Film

Day 2: Understanding the Undead

Few would disagree that Night of the Living Dead is one of the most important and talked about films in the history of cinema. On our second day celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, PopMatters offers six articles that give a rationale as to why, after 40 years, Night of the Living Dead continues to provide a frightful and nightmarish viewing experience.

Few would disagree that Night of the Living Dead is one of the most important and talked about films in the history of cinema. Just think about it -- during this week PopMatters offers no less than 30 articles about a film that is 40 years old. Why does this film continue to attract the undivided attention of hundreds of critics, scholars, academics, and fans from all over the world?

Arguably, the power of Night of the Living Dead resides in its interpretative ambiguity, which permits us to consider this film in relation to a variety of social, cultural, political, ideological, philosophical, psychological, and theological frameworks. In this regard, Romero’s geniality transformed a simple tale of flesh eating zombies into a complex showcase of academic and ideological readings. And even after several theoretical studies, the reasons behind the potent attraction of Night of the Living Dead remain ambiguous and enigmatic. Romero’s masterpiece continues to defy interpretation and categorization.

On our second day celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, PopMatters offers six articles that explore some of these theoretical frameworks. These essays attempt to give a rationale as to why, after so long, Night of the Living Dead continues to provide a frightful and nightmarish viewing experience.

In “Satiety in Numbers”, Prof. Jay McRoy argues that the power of Night of the Living Dead resides in its presentation of a swarming mass of dead bodies. He reminds us of fears and anxieties due to alien aggregate social collectives. From immigrants to refugees, masses of displaced people have often been considered as a threat to a nation’s cultural and political integrity. This film counters the swarming crowds of the walking dead with a seemingly antithetical mode of social organization.

In “An Anthem for the Undead”, Spencer Tricker presents how Night of the Living Dead relates to the philosophical work of Ayn Rand. In particular, Tricker relates Romero’s horror film to Rand’s Anthem. The allure of the undead stems from the idea that a zombie apocalypse subverts thousands of years of moral discipline engraved into our brains. As such, when the dead walk the earth, mankind is stripped to its barest, most brutal self.

In “Blood, Guts, and Identity Fragmentation”, Rajith Savanadasa relates the powerful attraction of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead to the cultural and sociological theories of Baudrillard and Sartre. The resemblance between the narrative structure in Night of the Living Dead and the struggle for ascendancy in the most powerful nation in the world is indeed striking.

In “I’m Coming to Get You, Barbra", Ian Mathews argues that the power of the ghouls in Night of the Living Dead is not their number, and neither the infectious nature of their gruesome bite. The real horror presented by these ghouls is the terrifying possibility that your loved ones can become flesh eating monsters. Indeed, when the zombie standing in front of you is your friend, brother, or child, then you are confronted by a wholly different kind of terror that challenges rationality.

On a related issue, Victor Calderin reminds us in “Resurrection Revisited” that Night of the Living Dead subverts one of our dearest theological beliefs. Indeed, most religions invoke the promise of a glossy afterlife where we will be able to reunite with our dear departed ones. While most religions promise resurrection as a happy reunion with those lost loved ones, Night of the Living Dead frustrates this reunion. In Romero’s film, resurrection and the afterlife are transformed into nightmarish scenarios.

Without a doubt, the zombie walk is a notable aspect of the legacy of Night of the Living Dead. As explained by Dan Brian in “Zombie Walk this Way”, zombie walks are public events where fans of the undead dress up as zombies and parade across town. One of the reasons as to why these displays are so interesting from a cultural perspective is that they boil down to public displays of what appears to be a worldwide … death wish.


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