George Romero, 1940-2017
Rest in peace, Mr. Romero. I’ll never get to tell you this in person, but you played a major part in my mental-emotional life, with your Living Dead world helping to explain the non-cinematic “real” world to me in more ways than one. The paper in my Dark Awakenings collection about the possible use of your first three Living Dead films as tools for spiritual contemplation was the culmination of many years of dwelling on and in your imaginary (or perhaps imaginal) zombie otherworld.
Plus, you created Bub, the greatest movie zombie in history. (I’m among the minority of oddballs who favor DAY OF THE DEAD above all others in the series.) But I did always wish that Bub would have successfully shot Rhodes during their showdown…
And I always felt so deeply sorry for Bub when he experienced an agony of grief upon finding his master and quasi-friend Dr. Logan dead, murdered by Rhodes and his goons.
But then again, you and Bub did give Rhodes exactly what was coming to him in the end, didn’t you? For many years, until I stumbled across Peter Jackson’s Braindead / Dead Alive, this was single goriest scene in the single goriest movie that I had ever watched. (Yes, I also watched some European zombie horror and such, but you always seemed to top them somehow.)
Best of all, and apart from all the gore and grimness, you allowed us to witness the weirdly beautiful spectacle of a zombie experiencing a paroxysm of spiritual ecstasy at the sound of the “Ode to Joy” from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
It’s an amazing scene, in an amazing movie, with an amazing actor, from an amazing director. For this, and for the rest of your gift to the world, I do hope you’ll rest more peacefully than the zombies you created for us.
Image credit: By George_Romero,_66ème_Festival_de_Venise_(Mostra).jpg: nicolas genin derivative work: Andibrunt [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Here’s a bold and interesting reading of the zombie as a monster that is at root “a remnant of an imperialistic and racist era”:
UA doctoral student Kyle W. Bishop argues that while the zombie has become a hugely popular cinematic device, the creature is a remnant of an imperialistic and racist era.
….Bishop, who has been hired as a lecturer at Southern Utah University while completing his dissertation on zombie narratives for his doctorate, makes the case that the zombie was “sired directly by the imperialist system.” The zombie, he said, is a postcolonial creature that cloaked the racist sentiments of the early 20th century, a time when Westerners who wanted the United States to become an imperial power were, at the same time, consumed with concern about black-white race relations.
….Bishop’s dissertation takes a look at the origins and evolution of the zombie beginning with Victor Halperin’s 1932 film “White Zombie.” He said the film influenced the trajectory of the zombie as a cinematic device and also warped voodoo into a horrifying practice in the mind of Westerners. Bishop said the film also served to diminish the importance of the religious tradition, which comes from Haiti, a country in the Caribbean that has a history of colonialism.
….He wrote: “For a Western white audience, the real threat and source of terror in these films are not the political vagaries of a postcolonial nation or the plights of the enslaved native zombies, but rather the risk that the white protagonists might become zombies themselves. In other words, the true horror in these movies lies in the prospect of a Westerner becoming dominated, subjugated, and effectively ‘colonized’ by a native pagan.”
…. “Part of my central thesis is that I think we wanted a monster of our own,” he said, noting that during the 1930s and 1940s, the United States had become an imperialist power and that its nationalistic character naturally extended into popular culture. Bishop’s research seeks to unmask “a lot of imperialist racism and lack of tolerance – the idea that when the Western culture encounters a different culture,” he said, “the immediate thing to do is to make that culture seem threatening or horrific.”
— The Zombie: ‘A New Monster for a New World, UA News (University of Arizona), June 13, 2008
This is all so very fascinating. I have a two-part response.
First, the reading sounds like it primarily leans, at least in the proportions of the argument represented by this article, on the pre-1968, pre-Night of the Living Dead version of the zombie. I mean, yes, that’s obviously the point: to get at the origins of the zombie as a standard monstrous trope in American entertainment culture.
But today almost everybody thinks of the zombie almost exclusively in Romero-esque terms, as an undead ghoul and/or a demonically violent and rapacious fiend. This accounts for something like 99 percent of zombie fandom, not to mention generic zombie awareness in the culture at large. And Romero’s movie, as we know, was modeled explicitly, if loosely, on Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. His “zombies” really had little, if anything, to do with the poor mesmerized monsters depicted in previous zombie movies. But the identification of his anthropophagus reanimated humans with the word “zombie” resulted in a new monster that’s now so iconic and pervasive that it receives the ultimate validation of being parodied in movies like Shaun of the Dead.
(I think my own awakening to the fact that the zombie in this form had become a kind of generically known monster occurred way back in 1994 when I watched director Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead for the first time — in its retitled release as Dead Alive — and witnessed one character yelling immediately when grabbed by a reanimated corpse erupting from a grave, “It’s a zombie!” That’s when I knew that nobody needed to ask about or explain this monster anymore.)
So this is all to say that I find Bishop’s reading of zombie-dom, as sketched by that brief article, to be fascinating. But judging from what’s in the article, it sounds like it’ll be damned hard to make the reading account for the monster we see all around us today in movies, novels, comic books, and video games.
Second, none of this means that I won’t find his new book American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture (January 2010) to be compulsively readable. And a quick scan of, for instance, his 2006 paper “Raising the dead: unearthing the nonliterary origins of zombie cinema” (pdf) shows that he really has paid a considerable amount of attention to the aspect of the matter that I’m raising.
I suppose the upshot is the same as it’s been for the past several years: It’s an increasingly great time to be alive if you’re a horror fan, and particularly if you’re one with academic interests — as indicated by no less a publication than The Chronicle of Higher Education a few days ago: “Is it true that the horror movie, probably the most popular film genre of them all, is also the genre that generates the most academic writing? It appears so, judging by a bloodgush of publishing” (“Taking a Slash at Horror,” July 22).
So have you heard of zombie walks, ladies and gentlemen? I’m talking about those increasingly ubiquitous events where groups of respectable everyday folk get in touch with their inner zombie by dressing up in costumes and makeup as the named monster in its modern mass entertainment incarnation — that is, as reanimated, flesh-eating corpses who shamble, moan, and sometimes shout “Brains!” — and shuffle en masse through public places either for fun or to raise money for a charity.
I had personally heard of these events somewhere — they got their start circa 2000, so there’s a history to them — and stored the memory in the back of my head, but hadn’t thought much about them until a friend and fellow zombie enthusiast (Paul Salvaggio of Backbone Media) sent me a link to the following video of a recent zombie walk in Moncton, Canada, that raised money for the local SPCA:
I watched in awe as a group — horde? — of not just adults but young children stumbled down the city streets in full zombie regalia, complete with blood stains on their mouths and clothing. And my thoughts rapidly ramped up to warp speed. In no particular order:
– Parents are having their children do this? They’re dressing up little Johnny and Jenny as flesh-eating, blood-spattered ghouls that have risen from the grave to shuffle around in search of human flesh to eat? Glory be! Lawdy! Holy crap! Or some other appropriate exclamation. The societal, familial, and general cultural implications are staggering.
– The transformation of everyday life in contemporary first-world countries by the all-pervasiveness of mass entertainment has never been more blatant in a slap-you-upside-the-head sort of way. The idea of zombies as these cannibalistic flesh-eating machines was invented by George Romero in 1968. He launched it with Night of the Living Dead, thereby eclipsing the former and more historically derived image of the zombie as a sad worker drone controlled by rich and evil plantation owners. A drive-in horror movie — one with profound value and meaning beyond such a schlocky pedigree, to be sure — so revolutionized mass culture over a mere four decades via its various tangents of influence that it gave rise to a mass imitative behavioral phenomenon. It caused, or was part of, a mass stirring in the collective subconscious that mysteriously gave rise to an inexplicable but undeniable motivation to do what these zombie walkers are doing. Ye gods.
– Romero’s zombie movies were full of social and cultural criticism. Dawn, for instance, was and is an explicit satire on the American-style uber-consumerism that was newly minted when Romero wrote and directed the movie in the 1970s. The zombies in that film congregated at a shopping mall because that place “was important to them” in life. In their sad afterlives they wandered forlornly around that consumerist paradise in a kind of Dante-esque scenario of ironic punishment, stuck in a limbo where they could vaguely remember their past pleasures but were barred from enjoying them. Now, in today’s zombie walks, people are gleefully identifying with this monster. You can tell they’re Romero’s zombies, at least in the Moncton zombie walk, because they shuffle and moan like his zombies do, instead of running and snarling like the swift, feral zombies in 2004’s Dawn remake, or 1985’s Return of the Living Dead, or 2002’s 28 Days Later, or 2009’s Zombieland.
– The zombie walkers are partaking of a generalized zombie mythos, as evidenced by the fact that even though they’re Romero-esque zombies, they sometimes shout “Brains!” — an act that comes directly from the alternate zombie universe of the Return of the Living Dead franchise. And thanks to the pervasive mass entertainment culture, they can count on the fact that many or most observers will know exactly what they’re getting at.
– The zombie walkers are perhaps engaging in an awesomely delicious display of existential self-parody. America’s national capitulation to consumer capitalism as its guiding ethos, and its exporting of this ethos to the rest of the globe, has confirmed and fulfilled the worst cultural and societal fears expressed in Romero’s zombie movies. Dressing up to play zombie in our fully zombified economic, political, and social order is akin to letting the cat out of the bag. It’s like being the kid in the story who shouts that the emperor is wearing no clothes — except the kid doesn’t notice that he’s naked himself. These people are gaily identifying with the symbol of our national spiritual demise, and the tenor of the times just makes it natural, what with the zombie meme having gone not just viral but universal.
– On a slightly different note, in The Conspiracy against the Human Race, published just this month, Thomas Ligotti discusses the idea that human beings are self-conscious nothings, avatars of a blind and rapacious force that governs reality and, in the case of our unfortunate species, has produced organisms that are endowed with self-awareness, thus placing us in a horrific existential plight because we’re conscious of our situation in a way that no other organism is. If the modern-day zombie, as theorized by Richard Liberty’s “Frankenstein” character in 1985’s Day of the Dead, is nothing but a human being operating at its most primal level, with all of the higher faculties deadened and nothing but blind appetite remaining operational, then being one of these things might not be so bad after all, since zombie-hood is by definition life without self-consciousness, continued existence without the burden of selfhood. A zombie is a former self-conscious nothing that’s now just a nothing, but it’s still animate. Bliss, perhaps?
I doubt any of the zombie walkers are thinking about these things. But then, they don’t have to, because they’re too busy having fun in the grip of that astonishing uprush from the basement of the collective mind.
Photos courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/philippeleroyer/
“How secure is our civilization’s accumulated knowledge?”
That’s the question posed in a recent essay by Richard Heinberg, one of the most consistently brilliant, reasonable, and nuanced writers about the ecological and cultural-civilizational ramifications of peak fossil fuels and economic calamity. In “Our evanescent culture and the awesome duty of librarians,” he offers a detailed discussion of the ins and outs of cultural preservation in the age of digital media, which, as he points out, have become the basket into which we citizens of industrial-technological civilization are collectively putting all of our cultural eggs, and which depend entirely on electricity for their continued viability. If the lights go out, he observes, this all vanishes instantly. And the chances of the lights going out by century’s end, not only in developing countries around the globe, where rolling brownouts and blackouts are already becoming more common, but in the industrialized nations as well, is very real.
“Ultimately,” Heinberg writes,
the entire project of digitized cultural preservation depends on one thing: electricity. As soon as the power goes off, access to the Internet goes down. CDs and DVDs become meaningless plastic disks; e-books become inscrutable and useless; digital archives become as illegible as cuneiform tablets — or more so. Altogether, digitization represents a huge bet on society’s ability to keep the lights on forever . . . . It’s ironic to think that the cave paintings of Lascaux may be far more durable than the photos from the Hubble space telescope. Altogether, if the lights were to go out now, in just a century or two the vast majority of our recently recorded knowledge would be gone or inaccessible.
This would all obviously constitute a disaster of the first order, since we denizens of industrial society have been engaged for roughly a century in the project of forgetting how to live without our electrified technology, and in the event of a blackout we would lose not only this technology but access to the digital media in which we have taken to storing so much of the very knowledge and skills that would enable us to survive. And that’s not to mention the loss in purely artistic and spiritual terms.
But there’s an ambivalence to the issue that Heinberg also notes in his essay, since, to put it bluntly, not all cultural knowledge is worth remembering. “The contemplation of electric civilization’s collapse can’t help but provoke philosophical musings,” he writes. “Perhaps cultural death is a necessary component of evolution — as is the death of individual organisms. In any case, no one can prevent culture from changing, and many aspects of our present culture arguably deserve to disappear (we each probably carry our own list around in our head of what kinds of music, advertising messages, and television shows we think the world could do without).”
And this is what leads me, perhaps not too incongruously — especially in light of the present prevalence of zombies in mass media culture — to flash on horror film auteur George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), the third installment in his celebrated Living Dead series, which at one point grapples provocatively with the very issue that Heinberg raises, albeit in a slightly different context.
An epitaph that nobody’s gonna bother to read
In Day of the Dead, a dozen or so humans, the only apparent survivors of the zombie apocalypse that started in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and continued in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, live in a vast underground military bunker while the zombies rule the outside world. In a key scene, a character with the appropriately apocalyptic name of John chides another character, a scientist, for continuing the obsessive quest to understand the zombie plague, since the bunker is already, effectively, a vast treasure trove of industrial civilization’s accumulated knowledge that nobody will ever know or care about:
Hey, you know what all they keep down here in this cave? Man, they got the books and the records of the top five hundred companies. They got the defense department budget down here, and they got the negative for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records and census records, and they got official accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods, and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good old U.S. of A. Now what does it matter, Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? Who’s ever gonna give a shit? Who’s even gonna get a chance to see it all? This is a great big, 14-mile tombstone with an epitaph on it that nobody’s gonna bother to read. And now here you come with a whole new set of charts and graphs and records. What you gonna do? Bury them down here with all the other relics of what once was?
When the other character, Sarah, responds, “What I’m doing is all there’s left to do,” John comes back with, “Shame on you. There’s plenty to do, so long as there’s you and me and maybe some other people. We could start over, start fresh, get some babies. And teach them, Sarah. Teach them never to come over here and dig these records out.”
The conversation relates back to an earlier exchange between the two characters in which John similarly criticizes the scientist’s attempts to explain and fix the apocalyptic situation. Upon being told to shut up because he has no alternative solution, he says, “Oh, I’ve got an alternative: Find us an island someplace, get juiced up, and spend what time we got left soaking up some sunshine.” When Sarah says with disdain, “You could do that, couldn’t you? With all that’s going on, you could just do that without a second thought,” he replies, “Shit, I could do that even if all this wasn’t going on.”
And obviously, this all relates back to Heinberg’s observation in his article that we can all name aspects of contemporary information culture whose loss we wouldn’t lament. Then again, as he also notes, the loss of many other things would be truly tragic. He says it so beautifully, and lays out the competing strands of the dilemma so elegantly, that I’ll quote his final paragraphs in toto:
Civilization has come at a price. Since the age of Sumer cities have been terrible for the environment, leading to deforestation, loss of topsoil, and reduced biodiversity. There have been human costs as well, in the forms of economic inequality (which hardly existed in pre-state societies) and loss of personal autonomy. These costs have grown to unprecedented levels with the advent of industrialism — civilization on crack — and have been borne not by civilization’s beneficiaries, but primarily by other species and people in poor nations and cultures. But nearly all of us who are aware of these costs like to think of this bargain-with-the-devil as having some purpose greater than a temporary increase in creature comforts, safety, and security for a minority within society. The full-time division of labor that is the hallmark of civilization has made possible science — with its enlightening revelations about everything from human origins to the composition of the cosmos. The arts and philosophy have developed to degrees of sophistication and sublimity that escape the descriptive capacity of words.
Yet so much of what we have accomplished, especially in the last few decades, currently requires for its survival the perpetuation and growth of energy production and consumption infrastructure—which exact a continued, escalating environmental and human toll. At some point, this all has to stop, or at least wind down to some more sustainable scale of pillage.
But if it does, and in the process we lose the best of what we have achieved, will it all have been for nothing?
Burn it all
Having said all of that, I’ll close by pointing out what I suspect many of my readers may have noticed as well: that even though there are veritable mountains of cultural treasures whose loss to a new dark age would be a tragedy, in light of the galling and garish nature of so much of our contemporary cultural dystopia with its digital media circus, its economic bloat, its ecological devastation, its human injustice, and so on, it’s pretty damned difficult to deny the mythically charged attraction of the “Burn it all!” solution as expressed so enticingly by Romero and others. And that’s even though we rationally recognize the full-on disaster that such a “solution” would inevitably entail in human terms.
For more about cultural preservation in the face of a new dark age, consider the following:
- John Michael Greer, “The End of the Information Age” (May 19, 2009) and “Cultural Conservers” (May 21, 2008), both published at The Archdruid Report. “I’d like to suggest,” says Greer, “that one crucial need of our present predicament is the rise of a movement of cultural conservers — individuals who choose, for one reason or another, to take personal responsibility for the preservation of some part of the modern world’s cultural heritage. That’s a tall order, not least because the crises inseparable from the decline and fall of a civilization will leave many of us scrambling for bare survival in the face of soaring death rates and increasingly harsh conditions.”
- Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (2000). Berman talks movingly, in a tone that’s part businesslike and part elegiac, about the need for a class of “new monks” who will preserve and perpetuate treasured cultural knowledge not only in the midst of a future dark age brought on by industrial collapse (a theme he touches on only tangentially when he touches on it at all), but in the midst of our present cultural dark age of economic, political, educational, societal, and media-based madness, where hype and life have merged, and where the ever-expanding border of technocratic consumer culture and American imperialism encompasses a darkly dystopian reality. Importantly, he stresses that a) a new dark age is inevitable, so we’re not talking about “saving” what presently exists but preserving and planting the seeds of a future renaissance that none of us will personally see, and b) these new monastic efforts may need to take a different form than simply the writing of books and so on, since, unlike the original Dark Ages, when Western monks conducted their scribal work in an information-starved cultural environment, “This time around, we are drowning in information; hence, what is required is that it be embodied, preserved through ways of living . . . . I am not talking about putting the Great Books on CD-ROM, eventually to be buried in a time capsule, I suppose), or on the Net; these things have already been done, and they don’t amount to much, because the Great Books program is really a way of life, not a database.”
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Obviously, this novel has become a kind of Ur-text that defines the very lines along which we think and talk about the question of a new dark age. We shouldn’t forget the novel’s passionate endorsement of something like Berman’s “new monasticism” in its description of the tramps and hobos who traverse the fringes of a future totalitarian-dystopian society and preserve books whole in their memories, in the hope of one being able to recite them and write them down again when books are no longer outlawed. We also shouldn’t forget one character’s important and insightful declaration about the relative value of books themselves: “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical about them at all. The magic is only with what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment.”