Far before I was ready to be honest with myself about who I really was, I knew I loved George A. Romero’s Cycle of the Dead. In a landscape filled with sugarcoated stories that end with properly meted-out justice and stable situations all around, the six zombie movies instead revealed a glimpse of a world where stupid decisions by remote authority figures have terrifying consequences; where the heroic character you’ve been rooting for all along can be unceremoniously dispatched by good ol’ boys in the final moments, and where the mask of American society has slipped away and revealed the face that had always been gnashing its jaws just below the surface.
When the prose novel The Living Dead by Romero and coauthor Daniel Kraus found its way into my hands in summer of 2020, I devoured all 654 pages within a week. An across-the-grave collaboration befitting the godfather of the American Popular Zombie, the novel highlighted how the Cycle of the Dead evolved over the course of Romero’s career; foregrounding the intertwined hope and cynicism that defines the definitive undead narrative.
I found Romero’s Cycle of the Dead before I found myself. Even before I could articulate who I was – or even admit it to myself – I was already fascinated by the six movies that comprised the cycle. Night of the Living Dead became something of a second language between one of my friends and I, with countless “they’re coming to get yous” and “stop Johnnys” exchanged over the years.
But as my understanding of the movies became more sophisticated, I began to more fully appreciate the subtext of the Cycle of the Dead. In Night of the Living Dead, there’s several characters unsuspecting audience members might expect to be the hero based on their experience with horror: the white patriarch Mr. Cooper (Karl Hardman), for example, or the good-looking, “all-American” couple of local teenagers, Judy (Judith Ridley) and Tom (Keith Wayne).
However, all three turn out to be less than ideal when it comes to heroics: Cooper is a selfish man who is more interested in feeling like he’s in control than he is helping the group survive the evening; and while Tom and Judy may be more willing to leap into action, they aren’t exactly competent. Their inability to handle gasoline leads directly to their unceremonious deaths and the destruction of the escape vehicle for the rest of the group.
The most heroic character is, by a wide margin, Ben (Duane Jones). In addition to doing plenty to help the people with whom he is trapped, he is the group’s sole survivor after ghouls overrun the farmhouse. But although he survives until the morning, he is then unceremoniously killed by a roving militia – bring out the meathooks; another one for the fire.
Romero had long hoped to write a novel. As noted by Kraus’s indispensable co author’s note, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine confirmed Romero was working on a novel in a 1981 interview. However, while several fragments of the ambitious work appeared through the intervening years, the prose compliment to Romero’s big-screen Cycle of the Dead had yet to be completed when the filmmaker passed away in July 2017.
Still, coauthor Kraus – whose story as a creator has its own roots in Night of the Living Dead, the first movie he recalls watching – was able to guide the work home, a process that was more complicated (and collaborative) than one might expect when one partner has passed away, as detailed by the coauthor’s note.
Maybe it’s no surprise that I responded to the character of Jennifer Angelys Pagán.
In the first lines that introduce Jenny, her central conflict is revealed: she’s a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Olympia, the setting for the section. However, she has yet to be given a call sign, the designation being an indication that she had proven herself worthy and been accepted by her peers. She fears that she’ll never see her name on the side of a plane.
Over the course of her story, we learn more about her situation on the aircraft carrier and how she is subjected to intersectional discrimination because she is single, Puerto Rican, and a woman. As a result, Jenny becomes engulfed in self-doubt: is she indeed worthy of her position as a pilot, especially when she has never been given a call sign?
As the story progresses and more of the men who were her fellow pilots become ghouls, the perception that she is solely present for the consumption of the men goes from figurative from literal.
Eventually, Jenny is forced below decks, vanishing from the narrative for a hundred pages. When she re-emerges and joins forces with General Karl Nishimura, she specifically states that the women of the Olympia have banded together to repel the ghouls, with her dialogue explicitly including teenagers and trans women.
She goes on to tell Nishimura that she believes the zombies are actually golems, sent to cleanse the Earth of the sort of systems that would allow men to continually oppress women, even as they were nominally included among the ranks.
In classic Romero fashion, Jenny doesn’t survive her time on the aircraft carrier, succumbing to friendly fire just before she and Nishimura make their escape. However, her efforts do allow Nishimura to survive and carry the tale of the golem into the brave new undead world… and in her final moments, she uses her own blood to paint her call sign on the side of her plane: Jenny.
The fact that the novel goes out of its way to explicitly include trans women as part of Jenny’s statement that all of the women have banded together is an unfortunately timely call to action.
There is no shortage of seemingly insurmountable challenges to navigate if you are a trans woman in the United States, not the least of which is access to medical care. Even if you happen to be one of the fortunate few to land a job that includes sufficient insurance coverage, you can expect to spend endless hours arguing that gender-affirming procedures are necessary.
Meanwhile, anti-trans legislation is currently being introduced in 28 states, with 60 anti-trans bills currently being considered. These are a combination of bills designed to block our access to gender affirming healthcare and bills designed to keep trans girls from participating in girls’ sports. Chase Strangio, the ACLU’s deputy director for transgender justice, told CNN that, between the two bills, the intention is to “establish governmental policy that it’s harmful to be trans.”
The bills that ban trans girl athletes from sports are founded primarily on the outrageous lie that a trans woman would transition in order to gain an advantage in a game. By confining the argument to the sporting realm, transphobes can rely on the implication that they aren’t pushing trans women out of “real” life, they’re just pushing us out of “sports.”
It’s obvious on its face that discrimination in any avenue of life is unacceptable, and to suggest that the poisoned framework of thinking that justifies banning trans women from sports won’t be co-opted for other arguments once they’ve discriminated us off the field is alarmingly naïve. This has become the battleground for trans teenagers in the U.S., and it’s once again primarily motivated by hatred for trans women.
To be a trans woman in the U.S. is to face a particular brand of discrimination. Simply advocating for trans women representation in media is enough to invoke an onslaught on online harassment, an experience I have weathered personally.
In The Living Dead, after Jenny is forced to retreat beneath the deck in order to survive, as she hangs suspended in an access trunk, she confronts a grisly scene below: a dozen sailors, their broken bodies smashed together by their respective falls. However, the nature of the Cycle of the Dead causes them to reanimate as one single, reaching, writhing, moaning mass.
With animosity directed towards trans women coming from so many different directions, it can be hard not to feel like you’re constantly facing an amalgamation of ravenous, gnashing jaws.
It’s no coincidence that in support of the despicable and amoral bills being considered across the country, politicians have now taken to quoting the words of She Who Shall Not Be Named, the celebrity whose latest book series – presented under a pseudonym that is “coincidentally” a close match for the name of the father of conversation therapy, Robert Galbraith Heath – repeatedly dramatizes stories where trans women are dangerous and violent.
She Who Shall Not Be Named is not content to confine the damage she does to her clichéd fiction: instead, she uses her considerable platform to warn against the fiction of trans women attacking cis women, perpetuating a hackneyed and disproven brand of transphobia with little regard for the consequences of her hateful, ignorant words.
Unfortunately, while she may claim that she has nothing but benevolent intentions, her hateful rhetoric has tangible, fatal consequences for trans women. It’s beyond my reckoning just how she manages to rationalize the fact that, as an otherwise self-proclaimed liberal person, she nevertheless completely agrees with the far-right when it comes to trans people.
But when it comes to the writhing, interlocking mass that strives and strains to rip me to shreds, what meaningful difference is there if a gnashing set of jaws is on one side of the mass rather than the other?
While it might begin with online harassment and legislature banning trans girls from participation in sports, the ultimate conclusion of this discrimination is clear.
They do not want us to exist. They believe that if they can keep us from accessing gender-affirming healthcare, then we will either be forced to stay in the closet, or to simply kill ourselves – which really, would just be us doing their work for them.
They’ll kill us if they can.
This is the logical eventuality of this kind of discrimination – you either grasp this intrinsically, probably because of personal experiences you’ve gained based on who you are and the life you live – or you don’t.
If you’re part of the contingent that doesn’t, you should consider yourself to be very lucky. The challenges you face on a day-to-day basis are not existential, and this is a privilege that does not extend to all of us. You should come to terms with that as quickly as possible, in order to use your privilege to help the rest of us.
Because the other contingent understands in their bones the truth of these statements: they want us dead. They want to kill us. They want to put us in the ground, where they no longer have to see or think about or hear our protestations.
Romero’s Cycle of the Dead imagines a world where this is no longer a viable course of action for the majority – because in the Cycle of the Dead, we dead minorities no longer remain a settled subject.
Romero didn’t initially intend for Night of the Living Dead to be considered an anti-racist text. As he details in the introduction for the short story collection Nights of the Living Dead, published in 2017, the part of Ben was originally written as a “white guy.” However, as Jones was the best actor for the job, he was given the part, and Romero and the screenplay’s co-writer, John Russo, agreed to allow Jones to adjust some of the dialogue – a decision that was presumably based in respect, and which delivered huge thematic dividends for the movie.
While Romero and Russo had written the same final-scene death for the character of Ben when he was white rather than Black, in the introduction, Romero acknowledges this to be an “accident of birth,” noting that by casting a Black actor, they had unwittingly created an anti-racist text.
This was solidified when, as Russ Steiner and Romero drove the final cut of Night of the Flesheaters to New York, they heard a radio report that informed them that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.
Romero credits the circumstances with creating the perception that Night of the Living Dead was an intentionally anti-racist text. And while the birth may have been accidental, Romero recognized the power in the accidentally created anti-racist metaphor, and it’s clear that this realization informed the subsequent five movies that comprise the Cycle of the Dead, and ultimately, The Living Dead, which intentionally seeks to unify and contextualize the whole of the saga.
In this, it succeeds, and one of the fruits borne of the undead tree includes the indispensable axiom, “Haunt them like you are already dead.”
When there’s no more room in hell…
The lessons I have taken from Romero and Kraus’s work are innumerable. I’ve learned that even when there is an accident at birth, that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. I’ve learned that you may not be given the name you deserve, and you have to claim it for yourself. And I’ve learned firsthand that they will push you down until you are in the ground, and then, there can be no recourse but to claw your way back upwards through the dirt – and keep clawing when you find the hands that buried you.
My name is Avery Jennifer Kaplan, and I have no choice but to haunt them like I am already dead.