Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, by Annalee Newitz, Durham: Duke University Press, 183 pages, $21.95
Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, by Jamie Russell, Surrey: FAB Press, 309 pages, $29.95
The Dominion of the Dead, by Robert Pogue Harrison, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 159 pages, $14
The zombiephiles—that odd cohort of nerds, video game addicts, and mullet-headed grindhouse nostalgists who have made the flesh-eating zombie a central figure of modern culture—know all about chewed kidneys, shambling ghouls, moldering flesh, barricaded doors, deserted streets, and the all-important bullet to the brain. But most of all, fans of the rich, vibrant zombie narrative of the late 20th and early 21st centuries know about politics.
Ever since George Romero’s genre-creating Night of the Living Dead in 1968, and especially since Romero’s overtly political 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead, highbrow revolutionary theorizing has stalked this graveyard of lowbrow pleasures. In his 1979 study The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, the esteemed cineaste Robin Wood declared that the zombie’s cannibalism “represents the ultimate in possessiveness, hence the logical end of human relations under capitalism.” J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1983 study Midnight Movies called Night of the Living Dead “a remarkable vision of the late sixties, offering the most literal possible depiction of America devouring itself.” In a later reappraisal, a Village Voice critic explained that “the zombie carnage seemed a grotesque echo of the conflict then raging in Vietnam.”
The film historian Sumiko Higashi went completely around the bend in a 1990 essay, declaring, “There are no Vietnamese in Night of the Living Dead.…They constitute an absent presence whose significance can be understood if narrative is construed.” As subsequent genre pictures, trailing titles like Zombi 2 and Zombie Flesh Eaters 3, ate their way through America’s VCRs, Wood elaborated his original claims, averring in his 1986 book Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan that the living dead “represent, on a metaphorical level, the whole dead weight of patriarchal consumer capitalism, from whose habits of behavior and desire not even Hare Krishnas and nuns…are exempt.” Take a bite out of that.
Two recent books belong to different strains of this wonderful critical tradition. Annalee Newitz’s Pretend We’re Dead, an unapologetically Marxist survey of horror films as studies in labor theory and racial politics, celebrates not only the poor zombie but also the mad scientist (cruelly alienated from the means of intellectual production) and the identity-stealing alien invader (a commodifier of family-cultural norms). Jamie Russell’s Book of the Dead is more of a fan encyclopedia, but it too makes impressive claims about how Dawn of the Dead “offers us a glimpse of a universe in which all spiritual values have been replaced by our awareness of the material realities of the corporeal and consumerism.”
Such readings can be silly and overdetermined, but they’re mostly right. From Night of the Living Dead to Homecoming (in which dead Iraq war veterans return from the grave to vote against the war), the zombie movie has been among the most consistently political forms in American popular culture. The politics tend to lean left, but zombie entertainment approaches a level of discontent more elemental than mere anti-capitalism or shopping mall burlesque. Apocalyptic and piously disdainful of the carnal realities of human life, zombie cinema is a shocking, uproarious meditation on the nature of death—on what, if anything, we owe to the dead.
Russell’s book helpfully explains that the word zombie didn’t appear in the English language until 1889 (in a Harper’s article on voodoo by Lafcadio Hearn) and did not attain currency until the 1920s, propelled by the Haitian-adventure writings of William Seabrook. Hearn and Seabrook made strong efforts to jazz up the vague tales they’d heard in the Caribbean about resurrected dead people working as plantation slaves. Thus, from the start, the reanimated stiff was a modern phenomenon, a figure of Western exoticism as much as an authentic island legend, with tales of blank-eyed field workers, “white zombies,” and witch-doctor mesmerism.
George Romero, a Pittsburgh-based director of TV commercials and occasional segments for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, took the basic concept of the mindless automaton, stripped out the superstitious hoodoo, and injected it with the grotesque visuals and highly programmatic irony he learned from EC Comics. Night of the Living Dead had a budget of $114,000, jarringly violent content (though its intestinal tug-of-war and close-up cannibalism may seem tame to today’s viewers), and a punkish nihilism: It is equally unkind to media, military, and police authorities and to its own heroes—parents trying to protect an injured child, a goodhearted young couple, and a likable hero who survives the night only to be mistaken for a zombie and killed by sheriff’s deputies. The plot is elegantly simple. For reasons never fully explained, recently deceased bodies return to life in order to devour the living, and several strangers barricade themselves in a deserted farmhouse in a doomed attempt to survive the onslaught.
Night of the Living Dead earned a vast sum (estimated at about 250 times its budget) on the midnight movie and TV syndication circuits, and was honored at the Museum of Modern Art and preserved by the Library of Congress. It repays all the critical attention with a maddening thumbs down on humanity. Characters are done in by their zombified siblings and children. The film’s roots in resurrection and cannibalism parody the founding ideas of Catholicism, yet it avoids any hint of spiritual or supernatural meaning. The zombie plague follows a public-health epidemic model, but the movie doesn’t really offer a scientific explanation for the tragedy. (Hints about radiation from a NASA probe are quickly and shrewdly abandoned.) You get the impression that the dead are rising against us because, in some general way, we deserve it.
Romero’s zombie follow-ups featured increasingly direct political content. The epic-scaled 1978 Dawn of the Dead moved the action to a shopping mall for a grisly satire of consumer culture; the most brain-dead viewer couldn’t miss the meaning of those zombies shambling dimly to the elevator music and eating intestines outside the Thom McAn shoe store. The unloved 1985 Day of the Dead dispensed with the satire, making shrieking villains out of military types who were still holding out against the undead. The inevitable fourth film in the trilogy, Land of the Dead (2005), was practically a 527 ad, with full-bore jibes at American foreign policy and the real estate boom, Dennis Hopper playing a profiteer modeled on then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and Romero openly siding with the zombies.
Romero’s minimal template turned out to be enormously fertile all over this planet. The supremely dedicated Russell lists more than 300 international zombie titles. The genre encompasses such oddities as Stacy, an allusive Japanese schoolgirl zombie dramedy; the Hong Kong “hopping zombie” series of Sir Run Run Shaw; and Lucio Fulci’s magnificent Zombi 2, which combines a flesh-eating zombie, a man-eating shark, and a bare-breasted woman diver in a bravura underwater battle.
Nearly all these films follow, with one or two modifications, the same basic ground rules. The recently deceased return as slow, weak, dumb, disorganized automata whose only desire is to eat the living. Despite their many deficiencies, they have numbers on their side. A bite from a zombie is always fatal, and death means you too will come back as one of them. The setting is nearly always apocalyptic, with the heroes learning through radio or TV broadcasts that the dead are rising not just in their neck of the woods but all over the country. The only way to put a zombie down is to destroy its brain. A geographical constant puts settlers in an isolated outpost (farmhouse, pub, voodoo church, downtown Pittsburgh), where they bicker, weaken, and are finally overwhelmed—making the genre a sort of anti-western that reverses the process of bringing civilization to a savage land.
In Pretend We’re Dead, Newitz, a tech columnist and philosopher, considers the flesh-eating undead as symbols of racial oppression—a credible reading, given the genre’s Afro-Caribbean roots. Even in considering a film as critically paved over as Night of the Living Dead, Newitz manages a fresh insight: that the late Duane Jones’ doomed hero is not only an African American but clearly marked as a bourgeois achiever of the civil rights era, sporting loafers, a dress shirt, and an admirable work ethic. (He spends much of the film boarding up windows and doors.) Thus his murder at the hands of a mob connects the film with what is, in Newitz’s imaginative reading, the first undead picture—Birth of a Nation, where white men become white-sheeted “ghosts” in order to prey upon upwardly mobile blacks.