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.

Revenge of the Powerless: Hannah Arendt, “The Battle of Algiers” and “Inglourious Basterds”

Inglourious Basterds

Note: This post contains some spoilers. If you haven’t already seen “Inglourious Basterds,” you may want to be careful.

In Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, the author makes an interesting claim. She writes that, on a political level, violence is a tool of power, but not equal to it. In fact, when violence is used as a main force of power rather than diplomacy, it seems to represent a lack of power. A political regime that has stability doesn’t need to use force against its own citizens in order to stay that way. On the flipside, revolutionary violence usually represents an outcry from people who consider themselves powerless; people who are ostracized, exploited or endangered by those in charge.

A really solid example of Arendt’s point is the movie “The Battle of Algiers,” a 1967 film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Filmed in a documentary style, it’s a dramatic re-enactment of the titular battle between French colonial forces in Algiers, and the National Liberation Front of Algeria that tells the story from both sides of the war (although I think it tends to be more sympathetic to the NLF than the French, who come off looking none too good). All in all, it’s a really thought-provoking movie from both an anthropological and cinematic standpoint.

The goal of the film was to show the effect of this violent situation on both the French and the Algerians, and I think it was pulled off pretty well. There are scenes of NLF members blowing up restaurants and bars, many of which contain, as we’re shown through close-ups, innocent people who have no stake in the larger conflict. The non-NLF Algerians, too, are shown to suffer at the hands of the French government, who eventually stick them in one quarter of the city that’s kept under close watch by soldiers day and night. They kill with very little regard for the larger native population.

Arendt’s two representations of political violence are on full display here, too. With the French army, we see the presence of violence as a tool of power. The French government colonizes Algeria mostly because it can, and the military is its long arm, making sure everything stays under control. The NLF represents the powerless masses, spurred to action through a mix of nationalism and frustration.

All of this makes a pretty good argument, I think, for Arendt’s points. But does it work outside of political docu-dramas? Can it, in fact, apply to fictional storytelling, too?

As it turns out, yes, it can. On the very same day that I started watching “The Battle of Algiers” with my class, I went to the theater and saw “Inglourious Basterds.” Now, while violence in Tarantino movies (and most other fictional films, for that matter) tends to be campy and there mostly for entertainment value, when examining the motivations of the characters in “Inglourious Basterds,” some interesting parallels between Tarantino’s movie and the situation depicted in “Algiers” start to show up. It turns out that many of the characters in “Basterds” fall under Arendt’s classifications, too.

From the outset, let’s just look at this from a general perspective. Since, like “Algiers,” “Basterds” is a war movie, the idea of violence as a tool of power is pretty obvious. The Nazis, of course, represent Hitler’s power over Europe. The allies represent their respective countries demonstrating their respective power. Where it gets interesting is when we examine characters like the Basterds and Shosanna Dreyfus, who could easily represent Arendt’s “violence as a lack of power” argument.

Up until the start of the movie, the Basterds (or at least most of them) were acting, we assume, as part of a larger army, powerless to do anything individually. Sure, there’s a greater cause at hand, but the fighting isn’t very fulfilling. It doesn’t feel personal or specific. Being a tool of power doesn’t really allow for much personal satisfaction. As part of the smaller, more independent Basterds, these characters are able to get away with a lot more. The victories may not be huge (excepting, of course, the movie’s ending), but they are satisfying. These men get to smash, scalp and scar the villains responsible for the genocide of their own people. Their acts of revenge make it feel as if they finally have some control over the direction of the war. It doesn’t really give them any diplomatic authority, but the fear they instill in their enemies gives them a feeling of dominance.

Shosanna’s violent behavior completely originates from a lack of power. She’s been in hiding for years from the Nazis, assuming a false identity so she wouldn’t be found out. The opportunity to get back at the people who killed her family, and have made life a living hell for her, gives Shosanna the chance to step out of her “hiding” mode and take the upper hand. It is (spoiler alert) her plan that effectively ends the war in Tarantino’s plot. Again, Shosanna’s behavior does not represent power or influence (in the grand scale of things, she’s got none of either), but acting from a lack of it.

The fact that “Inglourious Basterds” is, essentially, a revenge movie makes Arendt’s argument seem all the more applicable to its characters and message. Arendt’s ideas could even apply to Tarantino himself (spoiler alert). He kills off Hitler and his advisors at the end of the movie, something he himself could never have done, having been born in 1963. The director’s alternative view of history gives victims of World War II an ending they might have wished for, but didn’t get.

So, what can movies like “Inglorious Basterds” teach us? It’s pretty obvious that this movie exists almost purely for entertainment value. But, with the help of folks like Hannah Arendt and Gillo Pontecorvo, along with a closer reading of the events of a film, it’s possible for cinema violence to become something more than gratuitous. In the case of “Basterds,” this perspective changes a campy revisionist epic into a movie about power and revenge, and the effects they have on those who seek it.

Related Links:

Women and revolutionary violence in “The Battle of Algiers” and “Inglourious Basterds.”

A short summary of Hannah Arendt’s “On Violence.”

A video review of “Inglourious Basterds” by me and my friend Elliot