Sunday, June 03, 2007

Living Dead Reckoning

Last night the idea of zombies fascinated me. This came after watching George A. Romero's latest chapter, Land of the Dead, which--behold!--was not even kind of bad. It was deep and affecting, not emotionally moving on the scale of Spielberg heartstring-pullers or, specifically, any of Eastwood's latest efforts, but I found it more thought-out than I wanted to believe. It made me think about zombies and why they are such a profound archetype of human fear.

Zombies are the canvas from which other living dead creatures spring. Wikipedia says that zombies are mentioned as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh, when an angry goddess condemns man to suffer the appetites of the raised dead. Corpses animated to movement and simulated consciousness after having pushed up from the grave, this is the basic idea for zombies as well as other Universal monsters such as vampires, mummies, and even Frankenstein's monster. Sure, qualifications change or to which more are added in order suit the appropriate stories, but at the heart of it all these are all walking dead.

One of the most well-known facts about Romero's Dead series is that each story contains a scathing satire of the contemporary American society.

Though great, I don't care about that right now.

As far as zombie folklore is concerned, Romero created the standard, the rulebook, for zombies. What I appreciate from him (though, admittedly, this is only the second Romero film I can say I've seen. Not to worry, though, I have Dawn and Day in my Netflix queue) is aside from his didactic social investigation he also investigates the zombies themselves as creatures as available to change as humans are in the world they are forced to share. Having only watched his first and last movies, it's clear that Romero isn't merely coming up with a new idea for the protagonists, a different twisted scheme following a motley association of diverse heroic archetypes fighting together against an evil force. No, said evil force is not just the enemy--it's the competition.

There are the obvious comparisons between the zombies and human life, that maybe they aren't so different after all. This realization is uncomfortable for the survivors because the walking dead look like the loved ones once lost, and if they want to survive they'll have to lose their loved ones again. I think the most convincing argument for this position is one I haven't really seen laid out in any reviews, and it revolves around the character in Land named Charlie.

One of the big things that Land of the Dead promoted is that the zombies have started to learn. Small forms of communication and found-object tools are giving them greater strength than ever before. This curve allows zombies to essentially switch categories of species, moving from being nihilistic, unthinking animals to nihilistic, proto-humans. Instead of being a man fending off the wolves, Land becomes the as of yet untold war between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, and Charlie is the missing link (EDIT: it turns out that this untold war has been kind of told).

Charlie lumbers like a zombie (upon his appearance in the film, he is mistaken for one in the dark and is nearly terminated), half of his face is horribly scarred from a fire which causes his right eye to sag with the skin on that side of his face resembling pulled pork--a cooked, dead look to it. Charlie is also "simple-minded," but keenly adept at a single skill: sharpshooting. It is his usefulness that helps the heroes yet dually represents the fear they have of the other side, as is said early in the film:
"Hell, dead-folks is near as dumb as me."

Riley (Charlie's best friend and protector):
"You learned to make yourself useful, didn't you, Charlie?"


"Well, that's what they're doing."

The idea of the traditional zombie is shattered with that short discourse as Charlie is a man who shares more than one characteristic--physical, mental, vocational--with the enemy, and it means that the enemy is becoming more like the humans that they want to, well, consume.

So the fear of these creatures became three-fold: we are afraid of being eaten (addendum: and in the course of becoming a zombie, eating people), we are afraid they are like us (which would give us guilt upon their murder), and we are afraid they will push us from our evolutionary throne.

So I started thinking about zombies. What does humanity personified as heroes and heroines do in zombie movies? They run from zombies. But zombies are generally dumb, slow, and weak (usually); what about that is scary? It's akin to being frightened of snails: they are gross to look at and touch, but do not represent a threat in the least. Oh, well, there is the threat of being eaten and becoming one of them. In the case of the Dead series, there is no doubt that we'll become reanimated cannibals because anybody who dies--be it zombie-assisted or of natural causes--becomes afflicted (though this trend is hinted to have stopped in, I guess, Day of the Dead, the reanimation of any dead person is reinstated in Land). It's the inevitability that is frightening in Romero's world.

This all struck me as universal whereupon I stumbled upon the basic fear that zombies embody. At the very base of the mythos zombies are corpses, and corpses are the only tangible evidence we have of death. Humans instinctively fear death or else we wouldn't hunt, eat, and fight for our lives when threatened. We do those things to stave off death until it becomes truly unavoidable, imminent.

So zombie movies--especially the early ones like Night of the Living Dead--are just a heightened, simplified view of our fear of life's inevitable conclusion. We are humans constantly on the run from the slow creep of death which is always behind us, out of sight. Like the child who becomes aware that the world outside his vision continues to exist despite his inability to still see it we know that death looms and is, in a sense, hunting us down to take away our life, to consume it, and make us dead. Death is the space in which we lose our individuality, our personality, our essence as humans and we don't want that because we've become accustomed to the lives we've made for ourselves, as bad as it can seem to be. If we come back after death does that mean that what we accomplished in life is worthless? Are we to spend all this time to become food or the vessel for some other force? Merely a broken-in suit for a life not our own? Death is always on our shoulder, biting into us in the visage of age and time. Death tickles us with pangs of mortality, giving us that shiver up our spine to remind us we are alive and death makes us so. That's why zombies scare us into the box office and why their status as nightmarish icons will never, and pardon the pun, die.

That's also why fast zombies are stupid.


Eben said...

I love your analysis as always. The clickies were great. :)
I like the metaphoric evaluation of zombie & death... but in my opinion that doesn't separate that from the other horror films. Even the "fast zombies" are being watched and proving lucrative for the studios.
Even the psycho slasher flick still has constant running from a tireless and inescapable death (unless you are a hero)

I think zombies are just a medium for telling creating the horror experience - sort of like animation is just a medium for telling a story.

Zombies are just the method in which scaring the audience and putting them in that fear mode of inescapable death that could be brutal and right around the corner, no matter the speed of it.

How is the vampire or werewolf different?

Jeremy said...

I love Romero's work, the original Dawn of the Dead is one of my favorite movies, but i don't know Land really bugged me. It wasn't the story, or the characters, both were superb. It was more the setting, in the Romero zombie world the original zombie plague was supposed to have happened in the early 60's, and relapsed in the late 70's, so by the 80's (day of the dead) mankind is in it's last struggle. Land finds humanity about 10-15 years later after Day, and thats all fine and well. But when this was supposed to happen a couple of decades before hand, you expect the technology to reflect that. But there are numerous instances in the film where technology seems to be of a later date, the Mercedes (or perhaps it was a Rolls?) near the end that the rich guy is trying to escape in is clearly newer than its surroundings. Industry would have collapsed soon after the first few major attacks, so i cant see them still developing newer cars in times like those. That just really bugged me through out the film, but if you can look past that then yea it was Romero at his best.

o and love the blog Dan, its permanently bookmarked.

Daniel C.V. Bethel said...

Regarding Eben's comments, I don't disagree with you at all, that on the whole these movies are meant to scare you be it with zombies, werewolves, vampires or smiling children with knives.

But the end of the Boast attempted to shuck the cinematic scale and go big. The difference with a zombie is that the zombie came first. On the basic level of the horror movie, yes, nothing separates a zombie, but I was trying to address why the zombie became the earliest example of human-turned-nightmare creature where before supernatural beings were a race unto themselves, be they gods, nymphs, monsters, etc.

What makes zombies different, though, is that despite the other major supernatural villains from horror films, human beings actually become corpses from which mythological and movie zombies are inspired. The fact that a zombie is merely a corpse re-animated evokes much more of a visceral fear because on some level, save for cremation, you will become a corpse rotting in the ground.