Do the Zombie: The Social Politics of the Undead

So, last week I blogged about the lack of imagination and message in franchise horror movies. I said that, essentially, franchise horror is the “safe choice,” which is what makes it so popular. I also claimed that I don’t really “get” the appeal of franchise horror movies. For the most part, this is true. While, like many horror fans, I enjoy the “ride” predictable horror movies provide, I still require some kind of moral question, or a good reason behind the violence on screen. Otherwise, I feel like the movie just isn’t worth my time.

Perhaps that’s why, in the entirety of my experience watching horror movies, there is one particular subgenre that, although it’s one of the most formulaic, manages to consistently present a message along with massive amounts of gore. That subgenre is the zombie movie.

Ever since George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” kicked everything into messy high gear in 1968, the zombie has come to represent more than just an undead cannibal corpse lusting after brains. The zombie is the perfect blank slate for horror movie symbolism. It can represent just about anything you want. The zombie has been used to represent consumerism (“Dawn of the Dead,”) suburban complacency, (“Shaun of the Dead,”) racism and fear of the other (“Night of the Living Dead,” “Land of the Dead”). Romero has said of his films, “My movies are about other things, and zombies are just an annoyance.” In a zombie movie, it’s not the zombies that are actually the important thing. What’s important is the human drama created by their presence.

That human drama is the characteristic that, in my mind, makes the zombie movie so cool, as well as easy to replicate. Zombie movies follow a formula that is tailor-made to create moral dilemmas and human tension. Generally what happens is this: Zombies attack. The main character, in an attempt to escape the carnage, falls in with another survivor, or a group of survivors. After barricading themselves into a makeshift stronghold, the group tentatively starts forming connections. But there’s always at least one jerk that ruins it for everyone else. Arguments and accusations start flying, someone gets bitten, everyone gets conflicted over whether or not they should kill said bite victim. After waiting too long to make a decision (they always wait too long, instead choosing to discuss the ethical implications), the bitten friend or relative comes back to life, at which point all the outside zombies somehow find a way to infiltrate the stronghold, where there is the Final Showdown. At this point, there are usually two outcomes: a) everyone dies, b) the two characters with romantic chemistry survive to (we can only assume) repopulate the earth.

See what I mean? Yes, you can probably figure out from moment one of a zombie movie what’s going to happen and how, but the dynamic that emerges when anxious people with differing points of view are boarded up in one room and asked to work together or die can be just fascinating to watch.

Whenever I’m asked to convince people as to what makes zombie movies a genre worthy of attention, I give two examples: “Dawn of the Dead” (Romero’s original), and “28 Days Later.” Both are excellent representations of zombie movies at their political and morally thoughtful best.

“Dawn of the Dead” strikes me as the most politicized of Romero’s catalog. The consumerist tone is clearly presented from the moment the protagonists set up camp in the shopping mall. At one point, looking over the undead mob congregating outside the mall, one character, Peter, muses, “They’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.” Romero is presenting his audience with the notion that, as consumers, people are sheep. We want stuff, and lots of it. We don’t know why, we just know that we want it. In another scene, the whole group of survivors goes hog wild in a department store, excited that they can now appropriate anything they could possibly need or want for free. The mall is their haven. After a while, of course, as is the fashion with zombie movies, everything falls apart. But while it lasts, the situation seems pretty nice.

“28 Days Later” is, in my opinion, about as good a movie as you can find in either the zombie subgenre, or the horror genre as a whole. Generally speaking, director Danny Boyle’s movies can be pretty hit-or-miss, but his horror movies and psychological thrillers tend to be right on the money. His first film, “Shallow Grave,” presented audiences with a moral dilemma if ever there was one, and “28 Days Later” does exactly the same thing. Essentially, the audience is given this horrible apocalyptic situation, and two different ways that people choose to survive in that situation. We could take the moral high ground, with Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson, and realize the importance of maintaining human connection in a mostly-abandoned world. Or, if straight-up ruthless survival sounds better, we can side with Christopher Eccleston and his sexually frustrated soldiers. Of course, Boyle sends the message that the way of Eccleston and co. is basically the road to self-destruction, but you can’t help but feel a little bad for the guy. He may have acted horribly but, in the end, he was only doing what he thought was right.

Zombie movies may be formulaic. They may be easy to set up. But, unlike so many other subgenres, they have the potential to make an audience think. We laugh at the zombies trying to force their way into the mall in “Dawn of the Dead,” or the zombie carnival in “Land of the Dead” because these things are absurd. But, if we consider what these characterizations are meant to represent, how absurd do they make us look? Zombie movies are, at their most basic level, an opportunity for a director to turn the camera back on his audience and say “Look. These guys are us. They are what we have become.” If they want to throw a gallon or two of red corn syrup around for emphasis, then so much the better.

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