Communitarianism vs. Individualism: Ben’s Struggle for Survival in Night of the Living Dead

I wrote this essay for class a few weeks back, I got it back and have modified it somewhat. I think it goes without saying, there are spoilers!!! Answer the question if you want, comment, criticize, etc.

Leah A. Murray begins her article, “When They Aren’t Eating Us, They Bring us Together: Zombies and the American Social Contract”, by defining viewpoints present in George A. Romero’s zombie films. The first is the individualist point of which, which is the idea that success relies on self-reliance. The second is the more pervasive idea of communitarianism or “the idea that societies prosper most and best when citizens co-operate” (Murray 211). Night of the Living Dead is politically the most difficult to define according to Murray, as the protagonist’s actions are more difficult to define as being communitarian or individualist. However, in the end it is Ben’s communitarianism that enables him to survive longer than the others while any individualist traits he manifests bring him to an early demise.

His desire to save the most possible lives and to operate as a community is what facilitates Ben’s continued existence. His barricading the first floor allows for far more freedom and understanding of their situation. If he had gone along with Cooper’s individualism, they would have been stranded in the basement, and not even realize the possibilities of escape. While Ben’s suggested attempt to get gas for the truck fails, this is mostly due to unforeseen forces and human error. The rest of the community collapses henceforth because of Cooper’s individualistic ideology. Cooper locks the door after the truck explodes instead of trying to help Ben survive. Compare to Barbra’s demise, when Ben cannot do anything to help her without risking his own life, Cooper has little to lose and Ben was not in the same life-threatening situation that Barbra was. Ben is forced to break down the door to get into the house, which in the end compromises the safety of the entire household. While many “what-ifs” come into question, if the front door had not been damaged, there is little to indicate the house would not be easier to keep secure. Also, while their relationship was already strained, if Cooper and Ben could have found a way to work as colleagues, then they would be able to work as a unit rather than as doomed individuals. It is only when Cooper and Ben separate that they are no longer able to properly defend themselves, or their “loved ones” and this breakdown is almost solely due to Cooper’s individualist stance.

By the end Ben is left alone, and ironically reverts back to the basement the initial symbol of Cooper’s individualism. However, Ben is not an individualist because there is no choice in his situation and if he had a choice it would have been for a community. First going back to Cooper’s fateful decision to lock Ben out, it is Ben’s survival as a single person that dooms him. If, as Ben had originally intended, all the members of the house had worked as a community the final sequence could have possibly unfolded the way it did. While the living dead do have some sense of community, as they all have the same goal to kill and consume, their actions against one another point to an individualist standpoint. For example, after Tom and Judy’s death the zombies assemble to eat their charred flesh. Instead of sharing the bodies, they fight against each other, grabbing and pulling to get the biggest piece. Unfortunately for Ben, his isolation by the end of the film causes him to fall closer to the living dead than to the living. While as Murray infers, Ben being shot certainly is a race issue (the final images are clearly reminiscent of a lynching), it is also due to him being an independent entity (213). If the characters had been a grouping, when the vigilantes approached the house to investigate there would be no doubt that they were living human beings as opposed to mindless zombies. What separates humans and the undead seems to be the human inclination towards working as a society by choice rather than as individuals.

I also want to note, that the only cohesive community presented in the film are the vigilantes if they can really be called one. The way the film is shot equates them with the zombies, and the first glimpse the audience has of them it is very easy to mistake them for the living dead. However, unlike the living dead I think it is worth noting that they do work as a unit and for the same cause. They are simply a vision of a perverted community, and within the bleak confines of the film it does not feel out of place. This is not Ben’s vision for community, and while clear they would not accept him within their world, Ben’s own response to them indicates his willingness to detach himself from their actions and their world. While this portion only makes up a small portion of the actual runtime, it raises some of the more interesting questions about race, social issues and philosophical concepts of “the other” and community that are among many reasons why this film continues to be discussed today.

While Ben, in a sense, reverts partially to individualism as a means of survival this is only when his community has been destroyed. Up until this point, his need to create a group of people who work for each other had preserved his existence, as well as those around him for far longer than if they had decided to operate on total self-reliance. It is Cooper’s individualist ideas that lead to the destruction of this structure and the eventual demise of all the characters.

Works Cited

Night of the Living Dead. Dir. George A. Romero. Perf. Judith O’Dea, Duane Jones. 1968. DVD. Elite Entertainment, 2005.

Murray, Leah A. “When They Aren’t Eating Us, They Bring us Together: Zombies and The American Social Contract.” The Undead and Philosophy: Chicken Soup for the soulless. Eds. Richard Green and K. Silem Mohammad. Chicago: Open Court, 2006.

2 responses to “Communitarianism vs. Individualism: Ben’s Struggle for Survival in Night of the Living Dead

  1. I always love reading about Night of the Living Dead (or any of Romero’s films)! The theme you discuss in this essay is of great interest to me for the moment as well, since I’m writing an analysis of a film with an emphasis on “ideology-critique”… Great stuff, Justine.

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