Sat, 26 July 2008
Lord Dward, host of the podcast Plan Nine From Cyberspace and listener extraordinaire sent Mail Order Zombie this email about the original Night of the Living Dead. Bren and Brother D read this email on Episode 026 and shared their thoughts, but by popular request (at the Mail Order Zombie Forums), and with Lord Dward's permission, his email is presented here for the Mail Order Zombie nation to read.
I do have to take you and Sister B to task on your take on Ben and Mr. Cooper. Let me preface my rant by saying that I believe that those of us in the horror movie lovers community try to be, and for the most part, are rather open-minded and we certainly do not like to think of ourselves as racist. Perhaps we all have a little arrogance in that we aren't like so many others out there that would judge a person by the color of their skin instead of the content of their character. Maybe we even attempt to go the other direction a little too much.
That is why I want to point out a few things that often seem to be overlooked, or at least, glossed over in many discussions on the social dynamics of this classic film.
Let's start near the beginning just after Ben has boarded up the windows a little. Barbara has regressed into herself and Ben sits down and begins to tell some of his story; he seems sympathetic for a moment until Barbara speaks. The very moment she mentions that she was with a male (Johnny), Ben's demeanor changes. He doesn't care what happened to her and he goes back to nailing up boards. He doesn't take a minute to listen to her, let her get her feelings out or even try to calm her down. He just starts yelling that she should calm down. When she trys to leave, he clearly manhandles her and when she slaps him, he punches her in the face! It is not a slap to quell hysterics; he full out decks her and once she's on the couch, he opens her coat! One might argue that he was just trying to make her comfortable, as she did mention serveral minutes earlier that she was hot, but he doesnt give her a pillow or do anything else for her including showing any remorse.
When he finds the shoes and gives them to her, it's not so much a touching gesture as it's classic abusive behavior. He is trying to excuse his abuse. Barbara remains submissive so Ben returns to boarding up the house.
Now let's move forward to when Tom and Cooper come up from the celler. Ben's first reaction is not one of, "Hi. Who are you?" or, "Great! More people to help," but an angry lashing out that they didn't come up sooner. His demeanor has once again changed and my personal feeling is that he is pissed off because there are other men in the house now. He immediately goes on the offensive putting Cooper and Tom on the defensive.
This is where the real hero of the first half comes to light. Tom remains calm and tries to mediate between the two alpha males who are both too stubborn to listen to any reason. If Tom is not the hero, he is certainly the true protagonist.
I would also like to point out that during the back and forth between Ben and Cooper, while Cooper says things like, "You're crazy!" and, "That's insane!" he is not really insulting Ben whereas Ben directly calls Cooper stupid and says he is sorry that it's too bad the sick little girl has such a stupid father. In my view, this is a direct insult on more than one level whereas Cooper's comments are more commentary to the situation.
The next scene with the Coopers in the basement is the central point from which I draw my conclusions. It is clear that the Cooper marriage is not a happy one and based on the way the scene is played out, I believe that it is Mr. Cooper who is doing the best he can with what he has while being attacked from all sides. He wants to save his family and is the character most torn. He can't bring his daughter upstairs and the rest of the group won't go downstairs. It is really a no-win situation for him.
I would also like to point out how he refers to Ben, he says there is a man and a woman upstairs, not a colored man or a black man or even the N word but that there is a man upstairs. Even after being told how stupid he is, he gives Ben the basic respect that was not common in 1968! He does go up and watches the TV. He is not real sure about the plan to gas up the truck (he is well aware that not everyone is going to fit in the cab of that little truck), but he goes along with it without arguing and does his part.
Now it may seem like Cooper is the bad guy after the truck fiasco but again, let's break it down. The truck has blown up and Cooper moves to go down to the basement. He hears Ben at the door and he hesitates. He does not continue on down and barricade the celler door; he just hesitates for only about two seconds (time it) when Ben busts in. He then goes and helps Ben reboard up the door. Once that is finished, Mr. Abusive beats Cooper. He Doesn't ask any questions; he just beats the tar out of him. Cooper most likely was not sure what the situation was as he had an obstructed view (based on what we can see in the film, remember that as Ben is making his way back to the house, the camera loses sight of him). All he did know for sure was that the truck blew up. Ben on the other hand stays up by the house and lets Tom make his way to the truck on his own. Ben, the only armed character (with a gun, a torch and a hammer) stands back until after Tom gets into the cab of the truck. Not a very heroic action to me.
This brings us to the fateful fight over the gun. Cooper knows he needs the gun to survive based on the news report they watched which says to shoot the attackers in the head, and to take some of the power away from from the abusive Ben. The ghouls start picking up weapons and breaking their way into the house JUST AS COOPER HAD PREDICTED when Ben drops the gun and Cooper gets it.
The next two actions by Ben and Cooper are the defining actions as protagonist and antagonist. Cooper gets the gun AND BACKS UP!!! He then says, "Go ahead! Go ahead! You wanna stay up here now?" He then motions for Helen to head downstairs, which I think everyone can agree is their only option now. Cooper points the gun away from Ben, trying to tell his wife to get down stairs and Ben attacks, gets the gun, and promply shoots Cooper. It's cold blooded murder. Cooper may have aimed the gun towards Ben but he didn't shoot even though Ben had beaten him previously. Ben point blank murders an unarmed man when he could have just threatened him or hit him with the butt of the rifle. Does he then go to help Helen Cooper who is being grabbed? No. He leaves the room and the women to their fate. Mr. Cooper however stumbles downstairs to die next to his daughter.
Ben, meanwhile, is driven back to where Barbara is and when she is grabbed by Johnnie and turned around, it almost appears as if Ben is pushing them out the door! He is sacrificing her to save himself! This isn't entirely clear though, but it does appear that way. And as the ghouls are breaking in from all over, where does Ben retreat to? The celler that Cooper had fortified! Once down there, what does he do? He shoots Cooper three times even though he had just seen a news report stating to shoot them in the head. He does this out of spite. I say this because he only shoots Helen once. Then, again just as Cooper had said, the rescue party shows up, the remaining ghouls are taken out and Ben, hearing the gun shots (which he certainly heard based on his reaction) goes upstairs but does not call out or wave his arms but instead creeps to the window WITH THE GUN AIMED at the men outside. He has a few seconds before he is spotted and he still does not call out but keeps the gun aimed at the men outside and stays in the shadows. One word from him and the so called "Rednecks" (and just how is the term any different than the "N" word?) would have saved him.
So no I do not think Ben is anywhere near heroic nor do I think he did the best he could with what he had but was simply focused on his own best interest. Which is ok, even understandable, given the situation of the movie. However, I think Cooper has been given the short end of the stick for many years and doesn't really deserve it.
Hearing your great discussion on the film just made me want to share a different viewpoint! Nothing personal so please don't take anything that way. I used to think Ben was the hero until, oh, about the 5000th view of the film and then I started to question it. (Don't get me started on how the ghouls differ from what many people consider typical zombie behavior!) Regardless, it is a fantastic film that holds up very well and can still generate thoughtful debate!
Category:general -- posted at: 11:09pm PST