Tag Archives: Dawn of the Dead

The Running of the Dead, Part 2


…so making zombies fast changes everything.

If you want to see this for yourself, all you need to do is ask one basic question  — the one you should always be asking anyway when watching a horror movie (or a science-fiction movie or a fantasy movie): What are the real-world associations that the movie is triggering? Nobody thinks that vampires and Vulcans and elves are real, but they do inevitably call real people to mind, and the interpreter’s most important trick is simply to let those resemblances through. The questions in front of us are easy ones, really: What do slow zombies remind you of? And what do fast zombies remind you of? And what’s the difference between the two?

One word, first, about zombies in general: Zombie movies are always going to be about crowds. People-in-groups are the genre’s single motivating concern. Other classic movie monsters are like malign superheroes, possessed of special powers, great reserves of speed and strength. What’s peculiar about zombies, when put alongside vampires or werewolves or aliens, is that they are actually weaker than ordinary human beings. They are really easy to kill for a start, because their bodies are already moldering. Their arms will tear clean off. They go down by the dozen. You’re in no danger of being outwitted. They can kill only because they have the numbers, and so that’s the menace that zombie movies are always trying to clarify: The threat of multitudes.

If, with that point in mind, you look at the classic Romero-era zombie—your standard-issue undead sluggard, the drunk-going-in-for-a-hug—three things are going to stand out. 1) They have an insatiable hunger; the only thing they know how to do anymore is eat. 2) In Night of the Living Dead, which is the movie that, in 1968, set the ideological horizon for the entire genre, the walkers are the recently dead, which means they are still wearing their funeral gear. They are dressed in formal wear; dressed conservatively, I mean, in black suits and Sunday frocks. Old white people are overrepresented. 3) There’s more to say about this last. The young Romero couldn’t afford any special effects, so just about the only makeup he employs is powder, but this he uses in quantities typically associated with the Duchess of Luxembourg, to give the zombies a death-like pallor. The faces of the undead are conspicuously washed-out, extra pale, whiter than white, and this whiteness is underscored by the film’s casting, since Night is the first American horror movie to feature a black hero. So that’s one kind of crowd right there: Night of the Living Dead is trying to evoke for you what it feels like to be up against a white and all-consuming middle class.

And if that’s the meaning that you think zombies carry—because in the modern zombie movie it is the meaning zombies have almost always carried—then Dawn of the Dead remake is not going to make one lick of sense. So let Dawn run and the first thing you’ll notice is that the opening credits have found footage in them; real video footage; news footage, one imagines, interspliced with handheld zombie shots. And then that’s an opportunity, right?—because it means that the movie is introducing upfront its own real-world associations; it’s actually bringing them in, documentary-style.

So here’s what you see:

Such are the movie’s visual footnotes, the historical context that it nominates for itself: Muslims at prayer; riots someplace poor—India, perhaps, or Pakistan; and, if you keep watching, armored police; barricades; minarets. The movie is, at this early point, preparing to dispense with our exegetical labors, since it is offering its own entirely overt gloss on the zombies, which is that they are Muslims, or rather violent Muslims, for which, obviously, read “terrorists.” This point is then confirmed by the movie’s pre-credit sequence—one of the very scariest in recent horror film—in which we watch a suburb of Milwaukee fall apart, spinning into primal and fiery anarchy. The shot that most viewers remember shows, in one, an ambulance hurtling off a town road, plowing into a bank of gas tanks, and from there: blooey. So one might quickly conclude that Dawn is yet another war-on-terror movie, part of the cinema of national emergency: 9/11 in the upper Midwest.

That’s certainly true in one sense, but the matter is actually a lot more complicated than this, and saying why should help us see how improbably and precisely Hobbsean fast-zombie movies really are. The central concern of nearly all such movies is the general breakdown of order; that’s what marks them as Hobbsean in some general, not-yet-precise sense. They push themselves to imagine in detail what is usually called the war of all against all, which Hobbseans think is the condition of life in the absence of strong governments. A radio announcer early in Dawn notes flatly that “civil unrest is still being reported.” The tricky point, though, is that the images of unrule, in Hobbes as in the fast-zombie movie, both are and aren’t racial. This is the unusual ideological form that they share. Hobbes, in the middle of the seventeenth century, had unmistakably been absorbing travelers’ reports from the Americas. Lots of thinkers in the period were trying to figure out the difference between living in a state and living outside of one, and none of their writing will make sense if we don’t factor in the Europeans’ epoch-making encounter with native America; the Spaniards and the British and the French were running into lots of people who didn’t have governments in anything like the usual sense of the word. It is a genuinely useful shorthand to say that what worried Hobbes was savagery, but the problem with such conceptual abbreviation is that it risks making Hobbes sound like a run-of-the-mill Indian hater, when in fact the distinctive feature of his system is that he thinks the problem of savagery is not confined to other, non-European societies, safely cordoned off behind the quarantine lines of Appalachia and the Sahara. Any colonist eyeing a patch of Ohio Valley land could concoct a few reasons not to trust Indians. Hobbes’s incomparably more corrosive suggestion was that Europeans, too, remained permanently capable of savagery. The distinction between an Iroquois and an Englishman was finally rather thin. Hobbes’ procedure is easily named: He begins with what is plainly a racial perception—Cherokees and Amazonians are savages—but then he deracializes it. And that’s also how fast zombies get made. The Dawn remake openly instructs you to think of zombies as Muslim terrorists—not strictly a racial category, but racial in its functioning—except then it isn’t actually about Islam or the Taliban, not even allegorically so, since none of the zombies substantially resemble Sunnis or Shiites or Arabs or Middle Easterners or Afghans. The rampaging dead are neighbors and fellow countrymen, almost every last one of them, to the point where, by the time the movie is over, those opening credits could seem like an odd intrusion. The fast zombie, in other words, is the terrorist minus the vexing overlay of race. Like radical Islamists, but not radical Islamists: Americans. Like terrorists, but not terrorists: You.

…none of which is to say that the movie isn’t authoritarian. Quite the contrary. Authoritarianism reveals itself to be a universalized fear of savagery, a generalized racism in which the category of “the lesser race” expands uncontrollably to include all people. It is racism extrapolated into paranoia, though one of the many curious things about Dawn is how compulsively, in that opening documentary footage, it preserves its racial sources. The movie, when all is said and done, has so little to do with terrorists that it could just as well have dispensed with the Islam-baiting, but it doesn’t. And the same is true of Hobbes, when he says that tribal life was nasty and short, and especially when he says that it was brutish: a remark that smacks of colonialism in a book that has almost nothing to say about colonization.

Hobbes also says that “Man is a wolf to man”—Lupus est homo homini—and this gets us rather more directly over to the fast-zombie movie. The philosopher is interested in the problem of a certain transition. What makes society possible? How does any group of people make the leap from primal chaos to safety and comfort and achievement? And his answer is: Authority—authority so strong that you can’t talk back to it. Civilization requires someone you are not allowed to argue with. It should be clear by now that this is a politics driven by fear—not by the other emotions commonly found on the Right; reverence for the old traditions, say, or love of country—but by sheer blithering panic: a Politics of the Heebie-Jeebies. Hobbes himself was completely upfront about this. At one point he wrote that: When I was born my mother gave birth to twins: me and fear—or words to that effect. His undying accomplishment in the history of political philosophy was to open the Right up to complete pusses.

To this observation we need merely add that it is the business of fast-zombie movies to instill this particular fear in you, and that’s why speed changes everything. Slow-zombie movies are a meditation on consumer society—on a certain excess of civilization, as it were; and fast-zombie movies are pretty much the opposite. So the simple question: In the Dawn remake, how do the zombies look? And the simple answer is: They look like rioters or encamped refugees. If you say that zombie movies are always about crowds, a person might respond: Yeah, I see, the mob—but if you’re talking about George Romero and the slow-zombie movie, the word “mob” isn’t quite right, since white people in formal wear aren’t exactly the mob, and, casting a glance at Romero’s original Dawn, shoppers aren’t either, except on the day after Thanksgiving. Fear of the mob has usually been the hallmark of an anti-democratic politics. The phrase “mob rule” remains common enough; eighteenth-century writers used to call it “mobacracy.” And that’s not what Romero’s after. Romero is worried that the crowd isn’t democratic enough, and one of his more remarkable achievements, back in 1968, was to start a cinematic conversation about the dangers of crowds that ducked the problem of “the mob,” that bracketed that concept out. This couldn’t have been easy to do, since the one term substitutes so easily for the other. And the pokeyness of the zombies is central to this feat, because corpses that look like they’re wading through gelatin are going to seem grinding and methodical or maybe doped and so not like looters or protestors or the Red Cross’s Congolese wards. By making the zombies fast—or rather, by merely accelerating them back to normal human speeds—Snyder allows his dead to seethe and roil. Once the movie’s survivors decide they have to leave the mall where they’ve been hiding—once they head out, in armored buses, into the teeming parking lot—they have entered an American Gaza.

Here are some more things that happen in Snyder’s Dawn: A recently infected, still human man placidly asks to be killed, like the perfect McCarthyite, who, upon looking up from his books and realizing he’s been reading Trotsky, asks his children to shoot him. The survivors come up out of a manhole and discover that the zombies have turned suburban Milwaukee into a ghetto: black people mill about the trash-strewn street. The survivors look on aghast as a mixed-race baby is born—and promptly kill it. The soft-spoken white guy, played by a Brit, emerges as the group’s leader and sanest voice. But then the most important thing about the Dawn remake is what doesn’t happen. The movie, again, is set in a mall, and the uproariously unsubtle joke driving Romero’s original was that if you’re trying to stay hidden from brain-dead consumer-drones, the mall is the worst place to go. The movie is accordingly full of zombie shoppers, banging into Orange Julius stands, condemned to wander for eternity the aisles of J.C. Penney. But in Snyder’s Dawn there are literally no images of shopping zombies. What there is instead is this:

One notes the redneck wifebeater and the Raising-Arizona moustache. One also notes the face pressed up against the glass, its longing slack and resigned. Snyder’s zombies are the people who can’t get into the mall, which is thereby transformed, unironically, into a refuge and citadel, the last beleaguered outpost of civilization: BestBuy recast as the Alamo. This all adds up to a completely gripping lesson in what it means to change a genre’s convention, since Zack Snyder undertakes the central change—from-slow-to-fast—from within the shell of Romero’s own movie, using Romero’s own scenario, Romero’s own setting, roughly Romero’s own characters—and that one change is enough to reverse the movie’s ideological polarity. It would have been much, much harder for Snyder to make the zombies odiously poor and black-even-when-white if he hadn’t first made them fast. One begins to wonder what would change, unpredictably, if we started tinkering with other conventions: What if zombies were all really tall? Would that matter? What if superheroes wore fur stoles instead of capes? Come to think of it: Why do superheroes wear capes? What if werewolves turned into coyotes or lynxes or armadillos?




The Running of the Dead, Part 1

Zombies sprint in

•360 Years Later

The first thing a person is going to need to know about Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, from 2002, is that it’s one big trick. That’s one good reason to like the movie, in fact—that it is punking you. I don’t think I can explain the movie’s trick right away; we need to do the groundwork first, but it is the point to keep in mind: 28 Days Later is a bit of the thimblerig. Don’t let your eye off the ball.

The second thing to know is that of all the zombie movies, 28 Days Later is the one most steeped in political philosophy. One way to come at this is to call to mind something that George Bush said in 2006. A reporter at a White House press conference was second-guessing him on some issue—it hardly matters what—and Bush responded like this:

I listen to all voices, but mine’s the final decision. … I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation, but I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best.

A lot of people made fun of those sentences. I definitely made fun of those sentences. The word “decider” is maladapted, obviously, and it’s the bit that most of us kept quoting, but the idea that Bush was hearing voices is also pretty funny. The thing is, though: “I’m the decider” might sound inane, but it isn’t just another Bush malaprop. “I’m the decider” is not “misunderestimate” or “putting food on your family,” because unlike these others it has a clear sense to it, one that we should bother trying to understand. More: It turns out that this sentence, dopey as it is, has a long philosophical history behind it. I absolutely guarantee it: People with PhDs in political theory were whispering in Bush’s ear. They fed him that line. “The human being and fish can coexist” was his alone.

My suggestion, then, is that if we understand the political philosophy behind that sentence, we will understand 28 Days Later, too; that what is at stake in this movie, as one of the important documents of the early transatlantic-Bush era, is what it means to have (or not to have) A DECIDER. And if we’re going to understand that philosophy, we’re going to need a refresher course on Thomas Hobbes, who is the single most important philosopher in the history of the political Right, or at least of one of its strands: not the free-market Right, and not the Christian Right, but the authoritarian Right, the party of SWAT-teams and strong leadership.

The basic facts on Hobbes are that he was writing in the 1640s, 1650s, 1660s, and that he was a royalist: He thought that all societies needed strong central authorities and that no-one had the right to question the state, let alone oppose it. More properly: He thought that governments should establish the parameters of official belief and that anyone dissenting from the state religion or state science, even a kind of state metaphysics, should be silenced.

In and of itself, this position didn’t make Hobbes unusual, since there were lots of royalists in the seventeenth century. What made Hobbes unusual, rather, is how he got to his royalism, the arguments he used to defend kingship. Run-of-the-mill royalists generally argued that ordinary people should accept kingly rule because it was God’s will: God likes kings; God is himself a kind of king; kings are therefore his representatives here on earth. Or they argued that kings were natural: that human groups always coalesce around strong men; that the first human groups were families, and then, when larger groups—like clans or tribes—began accreting, one figure began acting as father to them, and so on, until we reach the condition of modern states, where the king functions as father-to-the-nation.

Now consider the opposite position: There were, in fact, people in the seventeenth century who didn’t like kings; they took an axe to at least one of them. But even those people didn’t have any democratic theory on tap to explain why kings were a bad idea. So the anti-royalists generally looked around history for counter-examples to monarchy, for examples, that is, of human groups that didn’t form around strong men. And they found lots of examples: they found tribes, both in the Americas and in early European history; and they began lifting out of that history the times and places when ordinary people had assembled, deliberated, passed the conch. The anti-royalists granted that lots of tribes had had leaders, but thought they could show that these leaders had themselves been chosen, which meant that power had to be conferred on them by their followers, which meant that the followers were the original power-holders and so not finally or fully followers at all.

Those were the ideas that counted as radical in the seventeenth century. Hobbes’s feat, in this light—and if you pause here, you might see how nifty this is—was that he worked out a way of starting with Position #2 and getting back to Position #1. He thought, in other words, that he could grant the radicals their main point and still make you see that monarchy was the only one way to go. Yes, all power was originally with the people, but even if you are convinced of that idea, you should still sign on to something rather like dictatorship.

If you want to see how he pulls this off, there are two specific argumentative sequences you’ll need to understand. The first goes back to two simple observations.

•1A. Everything wants to live. Or, if you put in this in terms of political theory, every person has a right to defend him- or herself against attack. One of the few observations we can make about the world that seems all-but universally true—true everywhere at every time—is that people (and animals and even plants) will do what they need to do to stay alive.

•1B. Being an early human must have sucked. This is actually the heart of Hobbes’s argument: If you reflect on the earliest stages of human history, you’ll see that it must have been hard to stay alive. Anybody could have done to you anything they wanted. The only thing standing between you and every passing rapist was your own fist.

But, Hobbes says, people aren’t stupid, and they want to stay alive. So what must have happened is that they all got together and agreed, in a kind of contract, to appoint one person who would settle all disagreements and resolve all conflicts. That would be the king. And here’s the sick genius of his argument: The contract is a one-time deal; it can never be renegotiated; because once you have agreed to give all power to the king, just to be sure that your next-door neighbor doesn’t tear your throat out, you can’t afford to disagree with the king any longer. In fact, it becomes nonsensical to talk about disagreeing with the king, because the king is the one who settles disagreements. It is part of the original contract that the king is always right.

One other point to drive home: Hobbes was a kind of peacenik. We usually think of the peace movement as belonging on the Left, but Hobbes loved peace; peace was the whole idea; he was a right-wing pacifist, and in a sense, there have always been lots of these, though “pacifist” is not usually what we call them. We call them “law-and-order types,” and their politics goes back to the Hobbsean idea that nothing—absolutely nothing—is more important than suppressing the possibility that war might break out from within the tissue of society.

So that brings us to Hobbes’s second argumentative sequence, which was that…

2. War is always looming, always threatening to break out from within the tissue of society. Primal conflict is always lurking in society’s cracks. This isn’t just paranoia on his part. Hobbes agrees with modern liberals on one easy point, which is that life is full of disagreements, and that these disagreements can’t help but seep into our social and political institutions. Another way to put this would be to say that our institutions are shot through with gaps—holes of uncertainty. All institutions involve ideas, propositions or arguments: “People have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or “There is no God but God.” And these institutional ideas will always lead to an entire series of problems or puzzles, mostly because such propositions can never be self-interpreting, which means that any institution will tend to generate competing schools or factions or parties, as people inevitably and in good faith begin to disagree about what the body’s guiding propositions mean. Worse: Most institutions are involved to some degree in fact-gathering. Police departments, scientific agencies, central banks—they all collect information about the world, and that information is also going to need interpreting. None of it is going to have plain meanings. And here, too, there are inevitably going to be disagreements—disagreements that on a philosophical level will be interminable. You cannot show beyond a shadow of a doubt that “all men are created equal” or that “global warming is real.” You just can’t. Doubt is always possible.

So this is where the king comes in: The king is there to decide. This is one of the classic theories of the king (or the sovereign or the executive). And you have to keep in mind: This theory has absolutely nothing to say about what the king should decide. It has absolutely no recommendations to make about which interpretation the king should choose. The whole point of theory, in fact, is that the decision is arbitrary. That has to be true by definition, if you think about it, since if it weren’t arbitrary, it wouldn’t be a decision. It would be a conclusion. There are all these void spaces in the political system where doubt and uncertainty fester; and a leader simply has to come in and plug that vacuum. The government, in other words, has to set the terms for religion—or people are going to war over religion; it has to set the terms for law—or people are going to war over law; it has to set the terms for science—or people are going to war over science.

That’s what Bush meant. Someone has to decide, and the decision will always be arbitrary. “The decision,” it’s true, isn’t Hobbes’s word for this position. The cat who reformulated Hobbes’s argument around the concept of “the decision” was Carl Schmitt, who was the most important political theorist among the German fascists. “I’m the decider” is the best evidence we have that someone was really and truly — dead literally — feeding George Bush Nazi political thought. But let’s not get hung up on the Nazi business. The interesting philosophical point is that Bush wasn’t claiming to be right. He was saying: I don’t have to be right. In fact, right-and-wrong is the wrong way to think about it. The king’s decision—or the president’s decision—can’t be right or wrong, because no-one can tell for sure. Someone just has to decide, period. Political beings never choose between right and wrong. They choose between respecting the decision and … well, something else. Civil war. Chaos. Zombies.

•Of Zombies Fast and Slow

A different movie now, and a confession: I’ve never felt so puzzled by a movie as I was the first time I saw Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, from 2004. I walked away from that movie not understanding anything. It was my own personal Mulholland Drive. I had liked it well enough, but just couldn’t get it to add up. The problem was I went in cocky. I figured: This is, in its bones, a Romero movie—Romero’s Dawn, the second of the Dead movies, came out in 1978—and I know how such movies work; I’m on my home turf. And then the confusion snuck up on me. I got all the way through that first screening convinced that the new Dawn was staying, by remake standards, pretty faithful to the original. It had the mall; it had black actors in central roles; it had strife among the survivors. Three of the actors from the original showed up in cameos, and once I’d spotted them, I was pretty sure I was watching an homage. I was in the mood to watch an homage.

But then I walked away from the movie, trying to get it straight in my head, and I couldn’t make it tally; I couldn’t figure out what the movie was doing. I went in with expectations derived from, yes, a certain reverence for Romero, and by those standards everything seemed wrong—or off—and I couldn’t figure out what had changed.

Or rather one thing had changed: The zombies were fast. But then I knew this going into the theater, because the press had made a big deal about it. It was the Big Innovation. 28 Days Later had introduced the novelty. The Dawn remake made it seem like a trend: the living dead, lickety-split. Three quick thoughts about this:

•Fast zombies are not, in fact, an innovation; I mean, even in ’02 or ‘04, they weren’t an innovation. The press was just wrong on that count. Breakneck zombies had been introduced years earlier, in Return of the Living Dead, from 1985, which is also the movie that gave us the chiming, Karloffian B’raaaaains, spoken like breath across a beer bottle.

• That said, the underlying convention had remained more or less intact. The late ‘80s and ‘90s were a fallow period for zombie movies, so the few fleet corpses of the Reagan era hadn’t really led anywhere, and this allowed the press to feel, when 28 Days Later was released, that its creatures were next-generation zombies. We remembered zombies as slow, and these weren’t. But then does that change really make a difference? I mean in some sense, it’s obviously an improvement. Boyle and Snyder ditched that staggering, shambolic gait, which was always the easiest thing to parody about zombies. The new zombies were limber and belligerent, and to that extent just scarier. To get caught by a Romero-style zombie always required a signal lapse of attention. One could reasonably conclude, then, that fast zombies were an improvement in horror-movie technique, a kind of engineering advance. But other than that, I mostly walked away from Dawn of the Dead thinking that the change from slow to fast was neutral, that it didn’t actually change any of the meanings that a zombie could carry. It’s was like putting a new engine in a chassis you really like: Romero with more oomph, Romero all souped up. And the Dead shall book.

•I was completely wrong. It turns out that up-shifting the zombies from slow to fast changes everything; it entirely re-frames the zombie movie as a genre. I find this utterly fascinating. It seems like a small change, little more than a tweak, like defragmenting your hard drive. And it leaves nothing untouched.