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return of the living dead

Night of the Living Dead and the Modern Zombie

Upon its release in 1968, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead reinvented not only the idea of "zombies" but also the entire horror genre. It defined a whole new type of monster and irrevocably transformed the way in which people were scared by movies and, by extention, monsters.

   In the late 1960s, America had been subjected to the horror of the Vietnam War. With the brutal onslaught of gruesome imagery generated by the media surrounding the war, America no longer needed "monsters" to scare them. The "horror" generated by mankind itself was frightening enough. Night of the Living Dead capitalized on this by resorting to the same nihilistic attitude toward death and destruction that was generated by the war. Its monsters, or zombies, were not merely brainwashed servants or vampire-like parasites but something else altogether: "Romero’s living dead are..a rough combination of zombie, werewolf and vampire. they exist in a nether world between life and death like zombies, they devour like werewolves and they communicate their "disease" by biting like vampires." (Paul, 263). The zombies in Night.. were weaklings, frail corpses whose only strength was in numbers. They possessed no supernatural abilities other than the fact that they were reanimated (Night.. is also unique in that it provides a scientific explanation for the return of the corpses–"radiation from a crashed spacecraft"). The zombies in Night.. exhibited physical weaknesses that were parallel to those of humans because they were merely humans, or at least the animated shells of humans. Night.. acknowledged that the enemy was us and us only, not some "other" or tyrannical force from beyond. It was, in essence, complete apocalypse that, unlike the "atomic mutant" movies of the previous decade, was rooted solely in humanity.

   Night of the Living Dead also succeeded in shattering taboos of family and personal relations that had, until that time, been left untouched by American culture. Upon transformation into zombies, the characters in the film exhibited no moral responsibility at all, thus allowing them to take part in such ghastly activity as incest, cannibalism and parricide. Indeed, the film showed (zombie) brother devouring sister and (zombie) daughter devouring mother and father. This is nothing to say of the fact that all of the film’s characters, including the obviously heroic protagonist, die in the end, thus reinforcing the film’s depiction of all humans as flawed and vulnerable.

   Zombie films after Night of the Living Dead basically followed in its footsteps. Indeed, many films, such as Romero’s own sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), as well as Zombie (1979) and Return of the Living Dead (1985) etc., were essentially carbon copies of Romero’s masterpiece, complete with overflowing cemetaries and strolling corpses hungry for human flesh. Many of these, such as Evil Dead 2 (1988) and Return of the Living Dead 2 (1988), shared Night..‘s challenge of societal taboos. In fact, by this time, such activity had become the cinematic norm and no longer seemed shocking even. Truly, to see a zombie attack his mother or sink his teeth into his sister had become common, even cliche, material for horror films. Indeed, by the time that Michael Jackson’s celebrated "Thriller" (see image to the left) arrived on MTV in 1984, zombies of the Romero variety had become safe for the whole family, even though, ironically, it was exactly that family that those zombies sought to destroy.


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