Monday, November 24, 2014

Talking Heads: Dawn of the Dead and Bad News

We stuck with George Romero for the second film in our Zombie Fictions class. We called the first section of our class "Foundations" and wanted focus on the groundwork laid by Romero in the first two of his genre defining works. We spent a lot of time talking about what a zombie is according to these films, as well as exploring the ways horror can be conveyed in films. For Dawn, however, we wanted to bring attention to the fact that from the beginning the best zombie films were about much much more than just terror and gore: these films were meant to convey larger messages, often in the form of social critique. The assignment asked the class to tease out one of those underlying meanings.

"This week, we will be covering another classic Romero film, the second part of his initial trilogy, Dawn of the Dead. One of the things that sets Dawn apart from Night is how obviously it functions as social commentary (Night certainly does this as well, but in much subtler ways). Clearly, the most blatant critique Romero makes in the film is of the growing consumerism and materialism of the 1970s. For this blog, I want you to identify one other social issue (NOT consumerism) that the film provides commentary on, and explain how the film develops this critique. However you decide to analyze the film - individual scene, character development, setting, thematic elements, etc. - your blog should include direct "textual" support for your claims. This is a close reading exercise, so it is important that you provide evidence from the film to inform your argument. This movie is also widely available on Youtube, so it should not be difficult to post or link to the scenes that you are referencing." My model blog for this assignment begins after the pic.

            It becomes clear very early on in part 2 of George Romero’s classic zombie trilogy that Dawn of the Dead is not going to let up on the critique of the news industry that began in Night of the Living Dead. If anything, the opening scene of Dawn, and the television segments that periodically follow it, depict an even bleaker image of corporate news than the bumbling but well-intentioned incompetence of the newsmen in Night. Where Romero’s first film seems to question how much faith audiences should put into the moving mouths on their televisions and radios, Dawn of the Dead serves as a stinging indictment of the people responsible for bringing the news to air.
Like this jerk
            Despite their inability to provide much in the way of helpful information, “at this point, there is no really authentic way to say who or what to guard yourself against” (33:10) “we don’t know yet what complications could arise from such injuries” (1:01:10); a tendency toward contradiction, “do not venture outside for any reason” (33:55) becomes “look for the name of the rescue station nearest you, and make your way to that location as soon as possible” (57:29); and being the source of bad advice that gets everybody killed, “leave the relatively safe place you’ve found to travel 17 miles through an unfamiliar rural area overrun by flesh-eating undead monsters at night” (I’m paraphrasing…), there is very little reason to question the motivations of the men (exclusively) providing the news in Night of the Living Dead. Professional and coherent, but admittedly ill-informed, the newsmen of Night are trying their best to help, by providing “the facts as [they] know them” (32:30). The critique is less of the news, and more of people like Tom, Ben, and the Coopers, who place all of their faith in TVs and radios instead of thinking critically for themselves.
Dawn of the Dead does something decidedly different (alliteration combo +5!). By opening the film behind the scenes at a news station (WGON-TV), all of the attention is focused on the newsmakers themselves. It’s not a pretty picture. More troubling, though, than the chaos that seems to have overrun the station, or even the bickering that occurs between an apparently knowledgeable scientist guy and a talk show host more interested sound-bites than journalism, is how it is determined which information makes it on the air. Gone is the aspiration to present the “facts,” replaced by a determination to maintain viewers at all costs. Of course, not everybody is so ratings-driven.
Upon finding out that the rescue station list that had been scrolling across the screen was out of date and woefully inaccurate, Francine decides to pull it off of the air until a more up to the minute list can be compiled. This doesn’t go over well with her boss, Givens. His concern, however, is not that Francine has usurped his authority (she has) or that he believes the list is correct (he doesn’t), but rather that if the list is not on the screen, accurate or not, “People won’t watch us; they’ll tune out!” (3:47). Francine is apparently more interested in the well-being of her audience than what station they happen to be watching, though: “Are you willing to murder people by sending them out to stations that have closed down?” (3:49). The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be yes, as Givens responds unequivocally that he wants “that list on the screen every minute that we’re on the air” (3:52). Although the battle between Francine and Givens takes center stage, this is not an even contest: in addition to Givens’s callous unscrupulousness, the conscientious producer must also contend with the indifference of her colleagues, who are more interested in following orders than doing the right thing. Indeed, at least 3 other news workers are complicit in putting the erroneous rescue station list on the air, and keeping it there for at least 12 hours. 
But the TV said...
      With the 1980 launch of the Cable News Network, the concerns illustrated in Dawn of the Dead proved prescient as ratings-driven news became not just a worst-case scenario, but an accepted norm. For those of us that have been raised in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, there has never been any other way. However, in this film, Romero gestures to and bemoans the troubling shift that occurred between Night and Dawn, from news meant “to keep you informed of all developments” (32:26), and news solely designed to keep you watching. The message, more relevant now than ever: tune in at your own risk.

The Haitian Zombie Issue Pt. 3

Finishing up what I started on Part 1 and Part 2 of my thoughts on the relationship between Haitian zombies and Romero zombies (i.e. the multiplying, contagious, mindless, flesh-eating zombies we typically think of when we hear the word "zombie"): Ultimately, I would contend that what most distinguishes Haitian zombies from the figure that has appropriated their name, is that they (the Haitian zombies) are not monsters. They are victims. They are not terrifying; what has happened to them is terrifying. Their mode of existence has become monstrous, but they themselves are not monsters. Although you could certainly contend that Romero zombies become zombies by being the victimized (Night of the Living Dead clearly explains that any recently dead person will become a zombie, but the more common understanding that has arisen since then is that you become a zombie by being bitten by a zombie), with Haitian zombies their monstrousness (if it exists) is situated precisely within their victimhood. If they are monsters, a claim that I think is dubious at best, it is based not on what they currently are or do, but rather on what has been done to them and taken from them.  But if we begin to categorize any victim that frightens or unsettles us as a monster, that would really open the whole field up to an unsustainable degree, don't you think? Were do we draw the line? Are acid attack victims monsters? Or Ronald Poppo, the victim of the Miami cannibal? 
I would argue no. They make us uncomfortable, and we absolutely fear ever going through what has happened to them. Monsters, though? I don't see it. We fear becoming them, the same way we fear becoming Haitian zombies, but we do not fear them. Would they be monstrous if they start beheading people or drinking blood or starting fires with their minds? Now we can talk.
In almost all cases, the horror monster is the violator of the natural order and the perpetrator of heinous acts. The monster is never solely the victim of these acts or violations. The Haitian zombie, as much as it may unsettle us, does not engage in horrific acts or exhibit any degree of dangerous or violent behavior unless they have been explicitly commanded to by the Bokor who created them. Indeed, I would have no trouble acknowledging the Bokor as a monster. It is the Bokor that denies the dignity of death in creating the zombie. It is the Bokor that is the perpetrator the crime that is to be guarded against. It is the Bokor that is reviled and feared, not the powerless and obedient zombie. In the context of post-revolution Haiti, this is not at all surprising (those with power were infinitely more frightening than those without).

My argument here is not that Haitian zombies are not real zombies, or authentic zombies, because of course they are. In fact, they are the truest iteration of the zombie and the origin of the term (though not the more popular figure). Rather, my point is they are not what we have (erroneously, but whatever, it's too late to change it) come to refer to as zombies. It's not so much a matter of being more or less real as it is of being completely different constructs that just happen to be identified by the same word. A Haitian zombie is a real zombie, just not the zombie that has come to dominate our current cultural moment. What's more, they aren't even an earlier or originary version of the flesh-eating walking dead figure that has overwhelmed our popular consciousness. If the Haitian zombie is foundational to the Romero zombie (it's not), it's foundational in the way that ghosts, ghouls, revenants, and vampires are as well. I would actually contend that the Romero zombie owes less to the Haitian zombie than it does to a great many other undead figures (ghouls and vampires chief among them). 

A silly but hopefully instructive analogy: in espionage, a mole is a long-term, undercover operative. In nature, a mole is a small, subterranean mammal. The spy mole clearly takes its name from the creepy blind rat thing. But that's about as far as it goes. Like the mole, if the Haitian zombie is foundational to zombies as we know them, it is only obliquely so.

You're an “underground” spy. Moles live underground. You're a mole. 

You're a monster that comes back from the dead. Zombies “come back from the dead.” You're a zombie. 

There's really nothing more to the relationship than that (there is more to being foundational than tangential similarity; werewolves are generally mindless, they eat flesh, and their condition is transmissible via their bite - more profound similarities than those shared by Haitian zombies and Romero zombies - and yet the werewolf isn't a foundational figure for the zombie either). The Haitian zombie does not inform the conventions of the new zombie any more than little moles help us understand spies. Obviously, there is a species gap between moles and moles that helps defer any confusion between the two. We don't have that between zombies and zombies, both of which derive from human corpses (or "corpses" depending upon your personal understanding of Haitian Voduo practice), so the two become conflated. This is unfortunate, because both constructs are wildly interesting and deserving of our attention and each has much to say about the culture that created them. I feel, however, that attempting to correlate the two beyond their passing similarities and shared name only unnecessarily muddles our understanding of either. 

Agree, disagree, think I'm dumb? Comment below.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Haitian Zombie Issue part 2

Picking up from where we left off yesterday

Design by Javier Ramos Eguiluz
Now that we've gone through and poked holes in their apparent similarities, I want to discuss some of the substantial differences between Haitian zombies and those introduced in Night of the Living Dead. First and foremost, there is a startling discrepancy in appetite. As noted above, the walking dead in Romero's film feast on the flesh of their victims. Haitian zombies... not so much. In "... Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," the zombies' diet is described as a pot of millet or plantains seasoned with dried fish and garlic” (Seabrook 43). Not only was the food prepared for the zombie slaves "flavorless and unseasoned," it was decidedly vegetarian (well, pescatarian, I guess, with the dried fish seasoning): “for as everyone knows, the zombies must never be permitted to taste salt or meat” (Seabrook 43 emphasis mine). I read that and I turned into that lady from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. What do you mean they don't eat no MEAT?
However, not only do the zombies from Haiti not consume the human body, they don't rend or tear it either. Theoretically they could, if they were commanded to, but there don't seem to be many (or any) Haitian narratives where this is the case. The dismemberment and consumption of the body, ideas so central to the uncanny dread embodied by Romero's monsters, are simply not accounted for, or even gestured to, by their Haitian counterparts. 

Incredible art by Luca Cauchi
Haitian zombies also fail to proliferate in the way that modern zombies do. If Romero's zombies gain their terrifying power from their ever-increasing numbers, from their ability to overwhelm (they certainly don't get it from their agility or intelligence), it is important to acknowledge that the state of Voduo zombification does not spread from the undead to the living. Although the numbers of Haitian zombies can be said to increase, that increase is limited by the level of activity of the bokor. However many zombies he or she can reasonably create and control is how many we have. That's not the case with Romero's zombies. Because every newly dead person will return as a violent and voracious zombie in Romero's films, their numbers increase exponentially. Not only does each newly dead person come back a zombie, but each new zombie kills people and creates new zombies, who then kill people and create new zombies, and so on. 
The fear of the horde or the swarm is, for the most part, not present in the tales of Haitian zombies. Even when there are large numbers of Haitian zombies present, they usually have better (read - more lucrative) things to do than to terrorize the living with their sheer numbers: I mean, that cane isn't going to cut itself, now is it. The fact that Haitian zombies are almost always in the minority with regards to their living counterparts, while the Romero zombies constitute a horrifying and multiplying majority in their fictions, situates the Haitian zombie as a deeply marginalized figure in a way that makes them more analogous to the "survivors" of modern zombie narratives than their monsters.  

Finally, Haitian zombies, though often physically impressive, do not seem to be by any means indestructible (they are similarly as disposable as Romero zombies, but that's something different entirely). I will admit some ignorance as to what it takes to kill a Haitian zombie and how they react to pain (if at all); this issue simply hasn't been raised in any of the Haitian zombie narratives that I am familiar with ("... Dead Men" mentions zombies being beaten, but it does not indicate to what effect). There is nothing that would seem to indicate, though, that they are impervious to bullets or having their fingers mangled the way that the risen corpses from Night of the Living Dead clearly are. Whether your understanding of the Haitian zombie posits them as real corpses or only apparently dead, most of the normal rules of human physiology seem to apply: though in lesser amounts than living humans, they still require some amount of food, water, and rest. Although we know that tasting salt will make them aware of their condition and lead them to march directly back to their graves and fall down, "carrion," we are never given any reason to think that a bullet to the head, or being engulfed in flames, wouldn't work just as well. Much of the fragility of humans seems to be retained by the Haitian zombie figure, in a way that it isn't by the Romero zombie, which again aligns them more with people than with the people eaters.

To be concluded in part 3

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Haitian Zombie Issue

No. No. No.               


Okay, so I’m about half of the way through Doc of the Dead on Netflix (it’s a little too goofy for its own good, but it has some stunning visuals in its interlude pieces and it includes fascinating interviews from some very heavy hitters in the zombie community) and I’m getting really frustrated, so I’m going to take a few minutes to just vent here.

Cool? Good.

Here’s my problem: Haitian zombies aren't zombies. 

There, I said it. They just aren't. 

Although they share a name with the creature introduced and popularized by the works of Romero (a slow moving, mindless, reanimated corpse that craves human flesh, that multiplies by killing victims who then become zombies, and that can only be (re)killed by a direct attack on its brain), the Haitian Vodou zombie should not be confused with zombies as we now think of them (i.e. the zombies this blog is dedicated to). Despite a few obvious similarities, in most observable ways the Haitian zombie and the Romero zombie are two separate constructs and, though linked thematically, should be considered as distinct from one another. Of course, I'm not implying that we should not refer to Haitian zombies as zombies (it is THEIR name, after all), but rather that it is necessary to acknowledge the fundamental differences between the two concepts in order to gain a full understanding of either.

First, though, let's get through the apparent similarities: Haitian zombies are people raised from the dead*, and Haitian zombies are mindless**. That's pretty much where it ends. And, in both cases, the seeming similarity is undermined in some sense (hence, the asterisks).

To begin with, *Haitian zombies are not actually raised from the dead, but rather are raised from the grave. This qualification, of course, is in reference to the fact that our current understanding of the Haitian zombie (and even certain early Haitian understandings), does not identify the zombies as dead but as seemingly dead. This is indicated as early as W.E. Seabrook's "... Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," the short story most responsible for introducing the Haitian zombie to the popular consciousness. At the end of the story, the narrator relates a passage from the official Haitian penal code which seems to offer a non-supernatural explanation for presence of reanimated corpses: "Article 249. Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder, no matter what result follows" (Seabrook 49). However, whether working under this seemingly more rational explanation, or the folkloric understanding of the zombie as "a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life [...] a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive,” the Haitian zombie is a corpse that "came from the grave" (Seabrook 41). Which, on the surface, is a bit of a nitpicky distinction, but it signifies nonetheless. In both cases, Romero and Haitian, it is the newly dead (or apparent dead) who return. However, in Haiti, it is exclusively corpses that have been buried that are revived while in Night it is exclusively those bodies that have not been buried that return. The latter indicates an interruption of the proper death rites. The former, however, gestures to a willful violation of death itself (more on the Bokor later).

Zonbi, by Wilson Bigaud, 1939
Next, although, for people like zombie connoisseur John Skipp the tragic truth about Haitian zombies is that "they [are] slaves. Either raised from the dead to do some vile master's bidding, or somehow mesmerized into mindless subservience, zombies were the husked-out shells of humanity, whose sole purpose was to do the degrading shit no willful soul would do. In that sense they were the ultimate slaves, in that they had no will of their own," ** Haitian zombies are not actually mindless (Skipp 10). Though the same could be said of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead - who try car door handles, use basic tools, shield their eyes from branches, and demonstrate basic self-preservation skills in avoiding fire - the Haitian zombie is un-mindless in a very different way.
Know what sucks? Doin' this.
Photo: Sean Smith
Not only are they capable of far more intricate tasks (reaping sugar cane is not an easy chore), but they are actually able to follow orders. This indicates a level of receptive communication that the Romero zombies simply lack. This is decidedly not a trivial distinction; the Haitian zombie is defined by its tractability, the Romero zombie by their inability to be controlled. Where the Haitian zombies are literal slaves, the Romero zombie is a slave only to its appetite. These are very clear indications of the stark differences in cultural anxieties between the two societies that created these very distinct monstrous figures. To grossly oversimplify, one fears being controlled, one fears being out of control.

(I just realized that Haitian zombies and Romero's both shamble very similarly in a way that is not readily undermined in any demonstrable way. So there's that linking them, I guess. In the immortal words of Deep Blue Something, "Well, that's the one thing we've got").

To be continued...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Canon Update (11/16/14)

Fido, written by Robert Chomiak, Dennis Heaton, and Andrew Currie, directed by Andrew Currie

            Andrew Currie’s Fido presents a bit of a departure from the films that we have added to the Canon of the Dead so far (28 Days Later and the works of George A. Romero). Unlike the vast majority of zombie films (and zombie narratives, in general), Fido is not a horror film. However, what it lacks in scares and suspense, it more than makes up for with style and wit. This is a beautifully shot and extremely well-executed film, an almost point perfect parody of 195os TV series like Lassie, Leave It to Beaver, and Peyton Place. What makes Fido so good, though, as a zombie text is the way it manages to seamlessly integrate zombies into a pre-existing mode of filmic representation (I’m hesitant to refer to it as a genre; perhaps “era” is more appropriate). 

Without ever specifying that the time the story takes place actually IS the 50s - I mean, technically, the film could take place in a future shaped by ZomCom to reflect 1950s sensibilities, right? – Fido nonetheless makes us feel like we’re watching the 50s. But it also makes us wonder what the 50s were really like. If we believe the evidence left to us from Lassie and the Beave, the 50 certainly seem like a time when there was a car in every garage and a roast on every table and Dad had all the answers and Mom knew her role. By toying with the idea of appearances and surface structures, though, Fido pushes us to question the idealized notions of our past that have become so comfortable to us. As much as it acts as a parody, however, it is also clearly allegorical in its approach. It’s talking about the 50s, clearly, but it’s not just talking the 50s. Hell, it’s probably not even talking mostly about the 50s. 

Released in 2007, a time where the freedom vs. security debate surrounding the patriot act had not quite abated, and immigration was becoming more and more of a concern, Fido (a Canadian film) is a scathing critque of modern American life as well. Smart, hilarious, and more than a little twisted, Fido is everything you could ask for in a zombie film. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

Zombie, Ohio: A Tale of the Undead, by Scott Kenemore

            Zombie, Ohio is different. I’d even go so far as to say unique. Not in that the narrator of the story is a zombie – it’s rare, but it’s been done – and not in that it presents a zombie that can think and talk, because that has been done before too, but in the fact that its thinking, talking zombie narrator does so in violation of the rules of his own zombie apocalypse. Pete Mellor, or rather Pete Mellor’s zombie, is an apparent singularity within the fictional universe he inhabits. Unlike, say, Return of the Living Dead or the short story “A Zombie’s Lament,” where all zombies seem rather sentient and chatty, Zombie, Ohio presents Mellor, aka the Kernel, as an exception among the zombie horde, the rest of which are all of the mindless, moan and groan variety. Situated dead in its center, Mellor undermines the ostensible binary relationship between human and zombie in some very interesting ways. For the first time ever (I think), a zombie uses what humans think they know about zombies, the definitions and categorization that the humans have imposed, against them in his effort to eat their brains.

The novel also raises some surprisingly profound questions, however, about the notion of self. By creating a zombie who is mostly, though not entirely, amnesiac with regards to his former self, but who is also keenly aware of his current condition, Kenemore pushes his readers to interrogate what it means to be “me” (not me, me, but them, me; got it?). Is our sense of self determined solely by a collection of memories, or a continuity of consciousness, or is there something more to it than that? Am I still me if I don’t remember who I was? What if I profoundly change? Is me now the same me as me then? For as fun and gross and sometimes goofy as this book is, there is also a certain philosophical and psychological weight to it, if you are paying attention. This is high level zombie lit, from one of the growing stars of the field. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sign of the Times: Violent Imagery and Romero's Night of the Living Dead

       The first film that we covered in the Zombie Fictions class that I am co-teaching at Buff State was Night of the Living Dead (obviously). As I mentioned in the my post on Zombieland  a few days ago, we thought it was important for me to try to model the type of readings that could be made of the films we are covering. I've decided to share these model blogs here as well. Their assignment was as follows (my class blog starts after the awesome dead face).
"For your first movie blog, you will be looking at George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. As we transition into 'reading' film as text, it is important to consider those elements of film that most obviously differentiate movies from literary texts. For this blog, then, you should pay careful attention to the visual elements of Romero's horror classic: i.e. lighting, camera work (angles, movement), editing, costume, setting, acting performances, casting, special effects, etc. You do not need to analyze all of these elements - indeed, I would encourage you not to attempt to include all of them - but instead should focus on one (or two) visual aspect and use it to make an informed reading of the film."
     In many ways, modern cinematic horror owes its existence (as we know it) to three films: The Texas Chainsaw MassacreNight of the Living Dead, and Psycho. Though these films are all drastically different from one another in both tone and subject matter, they exhibit a clear progression in the ever shifting boundary between acceptability and indecency, when it comes to portrayals of violence on film. Situated perfectly between the horrific implication of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the in-your-face brutality of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead initiates the transition from horror by hinting to horror by showing. Given that Night was released in 1968, however, one of the more tumultuous years in U.S. history, perhaps such an evolution in horror’s imagery shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Although it might be a stretch to claim that Romero was explicitly responding to the violent images that had grown so prevalent in the news of the late sixties, both on television and in print, it’s clear that Night of the Living Dead reflects a certain loss of innocence in the public consciousness.
     Prior to the release of Romero’s horror classic (indeed, the film transcends horror and is now widely recognized as a classic of American cinema; it was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1999, for preservation in the Library of Congress), the most frightening scene in American horror was unquestionably the infamous shower scene from Psycho. Take a look:

While this scene has stood the test of time and still has people trying to wash their hair with their eyes open, despite its entire lack of the gore and special effects (does chocolate syrup count as special effects?) that horror audiences have grown accustomed to, the scene is a far cry from the explicit nature of the gore and viscera depicted in Night of the Living Dead. Where Hitchcock relied heavily on editing and “cuts,” forcing the viewer to fill in the gaps with their imaginations, Romero’s camera doesn’t always look away. The audience is allowed, even invited, to watch the awful that is unfolding. If they dare.

Obviously, these scenes are a little tame when viewed alongside the carnage so gleefully depicted in modern horror, or even the splatterfest Romero himself produced just ten years later in Dawn of the Dead. It’s important to acknowledge, though, how shockingly distinct Night of the Living Dead was from anything that had been shown in American theatres up to that point. In fact, the imagery of the film was so disturbing that, instead of actually discussing the film, Roger Ebert focused almost entirely on the reactions of the audience in his 1969 review, and used it as an opportunity to push for movie rating reform. And yet, the movie did remarkably well commercially. For all the concerns about its graphic depictions of cannibalism and bloodshed, audiences couldn’t get enough: the film grossed between $12-15 million in the U.S. and over $30 million worldwide ( Quite the return on a $114, 000 investment. As startling as the film was to audiences at the time, something about it clearly resonated as well.
For an explanation, there’s no need to look any further than the newspaper headlines. Without question, 1968 was a turbulent time in U.S. (and world) history.  Below, is just a sampling of the images that were available to the American public, on newsstands as well as their TVs.

this photo by Eddie Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1969

A grotesque mirror of our society’s inadequacies, then, Night of the Living Dead offers a compelling look into the cultural unconscious of a confused and unstable moment in our history. Released at a time when the population was being bombarded with images of actual terror and dread, a time when, in many ways, real-life was appalling and frightening in its own right, perhaps it is only to be expected that a film like Romero would come around and redefine our conception of horror.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Just Ad Zombies... (conclusion)

To clarify, although I was very critical of the zombie ads that I’ve discussed here and here, for the most part I actually enjoy the commercials that I’ve derided so far. The ads are fun, but I don’t think they show any real understanding of how zombies function or use them in a way that is consistent with the very loose constraints of the “genre” (stretching that word a bit, but you know what I mean).
Zombies: You're doing it wrong
I try very hard not to be a zombie snob, and I’m far from a purist – I am pro fast-zombie, for the record, and I absolutely love Scott Kenemore’s Zombie, Ohio, which centers around a zombie that thinks and talks – but the ads that I’ve already gone over were very clear examples of bad zombies. However, their failures as zombies underlie an interesting point: the zombie figure is so fluid that its relative success or failure isn’t predicated on what the zombie itself does or does not do – whether it talks or moans, walks or runs, eats human flesh or any flesh – but rather on the effect it has on its audience. Zombies, whether they are horrific or comedic, traditional or modern, operate by playing on specific concerns and anxieties that permeate our culture. Mortality, contagion, ineffective government, over-reliance on technology, to name just a few. The safe, sanitized, and stupid zombies (even the ones that seem to have high IQs) from these commercials don’t do any of that. As such, they are entirely superfluous and unnecessary. Interestingly enough, though, these ineffectual zombie presentations actually operate on a certain figurative zombism in their target demographics. What type of person buys cars, or even candy, because of a clever commercial? Deep critical thinkers? Discerning shoppers? Or mindless consumers impelled only by desire?
Here's a hint: 

But enough complaining. My endless bellyaching notwithstanding, there are some really good zombie commercials out there that not only stay true to the conventions that have come to define the zombie over the last 45 years and reflect the cultural uncertainties that have shaped them, but also effectively market the “products” they are trying to sell. I had to throw scare quotes there because the first commercial I’m going to talk about is apparently selling CPR. As in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Which isn't really a product. Or for sale. Anyway, check out this great spot from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.

posted by Heartandstrokefdn on Youtube

Okay, first things first: it’s kind of cheesy. Not full on cheese, mind you, but not exactly Frank Darabont either. The makeup is actually pretty good and the ad is well-edited, but the music and fog are a bit over the top and, more importantly, it doesn't push the zombie figure much past cliche. Beyond that though, the primary slogan, "CPR makes you undead," while clever, might also be confusing (2:36). Because, um, being undead is... ungood (doublplusungood, even). Once you look past the obvious flaws, however, this commercial does a lot right. Though cliched, the zombies are friggin' zombies. They're bloody, they swarm, they eat warm flesh, and they are most certainly contagious. What's more, they are clearly set apart as something the viewer does not want to be or become. Zombie = bad. Simple. The protagonist, for her part, is readily relatable; i.e. she provides a clear Self for viewers to align with. She does what we would like to think that we would do. When she recognizes danger, she runs from it. When she falls (it's not her fault she's a white lady in a horror clip), she capably defends herself, even beheading a zombie. Her desire to stay alive is a counterpoint to the zombies desire to end it, both of which reinforce the idea that "being alive is a good thing." Which is a big part of the message that the commercial is trying to get across. 

Being alive is good and CPR keeps you alive. That message becomes a little muddled after the zombies resuscitate the woman only to devour her - So it keeps you alive long enough to die a more horrible death? Sweeeet! - but overall I think it accomplishes its two goals rather well. The first, as I've said, is to spread the message that CPR saves lives (if only temporarily). However, it also wants to briefly instruct viewers how to react when someone suffers cardiac arrest. By providing 3 simple, easy to remember instructions, "1. Call 9-1-1. 2. Push hard and fast about twice every second. 3. Don't hesitate, you can't do harm," the clip situates CPR as something that anyone can do (1:43). Not only do you not need more training than a commercial provides, you don't even need a functioning brain. Whether or not that message is actually true or not is irrelevant. What matters, rather, is that that is the message (more or less) that they want to convey, and they do. Don't hesitate, i.e. don't worry, don't even think.
Your reaction to cardiac arrest should be a mindless response, an instinct so profound not even death via a zombie plague  would erase it from your memory: CPR, now. There are certainly problematic readings that could be made about a commercial that only appears interested in keeping us alive long enough to be consumed and to become consumers, but for right now I'm more interested in how well it achieves its goal of increased CPR awareness. 

I'd like to close with my favorite zombie commercial. It's not the funniest, and it might not be the most memorable. It certainly isn't selling anything as worthwhile as CPR. But it gets zombies in a way most of the others just don't seem to, and that sets it apart. I don't have a problem with funny, snarky, or happy zombies (Snow White and the Seven Commercial Zombies?), but fear sells and zombies can be very scary, so why not use them that way? Diehard, a brand whose name just seems to beg for them to use zombies in their marketing, does. 

To begin with, this commercial isn't being cute. It starts out in full out life or death flight from a pursuing horde of ravenous zombies. Who, by the way, are serious business zombies. They're fast, they're scary, and, though the commercial has quick cuts that never really focus on them for too long, they definitely look the part. Make no mistake, broad daylight or not, this is a horror commercial and that makes a huge difference. Because it lets the zombies do what zombies do - they aren't here to talk shit on the bus or pick you up at a bar, and they definitely aren't here to save your life. These zombies want to eat your face. ASAP. And they should. 


Zombies can do a lot of other things, but the thing they should want to do more than any other is make you look like this

Of course, it's not just the zombies that have our friend here looking like she wants to cry because of how real shit just got: she is also horrified by the behavior of her fellow survivor, who couldn't spare even a second of effort to try to help her escape the zombies' grasping hands. This is a dynamic, while extremely familiar to even the most casual zombie fan, that none of the other commercials have ever approached. Diehard clearly sets the humans as Self that the audience sides with out of a shared desire not to get eaten, and the zombies as the awful Other that we don't want to become or be near, but they don't hide from the fact that sometimes, especially during the zombie apocalypse, the Self kinda sucks. A lot of the tension in zombie narratives is actually provided by the troubling, dangerous, or selfish actions of other humans. This ad does a great job of setting the humans (unnecessarily) at odds with one another in their attempts to survive. So Mr. Think-for-himself-er runs off and abandons the pretty, seemingly helpless woman and 30 seconds in we still have no idea what they hell is going to happen or, more important given the context, what the hell we're supposed to buy. Suspense is a valuable tool for a commercial. It keeps you from changing the channel (why aren't there more horror ads?). Anyway, what we learn by the end of the clip is that during a zombie outbreak your chances of survival are only as good as the choices you make.
This begins with a decision to forsake a friend in need (a decision that gets reciprocated), but ultimately centers around a choice in car battery brands. Other brands don't last and will let you down when you need them. Other brands will get you killed. Seriously, selfish dude gets eaten. Diehard we see, however, is durable. Reliable. Safe. When the world goes to shit, when your government and police have failed you, when your friends let you down, Diehard will still be there to start your car. When the dead rise to eat your face "Life Demands Diehard."

It's an effective ad (like the CPR ad, it actually shows its product doing what it is supposed to do) and it employs zombies in a way that is consistent with the conventions that have made them so popular: a group of antagonistic survivors versus a horde of zombies - mindless, flesh-eating zombies. None of the other commercials come close to getting zombies this right (even the fairly well executed CPR spot). I don't know that that's going to make me more likely to buy a Diehard battery or not, but I appreciate the effort.

What'd I miss? What other zombie ad campaigns have you enjoyed? Or disliked? Let me know in the comment section below.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Just Ad Zombies... (cont'd)

Picking up where we left off, the Sprint Zombie isn't even the most egregious example of an advertisement  that chooses to associate its target audience with what is supposed  to be the zombie Other (as a brief aside, when I assign the human and the zombie the roles of Self and Other, respectively, it is an over-simplification of a binary relationship that is always inherently problematized. The human almost always pushes towards traits identified with the zombie Other, and the zombie's similarities to the human Self are just as frequently highlighted. What is [mostly] consistent, however, is that the audience is situated to associate with the human survivors). For that we'll turn to the New York Lottery. 

First, I want to give credit where credit is due: the zombies are very well done, particularly given the limitations of creating an ad suitable for network television. The commercial begins by making its way through a vacant and desolate city before focusing in on a diverse group of survivors (well at least it got that part right) attempting to make their stand at a woefully unfortified dry cleaner/laundromat. As the zombies finally inevitably force their way through the giant, not at all boarded up or obstructed window, the tv comes to life with a familiar refrain (at least if you've watched television in the state of New York in the last two decades or so): "The New York Mega-Millions Jackpot is Now..." And then a curious thing happens - well, curious to me at least; the zombies completely lose interest in human flesh and begin to shuffle off, suddenly surprisingly spry, in search of more desirable prey. Lotto tickets. Not to be outdone, the humans take off in hot pursuit: "Make way for the living!"

Okay, so on the surface, we have a few fairly obvious messages. First, the lotto is for everyone. Suit or flannel, hockey stick or broom, black or white, man or woman, human or zombie - EVERYONE wants in on that Mega-Millions Jackpot. Beyond that, though, having a ticket is apparently important. Life or death, undying desire type of important. For a commercial, these are exactly the messages you want to send. So far, so good, right? As long as you don't muddle anything up by actually thinking. 

Here are some other messages the commercial sends that don't require much in the way of minute analysis. For one thing, humans are dumb and wildly incompetent - if you "hide" from the zombie apocalypse in a plate glass storefront, with no bars and no boards over the door or window, and attempt to defend yourself with a broom, well, you're a moron and you deserve to get eaten. So we start off by asking us to align ourselves with idiots. Thanks for the vote of confidence, NY Lotto. Once we find out what product is being marketed, however, the mad dash for tickets asks us at least in part to "think" like a zombie. Which is to say, mindless consumers drop everything to buy lottery tickets, we should too. A message reinforced by the fact that the humans use their fortuitous reprieve not to seek real shelter or find actual weapons, but to run with the zombies to find a store that sells Mega-Millions tickets. A tacit admission that your product is aimed at customers who purchase without thinking seems like an odd approach. But, then again, what're the chances that their target demo picked up on the embedded implication? I don't mean to be too hard on the dedicated lotto players out there - I've played before. A dollar and a dream, right?

I worry that I'm being a bit of a spoilsport right now. These commercials are trying to be light and fun and I'm holding them to a standard that they never had any intention of meeting. I blame PBS. I've searched and searched and searched and I can't find it, but they used to have a show that had a panel of guests from different fields that would sit and dissect various popular commercials. I've been watching ads critically long before I had any idea that media literacy even existed (ugggh, I'm a media literacy hipster).
I laughed WAY too hard at this
I've always enjoyed reading between the lines when I watch commercials, good and bad, trying to locate various possible interpretations - whether intended or not - determine who the target demographic is, etc. In many ways, this type of rudimentary (at least early on) analysis laid the foundation for my eventual appreciation of literary criticism. Teasing out multiple meanings, pulling on all the loose threads - it's like a game. But a game that sometimes ruins the fun. 

I wanted to like the Happy Honda zombie. I really did. He just seems so... nice. I want to want what he has. Friends, fun, a catchy theme song, sweet  sweaters, and an urban titanium metallic Civic with voice-activated calling. Undeath doesn't look half bad. In fact, according to the commercial's title, It's Good to Be a Zombie. If what you want more than anything is utter conformity. 

Clearly, a large part of the horror of the zombie is that any sense of Self is subsumed into the horde. There is no individual will or agency. Just mindless conformity through boundless craving. Here, though, there's a bit of an inversion. Instead of humans losing their sense of Self by becoming one of  the multitudinous Other, we see a lone zombie attempting to lose his Self to become, or at least seem to become, more human. When I think about it too much, happy zombie makes me sad. Because he isn't being himself. There's no blood on his lips. No viscera staining his argyle. I guess you could argue that maybe the Happy zombie shouldn't be viewed as trying to fit in with the humans, but as not worrying about not fitting in with the zombie. While slightly more positive, this outlook remains troubling because it still situates individuality within a willingness and ability to fit in. And how do you show that you fit in? Well, you dress a certain way, of course. You listen to a certain type of music (One Week of Danger by The Virgins). And you buy the right shit. Drive a beat ass old Buick like the dude at the stop light and you'll have no friends, no music, no life. Buy a sweet Civic and you get to hit the driving range and then grab some beers with Gary. The world is your zombie oyster.

"To each their own." As long as their own is like everyone else...

Tomorrow, I'll finish up with zombie marketing by looking at  a couple commercials that actually use zombies in interesting and authentic ways (gasp!).