombies but “ghouls,” seven people find themselves holed up in a farm house as an inexplicable number of recently deceased people find themselves laying siege to the place. As you might imagine, there are internal squabbles and–a cliché of later zombie flicks–the living wind up being just as dangerous as the dead.

An after-action discussion could have been held by the people in that farmhouse. “How could we have been more successful?” That’s what you do after a major project, right? So how might they have avoided the problems that they eventually had. [Shameless spoilers ahead, but the movie’s over 50 years old!]

We find our cast assembled around a table discussing the situation they have just endured.

Harry Cooper: If you had all just listened to me and come down to the basement, everything would have been just peachy.

Helen Cooper: Harry, they might have taken you more seriously if you had helped them when they first got here instead of hiding downstairs.

Harry: Shut up, Helen!

Helen: That’s right. You’re a bully until you face something truly frightening. Then you’re a coward.

Barbra: Johnny has the keys.

Judy: You could have kept your wits about you, Barbra.

Tom: Give her a break, Judy. You shouldn’t have panicked and come to the truck.

Judy: And you shouldn’t have slopped gasoline around to make the truck explode.

Ben: Now we know that Tom didn’t mean to start that fire and barbeque you two.

Harry: This wouldn’t have happened if you had all come down to the basement.

Ben: Why should we have listened to you, because you’re older . . . and white?

Harry: Why should we have listened to you, because you have a full head of hair?

Ben: You’re a racist!

Harry: And you shot me.

Karen: I ate Daddy.

Helen: Quiet dear.

Tom: Actually, let her talk. What would have happened if we’d all been in the cellar when she turned into a ghoul?

Harry: Uh . . .

Judy: That’s right, Mr. Cooper. Would you have killed your own daughter?

Barbra: Johnny has the keys.

Tom: Maybe we should have found Johnny, gotten the keys, and then made a break for it to the cemetery to find the car.

Judy: I can’t believe I ever liked you, Tom.

Ben: Maybe you should have all listened to me and strengthened the house.

Harry: We see how well that turned out.

Ben: It worked out fine for me.

Harry: After you shot me and after you hid out in the cellar, just like I suggested from the start.

Helen: He does have a point there.

Ben: But then I got shot.

Judy: Did you never think to say something to those men? One word would have kept you from being shot.

Ben: But . . . uh . . .

Karen: I’m hungry.

So as we leave the Farmhouse Seven to squabble, what have we learned here? Ultimately, we all die. But when we die, we do not spring back into motion seeking out human flesh. Instead, the dead will all rise, not as a terror but some in rightful terror.

I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.–Revelation 20:12

None of those who took refuge in that farmhouse can hope to remain standing, judged positively on their merits.

  • Harry is not sufficiently decent.
  • Helen is not sufficiently maternal.
  • Judy is not sufficiently loyal and loving.
  • Tom is not sufficiently fearless and forthright.
  • Karen is not sufficiently young and innocent.
  • Barbra is not sufficiently clueless and damaged.
  • Ben is not sufficiently noble and brave.

All of them have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. They were, from the outset, the living dead.

Although I Do Not Hope–Ash Wednesday

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

t-s-eliot-people-page-2In 1930, three years after his 1927 conversion to Christianity, poet T.S. Eliot published Ash Wednesday. Like his more celebrated work The Waste Land (which I believe is actually a Christian poem as well), this one is extremely evocative and endlessly difficult. Where a contemporary American poet, Robert Frost, wrote exceptionally clear poems layered with literal and figurative meaning, Eliot mostly wrote works that defy any sort of absolute interpretation. In Ash Wednesday, he clearly alludes to various elements in a broader cultural vocabulary, but these words do not easily add up to form totally coherent sentences.

At the top of the first and last sections of the poem, we encounter repeated lines, which themselves repeat with variations.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Written after his “turn” or conversion to high-church Anglicanism, the first line can be read to indicate that Eliot does not want to turn again, to turn away the object of his faith. In that sense, the poem begins (and ends) with a bit of pious orthodoxy, yet the second line cuts back on it, lopping off three words to give us a sentence of despair: “Although I do not hope.” The third line suggests a lack of hope for change. Given that the poem is named for the first day of the penitential season of Lent, which meant more to Eliot than to people of my tradition, we might read these lines as a statement of faith but at the same time a confession of a fleshly, sinful nature.

Throughout this work, Eliot embraces the difficulty of human existence. As spiritual creatures, we strive upward, but as flesh-bound creatures, we know ourselves and that our inclination seems to always return downward. We might hope to turn toward God, but we know that such turning will ever be imperfect. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

That battle between spirit and flesh is what creates the “tension between dying and birth,” which we saw above. The beauty of our faith is not that we get it right or that we ever manage to win that battle. The beauty is that while we live in that time of tension, while we struggle with an inability (on one level) to hope, we know that on another level, hope is alive and invincible.

How do we win? We don’t. I do not hope to turn, but I don’t have to turn, for I have been turned. Like the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea, I don’t have to fight. Instead, I can know that, allowing God to fight for me, I can be delivered from the “Egyptians” who afflict me.

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will

There is the answer. We don’t have to answer all the questions so long as we do not mock ourselves with self-delusion. We don’t have to act, except to act by sitting still. Eliot reminds us, as we reflect on our sin, to care and not to care. This isn’t him simply playing with words. We are indeed to care and not to care. We must care about our sin but not care about our inability to triumph over it. We must care that we fall short of God’s holiness but not care that we are not God.

In the end, the final line of the poem is our best prayer:

And let my cry come unto Thee.