Romero’s Movies Match Tone Of The Times


Zombie films – especially the original trilogy by George A Romero, who first perfected the idea of the threat of the undead – have become an exact metaphor for a globalised world serving a brutal late form of capitalism.

 

Picture a ruined, deserted city with silent, empty streets. A contagious virus has transformed the contaminated into vampire-cannibals who transmit the infection by biting their victims. Suddenly, a little girl races into shot, her face contorted by fear, with two adults in jerky pursuit – a policeman and a waitress, their clothes torn and bloodstained, their arms greedily outstretched. They scream. This is purest Romero.

 

US director George A Romero came up with the simple but effective concept that is the zombie genre, which has recently been revived in films such as 28 Days Later (see "In a cinema near you"), from which that scene comes; it updated the zombie flick to contemporary tastes, and ensured box office receipts.

 

But Romero, who always stayed on the fringes of Hollywood, infused political statements into his films in phase with their times. His films were US-focused and leftwing, although never didactic. (Whereas the many zombie spin-off films of the 1970s and 1980s were only interested in the body count.) The narrative techniques of his zombie trilogy enclosed his characters in a confined space surrounded by zombies, and built tensions between survivors until their conflicts erupted and allowed the zombies access. His zombies are deformed mirror images of the Americans they devour; his non-zombies reflect major rifts in US society when the films were made.

 

The Night of the Living Dead (1968) was chiefly about the nature of the Vietnam war, which had tarnished the self-image of the US. It alternates between crude images of a violence then unknown in the cinema, and pseudo-Vietnam newsreels using government platitudes of the day. The racial divide within the US during the period of the fight for civil rights was exposed, too. Ben, the hero, who is black, is the sole survivor of the zombie night; but early in the morning, he is shot down by a white sheriff who mistakes him for a zombie. His body is thrown on to the funeral pyre. The generational conflict that marked the 1960s is echoed in an authoritarian patriarch incapable of protecting his family, and a zombified child who kills her mother and devours her father.

 

End of the world as we know it

 

The protagonists of Dawn of the Dead (1978) find refuge in a shopping mall, the new mecca of US consumerism. They barricade themselves from the world and binge on the mall’s limitless resources, although their hedonistic greed is ridiculed in the blank gaze of the zombies (they used to like shopping, too). Frenetic consumerism becomes a mechanical ritual that leads to loneliness and isolates the protagonists from each other. When marauders attack the mall, the character most attached to material possessions is the first to open fire, and draws the attention of the zombies, who then break in.

 

The Day of the Dead (1985), set in an underground military complex, opposes scientists, who are powerless in the face of the epidemic, with the military, who cannot contain their violent impulses. The heroine is a woman, and by making her the only balanced character among alienated men, the film examines American male identity: immaturity, the cult of virility and firearms, and misogyny. The army’s hatred of the independent heroine refers to the backlash against the feminist movement (1). When her companion is bitten by a zombie, she saves his life by cutting off his arm; but he cannot face this symbolic emasculation and allows the zombies into the complex where they eat scientists and military impartially.

 

Zombies, and themes of contagion and cannibalism, returned to English language fiction and cinema after 9/11 (2). The West faces an unfamiliar world, no longer organised into two blocs but fractured and teeming with uncontrollable terrorist, health, environmental, and economic threats. The new films differ from Romero’s in that they seek an international dimension and emphasise post-apocalyptic situations. Despite a broad range of aesthetic styles and social and cultural stances, they all feature the end of western civilisation – the world as we know it. The threat is no longer from without, like the extra-terrestrials in The War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, from HG Wells, 2005); the world is crumbling from within, collapsing and regressing to primitive chaos, caused by the global spread of a brutal capitalism.

 

The conditions for globalisation – the increase of exchanges, the speed of transport and the instant transmission of information – spread disease and panic. The global village imagined in these films is interconnected, interdependent and deregulated, and all the more fragile because everything spreads unhindered, like the virus. The energy of the plots is generated by fear, which is rampant in societies where capital imposes solitary individuality, and fellow citizens, even loved ones, are viewed as potential enemies. The first effect of contamination is destruction of all social ties, delivering each individual to the predation of others. The living dead become machines for consuming others, a striking representation of the terminal stage of neo-liberalism, in which individual interests destroy civilisation.

 

   No more than nostalgia and terror

 

The new non-Romero films do show a contemporary malaise, but they don’t succeed in expressing anything more than terror, or nostalgia for a past order. Where Romero evoked the contradictions of society, the new films are just fascinated by its destruction; they are certain – a certainty embedded in western cultural identity – that without authority humans revert to an animal state. When the protagonists in 28 Days Later take refuge in a supermarket, the goods on the shelves are no longer symbols of alienation, as in Dawn of the Dead, but represent comfort and hope. The characters pile up their trolleys, a parallel between survival and consumption. Later they confront the army, as dangerous as the zombies, especially to women. But the soldiers’ hostility and suicidal behaviour is not the result of military brainwashing, as in The Day of the Dead; the film just believes that they will rape any woman.

 

Later in the film, some protagonists turn out actually to care about collective responsibility. After discovering that a child is immune to the virus, albeit a carrier, they do everything to save him so that his genes may help the search for a vaccine. They sacrifice their lives to get him out of Britain – but he is, after all, a carrier, and the final sequence shows zombies emerging from a metro station by the Eiffel Tower.

 

I am Legend, by Richard Matheson, was published in 1954; its hero believes he is the only survivor of a lethal virus that has transformed everyone else into vampires. He tries to kill the nocturnal monsters while they sleep. When he is finally captured he discovers, too late, that the "animals" have founded a new civilisation. At the end of the book, he understands that he was the legendary monster who terrorised the innocent. But last year’s film version takes the exact opposite view, and is bogged down in nostalgia for a world under benevolent US domination. The vampires are transformed into wild creatures; its hero is the last defence against barbarian hordes. He is a biologist who benefits from technology, the source of US power. He sacrifices his life to give the world a vaccine; this legend saves humanity.

 

In 2005 Romero’s Land of the Dead focused on the US, represented as a fortified city in which survivors have found refuge. The rich live comfortably in the only remaining skyscraper and reign over the proles, whom they manipulate with the enticement of life in the building. They send out bands of mercenaries on pillaging expeditions to seize what they need – the mercenaries are armed to the teeth and kill all zombies. This film is a metaphor for the relationship between the US elite and the US poor; at the end, the zombies break into the skyscraper and massacre the inhabitants. Romero is faithful to his own principles and avoids nostalgia or cynicism.

 

Land of the Dead was expensively produced by Universal (otherwise Romero has always worked on minute budgets), and the script was more conventional than before. He didn’t really adapt to the constraints of Hollywood production. The film is obvious, awkward, and didactic, which Romero’s original trilogy was not. In response to its expense and conventionality, Romero has now made in Canada a zombie cheapie, Diary of the Dead (to be released in Europe later this year). It uses fake "amateur" footage – supposed to be the work of college filmmakers – plus their blogs: it’s about the latest western obsession, emergent alternative media. (Romero says: "The whole world has become a camera.") Its illusion of amateurishness was carefully choreographed and elaborately shot. And it makes some witty jokes about zombies.   ________________________________________________________

 

Sylvestre Meininger is a translator and researcher

 

(1) See Susan Faludi, Backlash, Vintage Books, London, new edition 1993.

 

(2) Cormack McCarthy, The Road, Picador, London, 2007, describes a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has regressed to cannibalism; Max Brooks, World War Z, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2007 (soon to be filmed by Hollywood), is written in the Romero spirit using zombies to show the failures of globalisation.

 

 

 

Translated by Krystyna Horko

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