Zombie as Change

[30 October 2008]

By Christian Caliandro

In 2008, 40 years after the release of Night of the Living Dead, the word “change” assumes epochal meanings and characterizes historically an entire period: this concept has become the very catalyst of the global attention, at the point of being adopted – at least on a superficial level – by both US Presidential candidates. 

The year 1968 represents an ‘archetypal’ change that affected both sides of the Atlantic; a change on which every other change has been measured ever since. Furthermore, there is a strong connection between the figures of change and zombie, a fact that George A. Romero has repeatedly stated: “zombies are change”.

The historical context in which the first movie by Romero appears is that of a protest at every level, and of the politicization of aesthetics and everyday life. In Europe, the protest points out the social change and is mainly driven by the students. The movement’s ‘ultimate desire’ is the final revolution against the current situation. In America, the utopian aspect goes together with a vibrant opposition to the Vietnam War.

Indeed, this climate of ‘great expectations’ and confusion is exactly behind the production of Night of the Living Dead, as noted by many authors. In particular, the aspect of war influences deeply the style and the content of the movie. According to Sumiko Higashi in her essay Night of the Living Dead: a Horror Film about the Horrors of the Vietnam Era:

Although blacks, women, gays, and counterculturalists emerged as a brief threat to white male dominance during ‘60s and ‘70s, yet another group, the Vietnamese, functioned as the Other. Significantly, Americans came to know these aliens through images telecast during the evening news. (...)  Granted, there are no Vietnamese in Night of the Living Dead, but in effect they constitute an absent presence…

Stylistically, the ‘zombie’ scenes in Night of the Living Dead are deeply inspired by the TV reportages and documentaries from Vietnam on one hand, and by the cinéma vérité on the other: the black-and-white, distorted image is something that acts on the media mind of the 1968-spectator, pushing and expanding the feelings and the associations with other experiences. The posse sequence, for example, with the presentation of the hunting in a totally disturbing manner (exactly because of its normality), makes visible that ‘absent presence’, and goes far beyond the level of metaphor. More than the conflict inside the family, the theme of a general conflict within (American) society is portrayed by the movie.

But there are other, less literal, levels on which this ‘strange’ cultural object is perceived and received during the decades. In this regard, 1968 is also the year subsequent to a revolution in the American Cinema: Bonnie and Clyde by Arthur Penn and The Graduate by Mike Nichols were released in 1967, with a burst of scandal and Oscar nominations. Those two movies are still considered the official beginning of the New Hollywood, a renaissance and revitalisation of the American cinematography after the deep crisis of the ‘50s and ‘60s that involved the obsolete production system. The next phases of this movement are usually identified with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), and their peculiar use of violence and dangerous themes.

The central idea of this renovation was the opposition to the mechanisms of the ‘Old’ Hollywood and the meeting of the desires, the ambitions and the requests of a new generation of spectators (the newborn ‘teenagers’). Central to this view was the concept of a “New Sentimentality”, explicitly declared by the screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton in their famous manifesto appearead on Esquire in July 1964:

Lofty and exuberant, hilariously arrogant, and irresistibly presented as an infallible index of taste, tha rticle was a cultural call to arms—out with the old (except for those elements of the old approved by the young), in with the new. The “Old Sentimentality”, exemplified by the Eisenhower era and values like “Patriotism, Love, Religion, Mom, The Girl”, had given way, Benton and Newman argued, to a “New Sentimentality” about “you, really just you, not what you were told or taught, but what goes on in your head, really, and in your heart, really.”

However, this “new sentimentality” represents a strong discontinuity with the previous model of production and direction, but without a true, significant fracture. The general structure of Hollywood remains the same, while the protagonists change drastically and at high speed. Authors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Michael Cimino—even though different one from each other, and from their American and European models - will affirm themselves during the ‘70s, proposing new narrative schemes and new models of relation with the power system.

But Night of the Living Dead is entirely out of this transitional process, independent in the deep sense of the word - and this kind of self-exclusion is well symbolized by the figure of the zombie. Indeed, the true model – and objects of desire - of the New Hollywood’s directors was the French nouvelle vague, in the most observant Truffautian version: in a certain way, one can describe the American cinema from the late ‘60s to the beginning of the ‘80s like a continuous attempt to conciliate artistic ambition with commercial success. The “new sentimentality” has a lot to do with fashion and up-to-date, radical-chic and rethoric; Night of the Living Dead’s approach has more to do with pop in its non-temporary meaning, with exploitation and drive-ins.

Night of the Living Dead goes beyond this conception, choosing a ‘peripheral’ point of view and position. Pittsburgh is the symbol of a different conception of cinema; the vision itself becomes lateral, even collateral. The perspective of the work is distorted in a formal sense (the disturbed and disturbing movements and shot-angles of the camera), and even in a semiotic sense (the perpetual frustration of the spectator’s habits and expectations). This displacement is also literal, because Night of the Living Dead portrays the familiar world like an entirely alien and Unheimlicheit one. America is a graveyard, and here begins the common, truly postmodernist refrain of the equation between zombies and contemporary humans. According to Robin Wood in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan:

Brother and sister visit a remote country graveyard (over which flies the Stars and Stripes: the metaphor of America-as-graveyard is central to Romero’s work, the term “living dead” describing the society of Martin as aptly as it does the zombies).

So, the zombie becomes the complete sign of a refusal opposed to a lifestyle and to a social system, and in the same time of an alternative solution in making cinema. Watching the sequences and images from the New Hollywood prototypes (Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate), one can’t negate their extremely glossy and fascinating aspect, even four decades after their appearance. Violence goes with seduction, and moral fall is connected with euphoria. Instead, violence and aggression in Night of the Living Dead are not seductive at all, and there is no recognizable glamour in the means of presentation. The zombie is something that can’t be reduced to the appearances of a change: it is the change.

It is the change because of its irreflectiveness and of its reluctance to be recognized as ‘new’ but acceptable, new but familiar. Its otherness is irredeemable, and not only because of the fact that the monster is always the return of the repressed. If we look at the movie’s narrative structure, some aspects of this discourse become clearer. Night of the Living Dead begins as a ‘classical’, Cormanian gothic work, with the cemetery and the obscure dialogue between brother and sister. But soon, and without a clue, the entire movement changes completely, and it is extremely accelerated by the events.

The style goes from the formalist description of a single figure to the analysis of the group’s dynamics. The choral dimension has been analysed in many ways, from the negation of a protagonist’s individuality approach to the assimilation of the two sides (humans and zombies). Each group reflects the other: there is no substantial difference between the two societies (this aspect will become more evident and sophisticated ten years after in Dawn of the Dead). The human group is self-destructive and paralyzed, while the zombie group is driven only by hunger and destruction-will: in a certain way, their non-wishes are meeting.

This is the ‘generational’ value of Night of the Living Dead. The movie portrays an entirely new system of values and affects, something that can’t be truly comprehended by the traditional humans: this is one of the possible significances of the zombie. The Other, the alien is also human (even if only in the aspect), and this is what makes it so terrifying. Night of the Living Dead is the first representation of an exciting and gruesome “hate generation” substituting – and burying – the ‘60s love generation: it will be followed by others, more elaborate and rigid, like The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977).

Indeed, Night of the Living Dead is extremely significant at many levels – sociological, fictional, and allegorical. Each kind of reception converges toward a very precise definition of reality and realism. Realism is the final purpose of Romero, and he wants to achieve it through a re-definition of an entire genre. He really wants to go beyond the same concept of genre, at the very beginning of its creation. Horror is only a vehicle, a mean useful to describe a world. It is not so strange that a fantastic genre (like, otherwise, science fiction) is adopted to describe reality and society, especially in the emerging postmodernist climate. Fredric Jameson, in The Seeds of Time (1994), said that the two popular genres are the privileged ways to communicate and describe the contemporary reality.

Then, 1968 is, in this way, a key year also because it separates so sharply the late modernism and the prodromes of postmodernism. It concludes ideally a kind of ‘golden age’ – the ‘60s, pop and the last frontier, and opens on the other hand a harsh time of economic crisis and austerity and creative explosion. Postmodernism will begin explicitly only at the end of the next decade (in consonance, not casually, with Dawn of the Dead), but one can see some of its central elements and arguments emerging in this period, in every cultural field.

The most important of these ideas is the new attention to the Real, parallel – and opposite - to the increasing abstraction and conceptualization throughout the late ‘60s and the ‘70s, in every field of cultural production (i.e., Conceptual Art, Minimal Art, Minimal Music): the zombie is the crude figure of this naked approach, that is both stimulating and demanding for the spectator. If postmodernism is “the cultural logic of late capitalism”, as Jameson declares, zombies are its horrific face. A zombie is a creature without memory, that obeys only to the basic needs and has no feelings, no fear. A zombie is a human being without the capacity of conceptualization and production, but with a compulsion to do the same action. All these aspects, not merely formal or popular, are mainly invented by Romero, modelling and subverting his main sources (including Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend).

The zombie is the change, but a historical one: it captures the cultural shift between two different ages, so distant between them that a possible translation or communication system simply doesn’t exist. Two generations, two societies, two economies: late capitalism appears and shows the emerging informational face, that will be so relevant in the following years. The human characters are isolated from the rest of the world, while interventions of the media are unuseful and frustrating: but the world is condensed in this perimeter, in a restricted space. From the outside comes the third group (the posse), probably the true monster. The whole relationship between this movie and the real world resides in these complex dynamics.

If we think again of Bonnie and Clyde, realism was only connected with the superficial presentation of violence - revolutionary for the period, but only on a formal level. Nostalgia in the jamesonian sense is the main theme, and it will characterize a great part of the New Hollywood and European cinema (from American Graffiti by George Lucas to Amarcord by Federico Fellini, from The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola to Chinatown by Roman Polansky) and of the Postmodernist Zeitgeist.

Here, instead, violence is functional to violence, and violence is a secondary element in the mise en scène (after so many years, we can obviously say that). The historical, social and personal amnesia, the central element of the postmodernist age in the Jameson’s definition, and a crucial pendant to the nostalgia, is the main aspect of the zombie in Night of the Living Dead. Zombie is a cancellation of the traditional past, and an elimination of the future’s concept. It is like saying that the shock-factor is only an instrument, a tool to inject the poison of realism in a more powerful way.

Indeed, zombie is the face of transformation, and as an ambassador reoccurs in each phase of crisis and change. As a topos it goes from period to period, from decade to decade, underlining (and undermining) the meaningful shifts in contemporary history and culture. As said before, Dawn of the Dead (1979), a sequel more than a simple remake, is a critical reflection on the themes of mass consumption and of the consumption of the masses, a pendant of Night of the Living Dead in the age of appropriation art and punk. Day of the Dead (1986) is an apocalyptic comment on the reaganian culture and on the end of a civilization.

More recent examples of this adaptation as the remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004) or the other chapters of the Romerian mythology (Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead) signal the re-emergence of a theme during hard times: conflict, war and anguish return, and the zombies with them. Also in literature, the comics-saga The Walking Dead (2003-) by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, and World War Z (2006) by Max Brooks depict the different attempts to situate the living dead at the intersection of the contemporary fears, between solitude and total globalization, digital culture and return to a primitive life. The evolution of this theme follows the changes in human society and organization, replicates the economic transformations and reduces the cultural shifts to comprehensible and tangible figures. The zombie can be a running and decorative monster, a learning creature or a globalized projection.

Night of the Living Dead will always remain the historical starting point of this continuing discourse on living in contemporary world, possibly without being dead at the same time.

Christian Caliandro received a Ph.D. in Contemporary Art from The University of Siena, Italy. Currently, Christian is part of the DiCE (Distretto Culturale Evoluto) Project Research Group at IUAV University - Department of Visual Arts and Design, Venice, Italy. Christian is an expert of Contemporary Art & New Media, of Art Theory and of Urban Planning; from 2004, he coordinates the inteoria survey on “Exibart.onpaper”, the major contemporary art magazine in Italy.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/zombie-as-change/