Academic journal article CineAction

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Diary of the Dead: Recording History

Academic journal article CineAction

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Diary of the Dead: Recording History

Article excerpt

Separated by several decades, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead [1968] and Diary of the Dead [2007] envision the end of the world when the dead begin coming back to "life" and eating their victims. Both movies open with what seems a random introduction followed by a scene in which a woman flees in terror from one such creature pursuing her. In Night a sister and brother argue incessantly about the burden of placing each year, at the insistence of their mother, a wreath on the gravesite of their father; unexpectedly attacked by one of the "living dead," the sister flees panic-stricken when that "living dead" kills her brother who is trying to protect her. In Diary newsreel footage shows a son and wife, who have been killed by the father of the family, attacking medical personnel, the police and the TV reporters recording the daylight scene; a nighttime scene follows in which a scantily clad, young woman flees through the woods in terror from a mummy. Both films also end similarly, namely with boorish rednecks shooting the undead. In Night the local sheriff and his deputies hunt the undead still walking the fields of rural Pennsylvania in the early morning light and in the process unthinkingly kill and burn the body of the film's hero, Ben (Duane Jones). In Diary the locals in footage downloaded off the Internet relish hunting the undead and in the process sever, with their shotguns, the body of a woman hanging by a rope from a tree.

Moreover, both movies focus on the same themes. Both express skepticism about government authority and its explanation--"mass hysteria" in Night of the Living Dead--for why the dead are coming back to "life". Both also criticize the mass media for promoting this "official" explanation--speculating in Diary of the Dead that the mainstream media either know that they are broadcasting lies or are deliberately misled by the government. More significantly, both movies focus on the nuclear family and its suffocating effect on its members. (1) Night depicts several nuclear families: a sister and brother, Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner), a husband and wife, Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), and their sick child (Kyra Schon), and a young couple in love, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). In each instance a family member literally devours or is devoured by--or causes to be devoured--another member of the family. Diary, too, focuses on family. Its University of Pittsburgh college students embark together on a journey by Winnebago to get home and be with their families. As one of the students, Debra (Michelle Morgan), early on remarks, "You spend so much time resenting your parents, separating yourself, building your own life. But as soon as the shit hits the fan, the only place you want to go is home." Eventually arriving at Debra's home and still later at the home of another student, Ridley (Philip Riccio), family offers no refuge from the undead; instead these homes entrap the students. Indeed, family is openly mocked in Diary by a downloaded video in which elderly parents hide unsuccessfully their undead family members--"They're family!"--from a rescuing SWAT team with horrifying results. As punishment for their sentimental attachment to family, the SWAT team shoots each of them in the heart, not in the head--"Let [them] fuckin' wake up dead."

Nevertheless, the cultural distance in the US between 1968 and 2007 is vast, and Night of the Living Dead and Diary of the Dead reflect that distance in their respective, apocalyptic portrayals of a world overrun by the undead. Each reenacts the same story, but where Night envisions the possibility of change, Diary depicts a US culture unable to envision anything beyond its own boundaries. In 1968, the US enjoyed financial security and cultural hegemony. It was also shaken, however, by social turmoil. Thus, while it was then fighting in Vietnam to prevent the "spread" of Communism, there were protests in the streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention (as well as a police riot). …

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