Volume 3, Number 4, (Fall, 1985)

Day of the Existentialists

Day of the Dead

Written and directed by George Romero; special make-up effects by Tom Savini

starring Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joe Pilato. Richard Liberty
Reviewed by John Ahrens


Day of the Dead is the third in George Romero’s series of “zombie movies” and, by his own account, probably the last. None of these films has had much commercial success, although the first has a considerable cult following. And the few reviewers who have bothered to notice them have all said pretty much the same thing: these movies all tell the same not very original story with progressively more explicit and revolting anatomical detail. Perhaps then, it matters not a whit that this is the last we shall see of Romero’s zombies.

For the critics are certainly right about one thing: Romero inundates the viewer with blood and body parts enough for any half-dozen horror films. But Romero has also proven himself to be a competent and imaginative film maker in such movies as Knightriders and The Twilight Zone. And if they are looked at from the proper perspective, his zombie movies also exhibit a high degree of competence and imagination.

What distinguishes these movies from most horror-SF: and virtually all zombie movies is Romero's innovative use of one of the stock SF formulas of the 1950s. In Night of the Living Dead (1968), a small group of perfectly ordinary people is threatened by an incomprehensible and apparently invincible evil. The dead are rising and they are bent on eating the flesh of the living. And although an individual zombie can be stopped by destroying its brain or decapitating it, there is a virtually endless corps of replacements. The action takes place at an isolated farmhouse and there is little indication that this phenomenon is particularly widespread. By the end of the movie, the well-armed local citizenry (composed of an unlikely number of sharpshooters) seems to have the situation well in hand.

Dawn of the Dead (1979) opens on a scene of advanced social collapse. Even the authorities and the journalists are dispersing, heading for the hills. Again, the focus is on a small group, but its members are far from ordinary: one is a helicopter pilot, one is a TV Journalist, and two are members of a paramilitary police unit. They are all well-educated, highly skilled, and strong-willed. And they are seeking isolation, rather than trying to escape it. The scope has broadened to include the whole of human society, and things are bad all over.

By the time of the events in Day of the Dead (1985), human society is completely gone and humanity itself seems on the verge of extinction. The small group of survivors may be the last. At any rata, they are all that we ever see and their own efforts to find other survivors are fruitless. The members of this group are the best that modern society has to offer: the scientists who have been sent to a fortified laboratory to find a “solution” To the zombie problem and the crack military unit assigned to protect them. And they are quite probably doomed.

This formula was used with more or less imagination throughout the 1950’s and early 1960s. The besieged survivors might be a farm family, a team of explorers, or a group of scientists, and the threat might be alien invaders, radioactive mutants, or something equally “otherworldly.” They are a stand-in for all of humanity and the threat was a metaphor for international communism or technology or something equally mundane. By the end of the movie, the threat had usually been reduced to human terms-it had been explained, at least, and probably conquered. Order and stability were reaffirmed and the universe was rendered once more fit for human habitation.

But Romero departs from the formula at a critical juncture, in that he allows neither the audience nor the actors to gain an understanding of the zombies. Numerous explanations are suggested. Each of the movies contains references to mutated viruses and to the Biblical prophecy that when Hell is full, the dead shall walk the earth. But neither the viewers nor the actors are allowed to believe these explanations. The zombies remain fundamentally mysterious–we never discover how or why they came to be and we are given no reason to suppose that we ever shall integrate them into the human scheme of things. Thus, they cannot function as a metaphor for something as mundane as the threat of international communism or technology run amok. Romero’s films are not simply cautionary tales.

Instead, they are lessons in, or illustrations of, Existentialist philosophy. The core insight of Existentialism is that the universe is fundamentally inhuman (and frequently inhumane as well). Human beings cry out for meaning and purpose, and the universe is silent. The universe operates according to its own laws; these are not the laws that we would choose and often they are not even comprehensible to us. We must create what meaning and purpose we can, and we must do so with full awareness that even these feeble structures will soon be swept away by the inexorably changing inhuman universe. Existentialism is a philosophy that offers little cheer and no hope at all.

Romero’s zombies function as metaphors for this Existential insight, this realization of the powerlessness of human beings and the meaninglessness of all human endeavor, for the zombies undermine not only human society, but also our very concept of human existence. It is the nature of human beings to long for eternal life and to die. The zombies have ceased to be anything that is recognizably human. Even our dreams are nightmares, and even in the moment of our greatest success, we fail.

And this view of the films provides an aesthetic (as opposed to commercial) rationale for the excessive and revolting anatomical detail. Existentialists use words like “angst” and “nausea” to describe the existential moment, the moment in which one realizes how pitiful the human condition is. It is a little like standing on the edge of a cliff and realizing that there is no reason at all not to jump. It is a realization that shakes one to the core, that induces physical and spiritual sickness. Romero’s zombies attack our sensibilities in exactly the same way. The sight of corpses rotting away even as they walk about and feast on warm, still quivering human flesh turns our stomachs and violates taboos that lie at the very heart of our conception of what a human being is.

Most reviewers have entirely missed the significance of Romero’s zombies and if they have found any value at all in the movies, it has been in spite of all the gore. I think this illustrates one of the costs of providing a permissive environment for art and entertainment. In less permissive times, Romero’s trilogy would have been genuinely shocking. But after countless idiotic zombie films with nothing but revolting anatomical detail to recommend them, it is no surprise that Romero’s films get lost in the crowd.


John Ahrens is the Assistant Director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.

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