Romero tells similar stories in his first zombie film Night of the Living Dead (1968) and his two later films Day of the Dead (1985) and Diary of the Dead (2007). But the approach Romero uses in each film varies. ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘The Day of the Dead’ use a standard movie narrative while Diary of the Dead incorporates found footage or point of view (POV) techniques popularized by The Blair Witch Project and used to varying success in films such as Quarantine, Area 5.1, and Cloverdale. Romero uses this technique to criticize the prevalence of the media and express his views that its effect on our society as a negative thing. Seeing life only through the lens of a camera distances people from reality. It’s not real if it’s not seen through the lens of a camera. Rather than help his friends search for a doctor to help an injured member of their party, Jason Creed chooses to stay with his charging camera even while asking if he has done the wrong thing. “I can’t leave without the camera. The camera is the whole thing.”
The film starts with reporters at the scene where an immigrant father has murdered his family. Behind an on-screen reporter explaining to her viewers what has occurred, corpses become zombies, attack the police, and then the reporters. At first this seems like a traditional narrative but a voice-over explains:
We downloaded this video off the Net sometime over the last three days. I can’t remember exactly when. Some of this footage was never broadcast. It was secretly uploaded by the cameraman who shot it. It was his way of trying to tell the truth about what was happening.
The use of amateurish and chaotic footage and of news broadcasts draws on our collective memory of similar horrific events since 9/11. Videos of beheadings go viral and news broadcasts report civil war, kidnappings, and disease outbreaks that at times seem to portend the end of civilization as we know it. ‘The intrusion of terror into their everyday world broke the barriers between fiction and real life to introduce phobos, a dramatic impact on audiences through formulas of panics’ (Sanchez-Escalonilla 2010).
Romero opens the film with a cameraman spraying the lens of the viewfinder. ‘This visual metaphor ‘paints a picture that all Americans are willing participants in techno culture’ (Green 2013). As soon as it is possible the students access the internet. Debra, the narrator and, ultimately, the only survivor says
The more voices there are, the more spin there is. Truth becomes that much harder to find. In the end, it’s all just noise a cacophony of white noise coupled with the incessant sounds of keys being typed.
But while Romero’s use of the found footage technique in Diary of the Dead is a continuing critique of our technological dependence, in the Living Dead, the radio and television are a much more benign presence. In particular the people trapped in the isolated farmhouse view
the radio as a welcomed source of information and hope. It lets them know that they are not alone and that rescue is possible.
Both in The Day of the Dead and Diary of the Dead cast authority figures as villains and men with guns create an additional danger. In Diary, when the group is stopped by a military jeep they see this as a sign of salvation but the soldiers steal the students’ food and their leader demands that Jason turn the all seeing eye of the camera off. Authority is not to be trusted and needs obscurity to operate. Later the group finds online footage of a group in yellow biohazard suits with machine guns clearing a house. The video reveals that one of the men wind up killing even the non infected residents. Both scenes ‘show that those who have the weapons can assert authority over weaker people. Ironically, the actions are equal: one group of soldiers has gone rogue and the other acts in an official capacity’ (Green 2013).
Like the two later movies, The Night of the Living Dead is focused on a small group of people struggling to survive. In contrast there are no established authority figures. Instead voices on the radio promise their eventual arrival. The men with guns are not a threat but salvation. But even in Living Dead, it is the government (and science) that created the situation. A virus brought back by a probe to Venus may be what infected humans and turned them into zombies. The arrival of outside authority is too late for all but one of the people hiding in the farmhouse. And when the lone survivor emerges from the cellar where he took refuge, he is shot, his body tossed on the fire.
Green, Alan Edward. “The Post-9/11 Aesthetic: Repositioning the Zombie Film in the Horror Genre.” Scholar Commons (2013): 55—90. PDF.
Sanchez-Escalonilla, Antonio. “Hollywood and the Rhetoric of Panic: The Popular Genres of Action and Fantasy in the Wake of the 9/11 Attacks.” Journal of Popular Film and Television (2010): 10—20. PDF