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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Safety in Formula: Franchise Horror and “Torture Porn”

I consider myself a fairly avid horror fan. Ever since watching “Shaun of the Dead” in high school, I’ve slowly learned to enjoy the genre more and more. I love movies from every subgenre, from slashers to zombies (my personal favorite) to good old-fashioned ghost stories. I love ‘em all.

But one thing that’s always baffled me is franchise movies, particularly those of the “torture porn” variety. I was inspired to start doing some research after noticing the release of “Saw VI” a couple of weeks ago. I remember pretty vividly seeing “Saw II” and the remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” in high school, and realizing (with some relief) that, in fact, I did have a standard when it came to horror. I don’t stand for mindless stuff. If something horrific is going to happen to someone, as a viewer (and, I think, as a human being) I need to have some kind of justification for it. Otherwise, it just isn’t worth my time. I need a moral dilemma, a killer with a background, something other than random acts of violence that don’t send a message.

From my perspective, it seems like franchise horror movies are the epitome of what I consider “the wrong kind” of horror movie. The original films, the ones that start off the franchise, like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Halloween,” even the original “Saw,” have some kind of message or some creative spark that stokes the interest of audiences enough to keep them coming. But whatever the original movies had going for them, it gets lost with every subsequent sequel or remake.

I wanted to get a professional opinion on this, so I turned to Eric Melin, who runs the movie review site Scene-Stealers.com. He told me the popularity of franchises comes from, in the case of Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers, a cult of personality and audiences who want to be scared, but don’t want to have to think about it too much.

“I worked in a video store for a while, and I used to see this every Halloween, when people would come in, because they’re so desperate for scary movies, and they want a new scary movie, so they go straight to the franchises,” Melin told me. “It’s just easier for people to say ‘This weekend we’re going to watch all the Children of the Corns.’ Why not watch something else?”

Why not watch something else, indeed? Why would people willingly choose a formulaic, predictable, meaningless horror movie when there are so many other great ones out there? Why watch “Freddy Vs. Jason” when you can see “The Orphanage?” According to Mark Kermode, a movie critic for BBC Radio 5, it’s precisely because of the formula that franchises are so popular.

In an essay he wrote for the Independent, called “Horror Will Eat Itself,” Kermode writes that familiar elements are exactly what many people like about horror movies. He uses Wes Craven’s “Scream” movies as an example, noting that the director’s simultaneous celebration and skewering of horror tropes were what made that particular franchise so popular.

Taking these opinions into consideration, what I’ve come to decide is this: familiarity is popular in horror, as in many other genres, but it’s popular for a unique reason, which is fear of the unknown. Consider the way you feel going into a horror movie you know nothing about: the uneasiness, the idea that you don’t know what to expect. All you know is that it’s going to be scary, and it’s going to be uncomfortable. Say the first “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie really scared you. Then, a while later, the second one comes out. You decide you want to go to a scary movie, and that’s the one you pick because now you know what to expect. Most of the uneasiness that you had with the original movie is now gone. You know how the killer operates, how and why he chooses his victims. Thanks to that formula, you can satisfy that bloodlust without having to be bothered by it.

Without the unpredictability, the only factor franchise horror movies have left to impress their audiences is what Melin refers to as “the creativity of the kill,” which is where torture porn comes in. With that, the movie loses its soul.

“I’ve had a lot of horror enthusiasts tell me that I can’t review horror movies the way I review another movie, in other words, I can’t apply the same criteria of wanting well-developed characters and story and stuff like that,” Melin said. “And to a certain extent, I kind of agree with that…But when there’s movies out there like Drag Me to Hell, and Slither and Frailty that do everything so well and also manage to be campy and fun at the same time, I think that I’m not really going to want to forgive a movie like the Hills Have Eyes remakes…I’m just not interested in what they’re doing, because they’re not doing anything interesting.”

Horror isn’t an easy genre to love. Fans probably get disappointments and cookie-cutter studio releases more often than legitimately good, creative movies. And it takes a certain kind of psychological toughness to go for the unfamiliar stuff over the movies you already know. But, in my mind, it’s worth it. “Jason Goes to Hell” might be fun, but “Shallow Grave” has meaning and thrills. That, to me, is more valuable than any number of Leatherfaces, Freddy Kruegers or Jigsaws.

Related Link:

Mark Kermode’s essay, “Horror Will Eat Itself”