Feb 4, 2017

Infectious Embrace

What George Romero's original Zombie Trilogy means to me

Honoring George A. Romero's 77th Birtday, from the 4th of February on, we will publish some articles on the legendary writer/director.

I certainly didn’t get there first; but not last, either.
Until my mid-twenties, I firmly believed that zombie movies were too scary for me. I got a little confused when schoolmates started telling me that Dawn of the Dead (1978) was actually not a scary movie but a boring movie with lots of talking and little horror or action, but I still decided that the gory scenes would probably give me bad dreams. And what was the point anyway in watching boring movies that still gave you bad dreams?

Then, around 2002 or 2003, I found out that a friend of mine felt the same way, and we decided to get over our childhood, well, “trauma” by meeting every two or three weeks to watch a zombie classic together. And, of course, we started with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). That was before The Walking Dead. Maybe (I’m not quite sure) it was even before 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle's and Alex Garland’s 2002 movie that supposedly turned the zombie movie into a “serious” genre. While it certainly wasn’t avant-garde back then to watch Romero movies, I think I can say that we were at least slightly ahead of the curve.
As I found out, Romero’s zombie movies didn’t give me bad dreams, and they weren’t boring, either, even though there was much less action and a little less gore than I had expected. Back then, with regards to politics, I was living on a mixed diet of Thedor W. Adorno, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva and postcolonial theory, and I was stunned that Romero’s movies seemed to address all the same topics I was reading about, and in a quite subversive way. People had even written academic essays about the scathing critique of racism that is Night of the Living Dead, about Dawn of the Dead as a satire on consumerism and Day of the Dead (1985) as a condemnation of masculinism and militarism.

One thing came to another, and I ended up writing a master thesis on Romeros movies as a take on the history of racist lynching in the US, claiming that what makes them so great was that both zombies and humans were fundamentally ambivalent in their depiciton. To be honest, it’s all a blur to me now, and I would probably experience serious difficulties if I tried to understand the theoretical framework I was using back then these days, but one thing stuck with me:
 What’s great about the Romero zombie movies, at least the first three, is the ambivalence of the zombies and the humans. I’m not talking “There’s two sides to every story” ambivalence here, but deep, gut-wrenching “Angstlust”, where the zombie is an object of fear (of death) and of desire (for a childish state of pure satisfaction) at the same time, and where it is often excessive violence against the zombies that leads to everyone ending up as a zombie. If you haven’t seen Day of the Dead for a long time, try re-watching that one – it’s really most obvious there with Bub, the man-trained zombie, and with how the somehow not quite manly-enoughy soldier Miguel is brutally harassed by his comrades, with terribly befitting consequences ...
That ambivalence is what I took away from these movies, and to be honest, I found pretty much all the other zombie stuff I’ve tried out after that lacking. Romero’s own Land of the Dead (2005) turned the zombie motive into a metaphor for class-struggle that was just way too on-the-nose; Diary of the Dead (2007) was an interesting take on the ubiquity of recording devices, but did do little with the actual zombies (which was probably the smartest thing to do for Romero at that point); and the less said about Survival of the Dead (2009), the better.

Moving to other authors and directors, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) was nothing but a phoney attempt to copy the social relevance of Romero’s zombie movies without really getting it. His zombie movie (which he actually refused to call a zombie movie, because back then, you know, it wasn’t hip to do zombie movies) is little more than a stylish what-do-we-become-under-pressure story with highly distasteful sexist overtones and a subtext that practically demonizes all kinds of legitimate anger and resistance by conflating it with the image of a bloodthirsty mob. (Okay, I admit, I’m a Danny Boyle hater, but that actually only started with 28 Days Later and got real serious with that turd Sunshine. Stylish, great soundtrack, but what a shitty movie! However, I love Trainspotting just as much as the next gal or guy.)

Okay, where was I? Other zombie stuff. I tried The Walking Dead (the comic, not the TV series), but found it lacking - even offensive – in the same way after reading the first collection. Again, it all seemed to be about how in a world plagued by zombies, you have to be badass enough to survive and make all of this reeeaaal tough decisions, you know, like shooting infected people in the head ... well, that’s actually NOT what the Romero movies are advertising. They are very much about how everyone trying to be most badass is probably what would drag all of us down the fastest.

The World War Z movie (2013) actually fares a little better in that regard. It may not be a very good movie, but at least it was not about the idolization of badassery. I found that I could actually stand this movie. The same goes for Zombieland (2009), which was just a cute comedy with a great cast (It's a shame, by the way, that Zombieland never made it into a TV series, which was the original plan with the script).
A bunch of good fiction has been written about the zombie motive, both pre- and post-Romero; first and foremost, of course, is Richard Matheson's brillant avant la lettre zombie novel I am Legend (1954). (Just read it. None of the movies is a substitute.) And certainly, there's lots of interesting short fiction with zombies - John Langan's beautiful, poetic story "How the Day Runs Down" (published in John Joseph Adam's pretty good collection The Living Dead, Night Shade Books 2008) is one of them.

But I’m done with watching any of the new zombie stuff, or reading anything that looks too obviously Romero-inspired. I just feel that they keep missing the point. Luckily, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead are still there to give me a cold, loving and highly infectious zombie-hug whenever I need it.

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