We the Living Dead

The convoluted politics of zombie cinema


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.

It's vain to argue that zombie politics don't lean left, but the positioning is not simple. Bob Clark's 1970 film Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things, for example, is something of a reactionary fantasy, with the undead attacking the most irritating band of flower children in movie history—possibly the exact moment America turned decisively against hippies. Romero himself is more of a free-ranging anti-authoritarian than a formal leftist, and his monsters, partly because they've been divorced from any kind of ethical or supernatural meaning, are open to various interpretations. The conservative blogger Tim Hulsey sees the undead as a Randian nightmare vision, a mobocracy in which "weak and incompetent corpses band together and achieve a dominance over the living minority that they could not otherwise attain." For Hulsey, "when the zombies attack, their arms are outstretched toward the victim, as if they were begging for something. Which, in a manner of speaking, they are.…The idea of being overwhelmed by stinking masses, of being forced into a way of life (or death) we would not choose for ourselves, lies at the maggot-infested heart of the original Dead trilogy."

Something else works against reducing the zombie flick to schematic politics: the film's physical weight, its fascination with eviscerations, rotting skin, simple fleshy mortality. Russell's Book of the Dead is the kind of horror movie book you don't see much anymore, in which high-minded text fleshes out a gallery of incredibly gory color stills from ghastly films. With dripping viscera and mutilated sex kittens on virtually every page, it's something I hadn't thought possible in this post-shame age—a book I was actually embarrassed to read in public. In other words, it's an apt, brilliant look at a medium whose saving grace is that it can never become respectable. Russell, a British film journalist, loves the "splatter" or "gut muncher" genre, the series of extremely bloody Italian films that followed the outlandish violence of Dawn of the Dead, and he entertains the not-improbable theory that there's an element of Catholic mortification of the flesh in here somewhere.

Discussing the Blind Dead series of the Spanish director Amando de Ossorio (in which cowl-wearing Knights Templar mummies feast on beautiful young women), Russell expands the obvious Death-and-the-Maiden theme. "The flesh," he writes, "is simply a reminder of our own mortality. The younger and prettier it is, the more poignant the realization of its eventual death, decay, and destruction. As the Templars shuffle blindly and (incredibly) slowly toward their victims, it's impossible not to see them as the literal embodiment of death's relentless and completely implacable approach."

In addition to political and eschatological appeals, there is another characteristic of the zombie genre: the strong desire of fans not merely to observe the zombie apocalypse but to participate in it. Shinji Mikami's phenomenally popular Resident Evil video game is only the most prominent of more than 70 zombie game titles. (Resident Evil has inspired several films for the Japanese and Hong Kong markets as well as two—so far —Hollywood pictures starring the queen of the B's, Milla Jovovich.) The humorous conceit of Max Brooks' 2003 Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead is that the undead are another real-life challenge like personal finance or auto repair, and the book is filled with helpful advice drawn from the many movie tropes that have grown up over the years. (Samples: "Blades don't need reloading" and "Get up the staircase, then destroy it.") If you watch a zombie picture with fans, be prepared for intense practical discussions about strategy and the science of the resurrected brain. At their best, the movies support this literalness: The long sequence in Dawn of the Dead wherein the heroes secure and sweep the zombie-infested Monroeville Mall in suburban Pittsburgh is as carefully detailed, as true to the logic of tactics and terrain, as anything ever presented in a heist or war picture.

Can these various critical theories and fan passions be reconciled? I think so. What makes zombie films special isn't that they feature outrageous gore or invite political readings. Plenty of horror films do that. But they are the only movies that give much thought to the nasty physicality of death. The detail that the zombie can only be dispatched if its brain is destroyed seems like a throwaway plot device, but it connects the genre to something universal and disturbing: the particular quality and nature of corpses. The brain isn't reasoning, merely lurching the body along in an extended post-death muscle spasm. Gone is the monster that can be dispatched by romantic means like exorcism or proper burial or a stake through the heart. Ironically, the zombie, a creature that negates the finality of death, is a dramatic reminder of the physical permanence of mortality.

The Dominion of the Dead, Robert Pogue Harrison's poetic study of death and burial rituals, is definitely not a zombie book, but it is relevant here. Harrison, a professor of Italian at Stanford, considers how funerary rituals create human institutions, how the dead and the living coexist. It's in burying the dead, for example, that we put a cultural stamp on a piece of ground. That makes losses at sea and other forms of no-remains deaths especially unnerving for survivors. Naming the dead—at the Vietnam War Memorial, for example—shapes how a living society thinks of itself; praying to particular saints or ancestors is a way not only of honoring the past but of creating your own identity. In all those examples, though, the dead remain mute, an undifferentiated unit whose meaning is concocted by the living. Studying the celebrated closing paragraphs of James Joyce's "The Dead," Harrison explains how snow falling evenly is a more apt simile for the end than, say, falling leaves, which retain their original shape. To die is to be subsumed into a mass.

To die is also to be involved in something substantially less pretty than a gentle snowfall. After reading Dominion of the Dead I found myself craving a late-night screening of Zombie Flesh Eaters 7 or 8, something with the decaying dead walking around in their graduation gowns, softball league uniforms, and cheerleader outfits—those markers of healthy and fruitful life now perverted by the humiliating stench of death.

No zombie discussion would be complete without orotund socio-political theory, so here's mine: By foregrounding the question of how much dignity there can be in death and dying, the era of physician-assisted suicide and Terri Schiavo has spurred the recent revival of the zombie film. The British director Danny Boyle revived his career with the zombie-type plague picture 28 Days Later (2002). Dawn of the Dead was remade in 2004 with a big budget and an A-minus-list cast. That same year, the genre-informed Shaun of the Dead proved it's possible to combine romantic comedy with zombie holocaust in a completely successful picture. And in 2005 Romero, whose forays outside his genre have yielded mixed results, returned to form with what the posters promised would be his "ultimate zombie masterpiece."

Land of the Dead, a Metropolis-style parable, takes the elements of class warfare to their insane conclusion. The zombies—"blue-collar monsters," Romero calls them in interviews—are dressed in hilariously explicit class markers: a butcher's smock, a gas station attendant's coveralls, etc. The villains are literally cigar-smoking capitalists, holed up in Fiddler's Green, a high-security skyscraper in Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle. The movie opened in mid-2005 to mixed reviews and mediocre business; it was savaged by fans who found the politics obvious even by genre standards. Yet within a few months, Hurricane Katrina had made the movie's vision seem prophetic, with a full complement of venal and indifferent authorities and something few of us would have imagined seeing in our lifetimes: bodies lying unburied for weeks in the streets of a major American city. By the time the activist Randall Robinson claimed (erroneously) that New Orleans residents were resorting to cannibalism, the message was clear: It's George Romero's world; we're just mindlessly shambling through it.

The spectacle of an advanced society laid low by a Third World catastrophe is the zombie film's stock in trade —the "return of the repressed" in a modern, death-denying culture. That's why the ultimate zombie picture may be one that features no gore or cannibalism at all. Robin Campillo's 2004 film Les Revenants (released as They Came Back in the United States) envisions a resurrection of thousands in a provincial French town, who then don't do much of anything. They can talk, but they have no affect, nor any personality beyond mild pleasantness. Their clothes are neatly pressed and their complexions are good, but they're sort of distracted, unable to relate to loved ones, unable or unwilling to talk about the afterlife, just somehow not there.

Brilliantly, Campillo refuses to milk this material for either comedy or horror but instead explores, in rapid succession, the metaphoric possibilities: The situation looks at times like France's immigration and refugee crisis (as helpful government officials, pontificating about the rights of all citizens, provide temporary housing for the resurrected in indoor tent cities), at times like a comment on the full-employment state (all the undead are given back their old jobs, which they're not really able to do anymore), at times like family drama (as characters find themselves guiltily impatient with the empty spouses and children miraculously returned to them), and finally like a parody of the nanny state (as the government sets up thermal monitors to keep track of the returned people—whose body temperatures are just slightly below normal).

That's an irresolvable setup, but it gets to the heart of what makes our zombie friends such paradoxical creatures: metaphorically potent because they're grounded in a mundane reality, spiritually provocative because they dispense completely with spirituality, symbols of class warfare that posit a classless society as the ultimate horror. The zombie embodies the greatest horror of death: the inescapable sameness of it. In the end, the grasping, hungry, rotten legions of the living dead are not so different from W.M. Thackeray's description of the garden-variety dead: "Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now."

Tim Cavanaugh is Web editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion page.