Tag Archives: Night of the Living 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?