Friday, March 8, 2013

Zombie Pogrom

Zombie Jesus, coming this Easter.
The zombie film genre began in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead. The template was thus: the recently dead are brought back to murderous life due to a virus/supernatural spell/radiation and begin to kill/feast upon the living. A minor variation has living people turned into killer zombies thanks to one of the three traditional causes. In either case zombies are mindless, implacable, unsightly killers who can't be reasoned with, only dispatched by sticking something pointy in their brains, although beheading and immolation also seem to be effective. If you're a non-zombie character in these films you have a simple mandate: kill or escape the zombies before they kill you.

Zombie films have been a B-movie staple ever since 1968, mostly because they're a cheap and cheerful way to make a horror film. You don't need much in the way of special effects, no CGI necessary,  just a lot of prosthetics, fake blood, and enthusiastic makeup artists. Somewhere along the way, however, the zombie film grew up. It may have been 28 Days Later (2002) that rebooted the genre. Previous to this, zombie films were definitely from the sweatshop end of the film industry. After 28 Days Later the public seemed to have an appetite for more and better zombie films. Since then we've had 28 Weeks Later, The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, I Am Legend, [REC], Shaun of the Dead, Resident Evil, Zombieland, The Walking Dead TV series, and dozens and dozens of lesser titles. All these films are made to a higher standard than the vast majority of their predecessors, and this summer brings us World War Z starring Brad Pitt, a big budget zombie film with a big star.

The question has to be asked, why the, ahem, resurrection of the zombie genre? I'll go out on a bloody limb and say that its popularity is due to the way the genre legitimizes and indulges the suppressed genocidal impulses of its audiences. It's no use pretending people don't have a taste for genocide, history (ancient, modern and current) is littered with the corpses produced by genocidal violence. One of the key aspects of zombie films, its action film backbone, is seeing the humans slaughtering the zombies. Zombies are never shown mercy, they're simply mowed down by any means necessary, and their deaths are inevitably bloody and bizarre. And zombies are never seen as anything more than ghastly killing machines in human form; they don't speak or think, they just roam around with the sole purpose of killing the living. They are irredeemably evil and pernicious, and there are always far, far more of Them than of Us. It's not hard to see how this dovetails with the thinking of the people throughout history who've thought it was a good idea to pick up a rock or a torch or a gun and attack those people on the other side of town who speak/act/worship differently, and who are getting too numerous for the health of society.

Zombie films also allow audiences to project their fears of the Other onto undead surrogates. The past ten years has seen a rise in Us vs. Them hatreds at all levels and in many places. Iran makes genocidal threats against Israel; U.S. politics has become starkly polarized and venomous; Shiites and Sunnis wage a sectarian war in Iraq; North Korea promises to exterminate the South; an Israeli newspaper poll reveals that Israeli Jews would support an apartheid system; various minorities, from the Roma to Muslims, are vilified in Europe; and the poor and unemployed are increasingly described as "scroungers" or "parasites." All of this rests in the shadows of the World Trade Center towers. That act of terrorism seemed to usher in the current climate of genocidal and eliminationist language. Certainly in America there were a lot of people, including politicians, who were vocal about their desire to bomb various parts of the Middle East back to the Stone Age. So the following year we had 28 Days Later, and the zombie craze shows no signs of slowing down.

I've embedded the trailer for World War Z below, and this short sampler clearly shows the genocidal heart of the zombie film genre. The zombies, thanks to CGI, are shown behaving like a mindless swarm of enraged insects. They have no reasoning power, they don't even have any sense of self-preservation, they just want to kill Brad Pitt and his lovely family. Is it scary? Yes, but it also apes the thinking behind a lot of propaganda down through the years that has been used to put families in gas chambers or justify drone attacks. Before you kill people en masse, you first have to make them out to be sub-human, even animals, and this film seems to have that down pat. The trailer also shows us the other side of the equation: the mass, efficient slaughter of the Other thanks to badass machine guns mowing down the zombies in their hundreds. One half of the film makes us loathe and fear a group of humans, the other half releases the fear and tension by giving us a genocide.

Are World War Z audiences going to rush out and beat up the first minority group member they come across? No. But I think what gives zombie films that certain something that keeps them being made is that they tap into our deeply suppressed fears and hatreds of those we see as outsiders. As an experiment, just imagine it's 1938 and Josef Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, has ordered that a zombie movie be made. I'm pretty sure he'd have the zombies wearing Stars of David. And I think he'd call that movie Zombie Pogrom.


John McFetridge said...

Yes, I think you're right, it's a lot of Us vs. Them and a lot of The Other isn't human.

Recently there was a zombie movie called "Warm Bodies" that was maybe the first to give the zombies human qualities. We'll likely see more of that.

Hollywood goes to great lengths to claim that it isn't interested in anything "deeply suppressed" and doesn't think about its movies that deeply (and it's likely many filmmakers don't) but someone knows what's going on.

I always find it interesting to see what movies and TV shows were pitched and then turned down and which were produced.

Cary Watson said...

I haven't seen Warm Bodies, but it does sound like it's taking a different tack. One definite outlier among zombie films is a French one called Les Revenants or They Came Back. The recently dead come back to life (somewhat) and want their old lives and jobs back. No biting, no killing, just a big problem for families and the French bureaucracy. Oddly, though, it's not a comedy. The film's only so-so, but it's worth seeing for the twist it brings to the genre.