Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 4, No. 4, 2005
  Current Issue  
  Back Issues  
Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
Phil Nixon
Robert Rotondo
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Emanuel Pordes
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Robert Fisk
Michael Moore
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Mark Kingwell
Arundhati Roy
Naomi Klein
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
David Solway
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein



Stuart Lenig is Associate Professor of Speech and Drama at Columbia State Community College.


I am not a ZombieAs a colleague of mine quipped, "if you see one zombie movie this year. . . " Such is the prophetic power of George A. Romero's affirming Land of the Dead. That's right, I used the word, 'affirming,' not words usually associated with the zombie genre, although recent undead epics, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and Shaun of the Dead, make one reconsider the latent power of the zombie film to impart a variety of messages. Further, America in 2005 with high and recalcitrant unemployment, (don't be fooled by the 5% figure, full time work at Wal-Mart is hardly full employment!) a poor balance of trade, and the fourth continuous year of constant warfare doesn't exactly seem like a society finding much affirmation. One would think that politics and zombies would be strange bedfellows, but in fact they are quite comfortable with each other, and have been since the genre was conceived.

Val Newton's I Walked with a Zombie (1943) provided the first critical version of zombies as unregistered others, the eyeless, soulless, unthinking stalking undead creatures that did the bidding of masters, and were incarnated through weird voodoo rituals. More often than not these beings were a reflection of our own needs and cryptic Freudian desires rather than terrors of the dark realm. Director Jacques Tourneur's Zombie showed a marriage of the living dead when a governess must care for a man's wife who has been zombiefied not only by voodoo but through a loveless and sterile union. Vampires and mummies are other refinements and permutations of the walking dead theme.

Zombies have always held a special allure for those fears of a potentially unpleasant afterlife experience filled with hellish torments and obsessive compulsions. We are doomed to live out (or un-live) our compulsions again and again in the next life. At the same time, zombies have always seemed a freeing mechanism, a way to talk about society in an unchecked and primitive state unrestrained by civilization, sort of Survivor on steroids. Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents that "it was discovered that a person becomes neurotic because he cannot tolerate the amount of frustration which society imposes on him in the service of its cultural ideals, and it was inferred from this that the abolition or reduction of those demands would result in a return to possibilities of happiness." Certainly the dream images of mummies grabbing the girl, or vampires biting victims on the neck or finally zombies consuming flesh and brains is a form of wish fulfillment and empowerment. We want to possess the other so we devour the brains of another, just as some native tribes in pre-Columbian eras would practice cannibalism to invoke the characteristics of their enemies. But zombie movies have suffered from the notion of 'the gross out' rather than the image of the socially critical, when the lens of zombies has always been squarely on the living not the dead. But Land of the Dead brings a level of refinement and sophistication to the genre that could change all of that.

Romero's output since 1968's groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead has been consistently droll, mannered, and understated. Where Spielberg, Scorsese, and Lucas have occasionally staged sensitive dramas, they tend to lapse into gargantuan palettes where ideas are swallowed in grandiose set pieces. Romero uses the lens of zombiedom to depict our cultural malaise almost like a microscope. In fact, one might argue that his films are more miniaturist examinations of taboos, mores and rituals of a social society, say more in the vein of Jane Austen than Dickens’ monolithic explorations of groups: zombie films, at their essence, are more about the mating and kinship of human animals than about warfare. For Romero, the stakes are about reproductive rites and not imperialistic warfare, and no where is that more apparent than in the clever and introverted Land of the Dead.

In Night of the Living Dead, Romero turned a lens on racism and the growing schism between good democratic principles and ideas laid upon racial and class guidelines. The triumph of Night of the Living Dead was not its chilling undead, but its chilling incivility between classes, colors and genders. That Romero has consistently placed people of color (usually unknowns) in central and pivotal positions has been not only a tradition but a strength of the films and their message. Nearly 40 years after the first Romero zombie epic, audiences still respond to these protagonists as marginalized citizens, which speaks volumes about the social politics of American culture. Sadly, not that much has changed. In Night of the Living Dead, Duane Jones' resourceful Black protagonist proves to be a willing and successful foil to Judith O'Dea's dazed and overwhelmed white woman. The fact that a Black man had to be the sole protector for a compromised white woman was all but lost on the politics of the sixties, but has been recognized regularly since. The act is repeated when Ken Foree appears to be the only level headed soul in a rag tag team of survivors living in a shopping mall in Romero's apocalyptic and invigorating epic, Dawn of the Dead. Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames seem similarly talented in Zack Taylor's lively but lesser remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004.

By the time Lori Cardille inherited the mantle of mankind's conscience in Romero's darkest film, Day of the Dead, the survivors are militarized, living in underground bunkers and have forsaken the earth to the overwhelming power of zombie hordes. The remaining corrupted humans are militant, unreasonable, fascistic and in most cases thoroughly despicable. The film's observant commentary on the Thatcher/Reagan world was lost on audiences oblivious to the West's war to maintain its colonial grasp on the globe. The most humane character is Bub, a captured zombie the troops are training to be more human, with the goal of turning the beasties into an imperialistic military tool; not to truly understand them or live with them. As the zombies successfully storm the compound, the audience isn’t unhappy about the bloodshed and carnage because humans have become less admirable than the zombies.

Throughout, Romero’s method has been to show humans as inferior to zombies. It may be that the zombies munch on human brains, but Romero teaches us never to turn our back on a fellow human -- that could really be fatal. In Land of the Dead, Romero adds new wrinkles which are refreshing and exhilarating for those of us who have followed his zombie epics for over thirty years. First, there is a great human cast that provides more texture, depth and variety to mankind than we have ever seen in a Romero film. Simon Baker (of The Guardian) is that rarest of all Romero characters, a genuine, compassionate hero, a leader uncorrupted, caring, and even compassionate toward zombies. Asia Argento, Italian horror master Dario Argento's daughter, provides a very capable, vulnerable and intelligent foil to Baker's human capabilities. In the aftermath of the horrors of zombie invasions, or perhaps in response to the real terrors of 9/11, Romero's characters face the terror not with less caring and more selfishness, but with more kindness and understanding.

Even the ostensible villains, John Leguizamo's freebooting mercenary and Dennis Hopper's sneaky capitalist-cum-power broker are amusing rogues. They can't be trusted, but are consistently our dark side: troubled, self-involved and obsessed with revenge and possessions.

In Land of the Dead, Robert Joy portrays a luckless, deformed, sharp-shooting, slow-witted, but charming sidekick, Charlie. Charlie licks his rifle before taking out humans or zombies because as he tells it, "it picks up the light better." As one might expect in a genre where subtlety is not a requirement of its metaphors, the haves exist in futuristic tower residences and shop leisurely in an opulent mall while the have-nots exist in dark and dank street slums with death and destruction lurking around every corner. The ironies for our capitalistic culture in collapse are strong.

In the hands of its best directors, the often unfairly denigrated zombie genre reminds us that humanity's first challenge is to remain human.

E-Tango: Web Design and lowest rates for web hosting
Care + Net Computer Services
Couleur JAZZ 91.9
MCC Marchande d'Art at:
Armand Vaillancourt: sculptor
Available Ad Space
Valid HTML 4.01!
Privacy Statement Contact Info
Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis