Decade of the Dead

The first ten years of the new century may well become known as the decade of the corpse. Horror’s classic three revenants—the vampire, the mummy, and the zombie—have all made comebacks since 2000, against the backdrop of the search for remains at Ground Zero, military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and television’s CSI and Autopsy franchises. Because revenants cross the mysterious border between living and dead, revenant fare tends to suggest the breakdown of other natural and cultural borders as well: familial, ethnic, governmental, national.

No cinematic genre has proven as durable at embodying such transgression as the zombie film, as defined by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). In his BFI Film Classics monograph on the film, Ben Hervey summarizes the long-standing critical consensus that a mostly progressive politics informs Night of the Living Dead, which indicts “racism, the breakdown of the American family, and the resurgence of political conservatism,” as well as the Vietnam war. Dawn of the Dead (2004)—a remake of Romero’s own 1978 film of the same name, Planet Terror (2007), and Romero’s own Land of the Dead (2005) and Diary of the Dead (2008) harken back to Night of the Living Dead, as they update themes established in the original to address cultural concerns of the 2000s.

Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (1978) comments on both the original Dawn of the Dead and its precursor. Night of the Living Dead and the first Dawn of the Dead neatly bracket the 70s, with the latter—according to the now familiar reading of the film’s shopping-mall setting—indicting ’70s America, when the promise of ’60s idealism and reform yielded to the consumer-oriented conformity and self-indulgence of the “me decade.” But Romero’s Dawn of the Dead also partakes of the racial and ethnic inclusiveness of the era of Italian-American leading men and court-ordered desegregation. “You know Mucumba? Voodoo. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, ‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth,’” SWAT marksman Peter (Ken Foree) observes, replacing Night of the Living Dead’s obligatory infected-satellite explanation for the ghoul plague with a Black Power–tinged, Afrocentric one.

In this film made in the days before the backlash to Roe v. Wade, Peter even offers to abort the pregnancy of fellow survivor Francine (Gaylen Ross). Dawn of the Dead closes with as upbeat an ending as anyone could hope for in a film chronicling the demise of humanity, as the rapidly dwindling cast is reduced to a Norman Lear recombined rainbow family: pregnant, white Francine, whose husband, the baby’s white father, joins the ranks of the undead in the final reel, and Peter. The two escape the mall in a helicopter as day breaks. It’s morning in America …

In the 2004 Dawn of the Dead, a shift from Afro-Caribbean religion to American Christian fundamentalism, a whiff of anti-immigrant sentiment, and a forced birth render the film an echo chamber for the culture wars. Foree appears in a cameo as a televangelist whose religious explanation of the zombie epidemic mimics the rhetoric of the far right in recent election cycles: “Hell is overflowing and Satan is sending his dead to us. Why? Because you have sex out of wedlock, you kill unborn children, you have man-on-man relations, same-sex marriage. How do you think your God will judge you? Well, friends, now we know. When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” The reference to abortion resonates later in the film when Andre (Mekhi Phifer), in order to keep the other mall-dwelling survivors from learning that his pregnant Russian wife Luda (Inna Korobkina) has been bitten by a zombie, hides her in a nursery that’s part Kids R Us, part S&M dungeon, decked out with mobiles, music boxes, and arm and leg shackles.

Andre—in a reductio ad absurdum instance of the promise-keeping Christian right’s privileging of the fetus over the mother no matter what—restrains Luda, who after dying and returning as a zombie, gives birth to a zombie infant. “You want to kill Luda? You want to kill my family?” Andre asks Norma, another survivor who has wandered into the couple’s retreat. The undead newborn parodies the trowel-wielding girl in Night of the Living Dead who hacks her mother to death in one of the earlier film’s most notorious sequences, and a pivotal one for any death-of-the-family or Freudian reading of the film.

After Norma kills Luda, and she and Andre kill one another, Ana (Sarah Polley) shoots this most special of special-needs babies in the head. Before a cut to a hallway as the fatal shot occurs, a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western close-up of the baby’s inhuman eyes recalls Chucky, the possessed action figure from the Child’s Play films. The scene is difficult to parse. Andre’s defense of his family on the one hand, and Norma and Ana’s attack on the other are both justifiable. Dawn of the Dead’s zombie birth plays as the dreamwork of the abortion debate, presenting political impasse as a nightmare leavened by parody and excess.

Romero, as if in response to the reactionary politics of the Dawn of the Dead remake, has countered with Land of the Dead (2005), which puts class once again at the center of the zombie film. Land traces the rise of the zombie (or “Stench”) from unthinking corpse to sentient revenant. Under the leadership of Big Daddy, an enterprising zombie who discovers how to use weapons, a group of Stenches makes a coordinated attack on the barricaded city of Pittsburgh, where humans have sought refuge.

In the other main plot arc of the film, one of the living achieves class consciousness. Cholo (John Leguizamo) works for wealthy and ruthless Kaufman (Dennis Hopper), maintaining him and select others in a luxury high-rise, while the other survivors of the zombie plague live hand-to-mouth on the streets below. When it becomes clear that he can never become one of the elite, Cholo turns against Kaufman and escapes from the city, only to be bitten by a Stench. Confronted by a comrade, Cholo declines the offer of a merciful bullet in the brain to prevent his inevitable zombification, observing that he “always wanted to see how the other half lives.”

That reference to the book by reformer and pioneer photographer Jacob Riis documenting slum life in 1890s New York City resonates throughout this film that manages to humanize zombies and render them sympathetic without sacrificing any of the requisite disfigurement, shambling, and viscera-gorging. The plight of Stench and street-dwelling humans alike resonates in a decade when the gap between rich and poor grows larger by the year, and the middle class feels increasingly embattled. We’re pulling for Cholo when, as a newly minted Stench, he returns to exact revenge from Kaufman.

The image of zombies as an exploited and abused underclass gains power by analogy with other images of figures unjustly denied status as human and put on display for the amusement of others. As Rolling Stone film reviewer Peter Travers and many others have observed, you cannot view Land without thinking of the photos of US soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, publicized the year before the film premiered. A “Take Your Picture with a Zombie” street attraction that allows survivors to pose with shackled undead makes the connection particularly clear. The peculiarly American practice of lynching referenced at the end of Night of the Living Dead with the death of Ben at the hands of vigilantes and the practice of hanging zombies from trees here gives way to international abuses carried out in the name of the war against terror.

Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007) packs one feature with the parody of Shaun, the provocative horror of the zombie birth scene of the 2004 Dawn, and the political topicality of Land to create the decade’s most suggestive (and the most disgusting) zombie film to date. Planet and Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof were produced and packaged as updates on 70s “grindhouse” genre films, complete with vintage theater introductions, fake trailers and distressed or missing frames, and screened as a double feature. The treatment lends Planet the low-budget vitality critics praised in Night of the Living Dead, and promises some of the same subversive content that became synonymous with the earlier film’s production values. The preview of a coming attraction sends up the Mexploitation film of the 60s and 70s; Machete follows the exploits of a “Mexican day laborer” seeking revenge against the federal agents who double-crossed him. Offering scenes of a Mexican gleefully killing Americans and getting away with it, in a genre never screened in the first-run theaters where the Grindhouse films played, the trailer lets us know we’re in a space where the past, present, and future can be rewritten.

In Planet Terror, which follows the spread of a zombie plague caused by renegade agents of the US government, Rodriguez allies his band of survivors-cum-zombie-hunters with the Latino American underclass. They include wrecker operator Wray (Freddy Rodríguez), eventually revealed to be El Wray, the warrior; badass, bilingual teenaged twin girls (Electra and Elise Avellán); and anglo Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), Wray¹s ex, who also answers to Wray¹s old nickname for her, Palomita, and whose go-go dancer status puts her at the bottom of the class hierarchy.

One of many characters in the film who undergo a transformation other than zombification, Cherry pushes at the Anglo-Latino cultural divide policed throughout the first half of the film. After zombies bite off her right leg above the knee and she’s outfitted with a machine gun prosthetic made famous in the film’s promotions, she completes her identification with the multicultural band of zombie hunters, and becomes a proficient zombie slayer herself.

Planet’s proposed solution to the inevitable destruction of the US by the zombie plague is a new order based on a mestizo hybrid of Euro-American and Amerindian ways. Leaving countless vanquished zombies and rogue US soldiers in their wake, Cherry/Pomalita and the band head to Mexico, where, with their “backs against the ocean” as El Wray wanted, they inhabit the ruins of an Indian city. Here Cherry/Palomita achieves her apotheosis; we see her in the last shot of the film in traditional garb, riding a horse, with her anglo-Latino daughter (with Wray) on her back, and a gatling gun prosthetic on her leg, part cyborg, part mestiza.

No such uplifting ending graces George Romero’s latest zombie film, Diary of the Dead, a meditation on all the themes he’s explored before—racism, the breakdown of the family, the essential violence of humanity—but also on the motivation behind filmmaking itself. Diary of the Dead is a film within a film, a documentary called “The Death of Death”, begun by college senior Jason (Josh Close) and comprising footage shot by Jason and classmate Tony (Shawn Roberts) on two video cameras, along with found footage from the Internet and from surveillance cameras at various stops the survivors make as they seek shelter.

An early scene introduces us to Jason’s original project: a mummy film he’s making for a class. Jason, as director/cameraman, stops filming a scene in which the mummy, played by Ridley (Philip Riccio) chases actress Tracy (Amy Lalonde). Jason chastises Ridley for moving too fast: “You’re supposed to catch her later. This is the beginning of the fucking movie. If you catch her now, it’s all over.” This scene foreshadows one later in which Ridley, now a zombie, chases Tracy for real.

A number of reviewers found the foreshadowing heavy-handed, and the conversation on horror film conventions that follows derivative of Scream and other recent self-reflexive horror pastiches. But the shot and editing choices in Diary of the Dead reflect the thoughts of the novice students, not Romero, a distinction made clear later when Debra or Jason follows a news report that mentions Armageddon with stock footage of an atom bomb exploding. These kids are not Eisensteins in training.

Neither is Romero merely profiting from the handheld vérité of found-footage features like The Blair Witch Project (1999), but rather exploring the effects of the digital revolution in filmmaking. Initially, Jason intends to upload footage to the Internet in order to counter disinformation from the media and government, and perhaps to help other survivors. As the film progresses, however, he becomes obsessed with filming as an end in itself, an exploitive practice for which the putative desire to aid others is merely an excuse.

By the time the inevitable scene arrives—Riley, now a zombie, still in his mummy costume, chases Tracy through the woods—Jason does nothing to help, but continues to film. “All that’s left is to record,” he later tells Debra. Desensitized to violence, even when it threatens those close to him, Jason seems to have already lost his humanity by the time he’s bitten by Riley and lies dying.

In his last moments Jason reveals, seemingly without remorse, that for him the camera has become a weapon. He tells Debra to “shoot me,” as Tony films. She obliges him in both senses: filming him with his own camera in one hand, shooting him in the head with the pistol she holds in the other. The film’s ending makes the equivalence between shooting film and shooting bullets even clearer: the last footage Jason has downloaded closes Diary of the Dead: a black and white sequence recalling the search and destroy scenes of vigilantes hunting zombies for sport in Night of the Living Dead, with the exception that the vigilantes in Diary of the Dead have brought along someone with a camera to document the fun.

These “hometown joes”, as Debra calls them in voiceover, have tied zombies to trees, including one young women suspended from a branch by her pony tail. After the joes are finished with her, all that remains is her head from the nose up. “Are we worth saving? You tell me,” Debra asks as the camera zooms in on the woman’s remains, her eyes open and seeing.

Here, as in all of Romero’s zombie films, humans are finally the plague, not the undead creatures themselves. But where Night of the Living Dead offered its indictment of American culture and the human condition as an alternative to traditional Hollywood filmmaking, the promise of a rebel cinema that would counter the mainstream, Diary suggests that an exploitive, voyeuristic motive lies behind movie-making of any sort, that complicity in what’s being witnessed always taints the will to witness. After a decade in which citizens of the US and Europe have accepted increasing surveillance of their lives, and in which the dissemination of powerful images of human suffering—911, Abu Ghraib, Darfur, Iraq, New Orleans—have had little impact on changing the status quo, it’s hard to grudge Romero for his pessimism.

Michael Curtis Nelson lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he directs the instructional publications and graphics office and is editor of Teaching & Learning magazine for Indiana University. He is a frequent contributor to The Ryder Magazine, an alternative arts and entertainment monthly in Bloomington, and regularly torments his friends and loved ones with screenings of low-budget domestic and foreign horror films.