A Tale of Two Barbras (from Night of the Living Dead)

Greetings from me, Wednesday Lee Friday.  In the spirit of internet niceness, let me just warn you that this piece contains spoilers for the original Night of the Living Dead, as well as the 1990 Tom Savini remake.  No one should complain about that, you’ve all had plenty of time to watch.  Happy Women in Horror Month, everyone!  

In 1968, a new horror subgenre was invented.  George Romero, one of our great horror masters, was establishing his moviemaking career.  In Night of the Living Dead, the world is introduced to the idea of reanimated corpses coming after us for the singular purpose of consuming our flesh.   Zombies.  Scary, scary zombies.  Not the original Zombi of Haitian Voudon.  No.  These were an entirely new creation, the likes of which would change horror in ways Romero himself could scarcely imagine.  The film also contained many levels of sociopolitical commentary.  My favorite kind of commentary.  It would not be hyperbolic to say that Night of the Living Dead (eventually) legitimized horror as a valid and valuable art form. 

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In addition to a whole new species of zombie, Night of the Living Dead gave us the ghoulish child zombie—now a staple of the genre; and the terrified woman in the white outfit, screaming and running and falling down.  I’m not saying it’s the first time that’s ever happened in the history of cinema; but when virtually every modern slasher movie includes such a scene—it is an homage to NotLD.  Alfred Hitchcock was also a great fan of the attractive blonde lead who always needed some kind of saving.  It was Romero, though, that made this a staple– particularly in low-budget horror.  Hitchcock’s women never seemed to fall down whilst escaping.

Night of the Living Dead was remade in 1990 by Romero disciple and master FX man, Tom Savini.  You might remember him from his cameo in roughly 30% of all horror produced after 1978.  The remake acknowledges the fine tuning that the zombie subgenre underwent since the original.  A few details were altered, and just enough plot points were changed to add some genuine fear, suspense, and shock.  I daresay, the plot of the remake is more emotionally satisfying than the original.  At the same time, I don’t want my zombie movies to feel like they’re consoling me at the end.  Bleak and horrible is a perfectly reasonable ending to a zombie movie in my opinion.  It’s not as if humanity is going to simply pick up where it left off.

After the switch from black and white to color, the biggest difference between the ’68 versions and the ’90 remake is the character of Barbra.  You might say that she’s a microcosm for societal advancements regarding the general treatment, opportunities, and perceived abilities of women.

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To be frank, women are not kindly represented in the original film.  They do little if any actual combat, fortifying of the house, or planning of any kind.   Housewife and soon-to-be-divorcee Helen Cooper actually leans on the sofa smoking a cigarette while berating her husband for not doing anything helpful.  Unless cigarette smoke keeps zombies away, she was being none too helpful herself.  Finally, the girl who looked like a movie star ruined the escape plan and got people killed with her girlish indecision and inability to close a vehicle door without catching her goddamn jacket in it.

Barbra ’68 begins as a somewhat stuffy woman who felt bound by duty to “blow a whole Sunday on a scene like…” visiting her father’s grave after a 3-hour drive with her snide (and devilishly handsome) brother, Johnny.  Man, I had a crush on him as a kid.  Driving gloves are SO cool.

When the inciting zombie introduces himself, Barbra immediately starts screaming for her brother to help her.  She barely manages to defend herself, let alone fight back.  Once Big Brother Johnny enters the fray, she moves back a few paces and watches the action.  She doesn’t even run until she absolutely has to.   She is pretty quick in releasing the emergency brake and evading Bill Hinzman.  Her sprint looks really freakin’ fast.   Beginning what is now a staple movie trend, the lovely blonde in the white outfit falls and loses her shoes.  When I spoke to Ms O’Dea about this scene, she told me that the first fall was accidental, but the second was planned so she could lose both shoes.

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By contrast, Barbra ’90 jumps right in to the inciting zombie confrontation.  She is definitely NOT one to let her brother scrap on her behalf.  The fight choreography changes dramatically.  Barbra  punches, kicks, and stabs, landing a few good blows (that do more harm than good in the grand scheme of things—but still, very assertive) before she has to run for it. 

Both Barbras do panic to some degree.  But for flip’s sake, they were being chased by undead cannibals.  I predicts that in a similar situation, my hysterics would become the stuff of legend.  For someone as terrified of zombies as I, I am notoriously inaccurate with firearms.  But I digress… 

Now’s as good a time as any to mention that there were other remakes of NotLD, as well as some kind of stage show.  Beyond the previous sentence, I do not acknowledge these atrocities or validate their existence in any way.  My advice is that you shouldn’t either.  But to each their own.

Once the two Barbras reach the farmhouse, that’s when the differences become apparent.  The two Barbras meet Ben, demand answers, and then set on markedly different paths.  Barbra ’68 descends into shock and remains docile and passive until the climax of the film.  My favorite of her batshit crazy moments comes during the post-catastrophe contemplation scene.  At 2:50am, Helen Cooper asks whether it’s time for the next news bulletin, causing Barbra ’68 to speak for the first time in hours.

“Oh, only ten more minutes?  We don’t have long to wait.  We can leave.  Well we’d better leave soon…it’s ten minutes to three!”  Her voice is teeming with a kind of vague annoyance that lets the viewer know that her mind is completely gone.  She snaps to for a moment before the end of the film, just in time for tragedy to ensue.

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On the other end of the heroine spectrum, Barbra ’90 regains her composure after a bit.  She hammers along side Ben, fights off her share of shambling undead, and participates actively in the goings-on around her.  She shoots, she fights—not just the outside threat, but the growing threat of Mr. Cooper (that guy is a JERK).  Barbra ’90 also undergoes a series of costume changes that allow her to begin the film in a demure skirt outfit, and end dressed like a female Rambo.  Unlike poor Barbra ’68. Barbra ’90 manages to survive long enough to locate and bring back help.  To paraphrase those old cig ads, You’ve Come a Long Way, Barbra!

Barbra’s updating from a helpless victim to a strong, leading protagonist is proof that women have come a long way in horror—and continue to do so.  It also supports my theory that redheads are tougher than blondes.  Women who love horror now have the likes of Ellen Ripley, Alice of the Resident Evil franchise, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the chicks from Martyrs, and more to inspire us.  It is my hope that as more and more women become involved in horror—the quality and quantity of our heroines will increase exponentially.  No doubt, Hannah Foreman and Women in Horror Month are inspiring them to do just that.

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