Considering that George A. Romero started making films during one of the most turbulent decades in modern history (that would be the 1960’s, in case you were not sure), it’s easy to look at some of his earlier films and see the reflection of the times up there on the screen. One of the things that I’ve often found most telling about Romero and his convictions, is the empathetic way most of his female characters are treated – indeed, all one needs to do is watch the follow up to Night of the Living Dead; There’s Always Vanilla a romantic comedy that touched briefly on the topic of abortion, and Jack’s Wife (AKA The Season of the Witch) which was a meditation on a Nixon-era-suburban-house-wife who feels the need to break free of her comfortable identity and explore other avenues in hopes of reinventing herself. To me, at least, it seems that Romero understood the women of this era and the restrictions society put on them.
Later, we’d see similar themes pop up in Martin; Martin’s female cousin is ready to hook up with a louse just so she can get a ticket out the dying city she’s stuck in, and Mrs. Santini is another unhappy housewife who seemingly finds solace in the arms of the film’s protagonist as they are both lost souls trying to find a way to some sort of happiness. Both of the women in Martin appeared to be only able to change things with the help of a man and Romero understood that cold fact – the women’s movement might have been going strong in New York City and Los Angeles, but in the rust belt, things had not changed all that much.
In Night of the Living Dead, there are three women. Each of them are beholden to men for their needs: Barbara might be smarter than her brother Johnny, but once he’s killed by a zombie, she becomes a screaming hysterical mess who can only be subdued by a right hook (watch the movie again, Ben does not just slap her to shut her up, he deck’s her!).
Obviously, what we are seeing is a burgeoning hippie chick, but she’s still not able to make up her own mind unless she’s reassured and comforted by her boy friend…and even then, she can only end up as a roasted main course for the hungry zombies.
Finally, there is Helen Cooper – Harry’s wife.
Clearly, this well dressed, finely coiffured woman has been around the block. She is very aware that her husband is a jack ass, and she even verbalizes this to him at one point when she says, “We may not enjoy living together, but dying together isn’t going to solve any thing. “ Helen has probably even read The Feminine Mystique – but would it be enough for her to leave Harry and her daughter behind were the zombie apocalypse not happening? Sadly, when push comes to shove, and Helen see’s her newly zombified daughter munching away on one of daddy’s limbs, she can do nothing but utter, “Poor baby”, and then fall down on the floor and scream while the little zombie brat stabs her .
In the end, the women in Night of the Living Dead all died because they depended on the men to save them.
Some ten years later, when Romero released, Dawn of the Dead, enough had changed in society to serve us up a female character who can not only hang with the boys, but can also be one of the survivors of the zombie uprising.
Frannie is a television producer who along with her boyfriend and two soldiers, beat a hasty retreat out of zombie-infested Philadelphia, to equally zombie infested Monroeville, where she and the boys set up house in a local shopping mall.
At first, Fran takes a somewhat docile approach to things, until one day she’s almost killed by a Hare Krishna ghoul. After this episode, Fran lays down the law: she wants to learn how to use a gun, fly the helicopter, and most importantly, she is not going to play mommy for the three guys!
In one of the film’s most telling moments, the men discover that Fran is pregnant, and one of them say’s, “I can get rid of it”. It’s downright chilling to see the matter-of-fact-way they discuss this situation, and when Fran overhears the conversation she confronts her boyfriend over the fact.
Fran (as well as the others) eventually becomes seduced by the mall. Everything that anyone would need is close at hand – there’s a moment in the film when she is sitting at a makeup mirror piling on a ton of cosmetics until she looks like a hooker. Eventually, she begins to remove the make up and turn back into her real self.
At film’s end, when the mall is breached by a marauding gang of bikers, Fran fights as hard as the guys to protect what they have. But when the zombies get back into the mall, and her boyfriend is killed and reanimated, it’s clear that escape is the only option, and in the end, Fran (who is now operating the chopper) escapes with the other remaining solider. Not only is she something of a hero, she may be humanity’s last hope for survival as she is pregnant.
In my eyes, Fran was the quintessential 70’s woman. She might look good, but she’s also got the guts and gusto to be just as tough as one of the boys – provided she spoke up - Gloria Steinem would approve.
By the time Day of the Dead arrived final girls and female soldiers were everywhere in movies. From Ripley in Alien to Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street. So when we meet Sarah, a gun toting, no nonsense scientist, we are in familiar territory. Sarah is nobody’s fool, and she’s got balls big enough to go up against zombies, as well as gun happy crazy soldiers. That she is the only woman stuck in an underground bunker with a group of men is rather interesting. Clearly, a lesser director would have sexualized Sarah, but Romero, again, seemed to understand that the role of women in society had changed for the better and Sarah was an equal to the others (even if some of the men did not wish it so).
It seemed as if actress Lori Cardille might have been channeling Jane Fonda while playing Sarah, at least that’s what always comes to mind when I see her in this film, but whatever the case, she makes the scientist a force to reckon with whether she’s chopping off her boyfriend’s arm with a machete, or facing down a very deranged commanding army sergeant.
In spite of the fact that Day of the Dead came out during the Reagan era, women were making major strides in business, politics and science, that said, Sarah may have been a reflection of both Margret Thatcher and Sally Ride.
That her character survives, not only reinforces the notion that women, in Romero’s mind, will be the real hope for the future, but that it’s an inevitability.
While he did not direct the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, it was scripted by Romero.
Coming full circle, this time, we find that while Barbara does go a bit spastic at first, when she finally snaps out of it, she becomes a gun toting, hard ass who actually takes the time to watch the zombies and understand that all one would need to do to escape them is outrun them. It’s Barbara who seems to be rising above all of the yelling and screaming and hysteria. And ultimately, it’s Barbara, who not only survives, she kills the non zombified Harry Cooper while coolly noting, “That’s another one for the fire”.
Things don’t go as well for Helen Cooper this time. Besides realizing that her husband is a jerk, it’s clear that he is also physically abusive. One of the most disturbing scenes in NOLD 90 is when the Cooper’s are arguing and Harry smacks his wife in the face. Granted, she strikes back, but still, it’s highly disturbing. That said, Helen is still independent enough to walk away from her husband and try to assist in finding the elusive keys to the gas pump (try being the operative word here), but in the end, she’s still not strong enough to avoid her flesh eating daughter.
Judy (now known as Judy Rose) is less of a doormat this time as well, she even threatens Ben and Harry reminding them that they are in her boyfriend’s house, and if they both don’t stop arguing, they can be thrown out. But even so, she still can’t bring herself to admit that the dead are really coming back for the living (even though it’s going on all around her). Like the Judy before her, this one also becomes a barbecued meal for the marauding ghouls.
As the film ends, Barbara, manages to make it to morning by not depending on anyone but herself – would that Helen and Judy Rose have done the same…
Romero has continued to populate his “Dead” films with strong female characters, and I am always pleased to note that. One need only look at his most current, Survival of the Dead to see the characters of Tomboy and Janet for proof. And frankly, that’s one of the things I so admire about this man. He could always take the easy way out and throw in a bunch of scantily clad female victims for the fan-boys to ogle, but I do believe his aim has always been a bit higher.