Film

Day 4: A Zombie is Forever

On our fourth day of celebrating the 40th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, PopMatters presents six articles that discuss the everlasting legacy of Romero’s zombie masterwork. As such, these contributions help us understand why Night of the Living Dead continues to be of relevance to modern audiences.

Night of the Living Dead was a revolutionary film for a variety of reasons. In strong contrast to other horror movies of the era, Romero’s film repudiated narrative closure, showcasing a gloomy and depressing ending; it threw into question rationality, and its characters were confronted with an impossible situation beyond human comprehension; it was unusually violent and grim, and permeated in a nearly unbearable atmosphere of dejection, dread, paranoia, and xenophobia; its horrors were internal rather than external; it presented authority institutions as useless, inefficient, unreliable, and untrustworthy in counteracting a violent threat; and used metaphorical allusions to convey an incisive criticism to the several social ills of the era.

These thematic and structural characteristics unambiguously delineate the constitution of what is known today as the postmodern horror film, and they clearly resonated with the social and cultural anxieties of that bleak period in American history. However, Night of the Living Dead is relevant far beyond its own specific time, as it influenced and defined the narrative structure of the horror genre for years to come.

In addition, Night of the Living Dead may also be the only film that has been colorized, sequelized, remade, and reedited with new footage within the lifetime of its director. Furthermore, it is truly amazing that, 40 years after its original release, the social and political commentary that Romero infused into Night of the Living Dead continues to be relevant to our postmodern world.

On our fourth day of celebrating the 40th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead, PopMatters presents six articles that discuss the everlasting legacy of Romero’s zombie masterwork. As such, these contributions help us understand why Night of the Living Dead continues to be of relevance to modern audiences.

In “Victim or Vigilante, the Case of the Two Barbras”, Prof. Cynthia Freeland discusses Night of the Living Dead in relation to its 1990 remake. She compares the character of Barbra on both films to elucidate the different social landscape that saw the original release of these movies. Indeed, while racial politics were the prime mover in Romero’s film, gender politics are at the center of the remake.

In a similar manner, Prof. Linnie Blake compares Night of the Living Dead to its latest official sequel, Diary of the Dead, in her essay, "Forty Years On and It Still Ain’t Worth Saving". In particular, Prof. Blake dissects the way these films reflect their turbulent times: the late '60s and the post 9/11 years. As Prof. Blake explains, for Romero, 40 years after the original release of Night of the Living Dead, America continues to be a divided nation. Indeed, as chronicled on his films, Romero appears to be convinced that there has been little meaningful social progress on the 40 years that separate both of his films.

In “We’re coming to get you, Barbra”, Ian Chant argues that the real villains in Night of the Living Dead are not the zombies, but the selfish people trapped by a situation they cannot comprehend. Chant examines how this confrontational structure returns in the several sequels of Night of the Living Dead, but also in other popular horror films such as John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Descent, and The Last Winter. As Chant explains, the real monsters in the films that Night of the Living Dead inspired are the hobgoblins we face every day: jealousy, selfishness, anger, lies, rage, and simple misunderstandings.

In “Decade of the Dead”, Michael Curtis Nelson provides a detailed analysis of the zombie nightmares created in the new millennium. This essay discusses Night of the Living Dead in relation to the Dawn of the Dead remake, Planet Terror, and Romero’s Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead. Nelson argues that Romero’s social pessimism is justified. After all, from 9/11 and Aub Ghraib to Darfur and New Orleans, an entire decade of powerful images of human suffering have had very little impact on changing the status quo.

On the same pessimist note, in “1968 is Undead” Timothy Gabriele carefully explores the juxtaposition of 1968 vs. 2008 through Night of the Living Dead. The radio and television broadcasts of Night of the Living Dead depict a government unable to protect, alert, and prepare its citizenry for a national crisis. As such, Night of the Living Dead appears to be prophetic, in the way it brings to mind the bureaucratic bungling that surrounded the September 11th and the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Finally, in “I See Dead People” Marco Lanzagorta argues that the influence of Night of the Living Dead goes far beyond the horror genre. Indeed, while it is true that Night of the Living Dead inspired films such as Zombie, 28 Days Later, Planet Terror, and many more, Romero’s signature can be observed in thrillers (Straw Dogs and Reservoir Dogs), war movies (Black Hawk Down and Crimson Tide), urban dramas (Assault on Precinct 13th and Fear), and science fiction flicks (Aliens and Universal Soldier). The real legacy of Night of the Living Dead is the way it became a quintessential icon that perfectly represents the patriarchal conflict for phallic control, as well as the confrontation between the primitive and the civilized.


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