Thursday, December 18, 2014

Land of the Dead: Romero's New, Old Zombies

Now that I've finished up work on my Master's Project, co-teaching ENG 490W - Zombie Fictions, I'd like to share my model blog entry for our last film blog assignment of the semester. The assignment was as follows (with my blog entry beginning with the picture of Bub):

            Over the course of this semester, we have seen many different presentations of the zombie figure. For this our 6th and final film blog, I want you to pay particular attention to the depiction of zombies in George A. Romero's Land of the Dead. In what ways do these zombies follow the conventions that we have identified within the zombie fictions that we have looked at over the course of the semester? In what ways do they violate them?
            With these similarities and differences in mind, make ONE argument about the function of zombies within this film; i.e. what are these particular zombies doing? Do they operate symbolically as allegories or metaphors? Are they parodic or satirical?  Of what, and how so? What is George Romero using this iteration of the zombie to tell us about ourselves? 
   Once again, you are required to make ONE explicit critical argument (by explicit, I mean I want you clearly articulate a thesis statement/main argument, and to identify it as your thesis statement by writing it in bold font), and I want you to support that argument with direct and appropriate evidence from the film itself.

            In many ways, the creatures depicted in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead exemplify the traditional zombie figure, as outlined in his original zombie horror trilogy – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and the wildly underrated Day of the Dead. Unlike many other recent zombie films, 28 Days Later and Zombieland most notably, the zombies found in Land are dead (not infected), slow (not superhuman), and are compelled to eat people (instead of just ripping them apart). However, despite these similarities, the zombies in this film, led by the very impressive Big Daddy, also present a bit of a departure from the previous 3 entries in Romero’s Dead series. Although there is certainly evidence that the zombies in Night and Dawn and Day aren’t completely mindless – a tried car door handle here, an undead Flyboy returning to the hideout there, Bub’s whole zombie prodigy existence – in Land of the Dead, this limited brain activity is taken even further. These zombies not only seem to be capable of basic thought and/or residual instinct, but also appear able to learn, both from each other and from the humans that consistently abuse them. In this horrific vision of a world where the zombies aren’t the worst monsters around, a world where zombies are, in fact, victimized and exploited, Romero presents his viewers with the unsettling notion that the only thing worse than being killed by your enemy is deserving it. 

            The voice-over that begins the movie actually serves to assert the film’s similarities to its predecessors. Unlike many other films, who consider the conventions of zombie fictions to be a given, Land of the Dead spends its first few minutes describing exactly what kind of creatures this film is concerned with. The first words we hear, “dead people,” don’t tell us very much, but each successive utterance gives us a clearer and clearer picture of the monster we are about to encounter (01:13, all times taken from the Amazon Prime rental version). Using almost the same verbiage as the newscasters in Night of the Living Dead, the voice over explains that not just dead people, but “the recently departed,” “unburied human corpses” more specifically, “are returning to life and feeding on the living” (01:15; 01:17). Echoing the scientist at the beginning of Dawn, we are told that “everyone who dies will become one of them” and advised that anyone who is bitten “will just become one of them that much sooner” (01:28; 01:30). However, picking up where Bub left off in Day of the Dead, toward the end of the voiceovers, viewers are left with a more dire concern, more dreadful even than the idea of undead creatures that “survive by eating human flesh”: the chance that those creatures could “develop the power to think, to reason, even in the most primitive ways…”  (01:24; 02:07).

      With this awful possibility at the forefront of our imaginations, the film proper begins. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that these zombies have a little more going on upstairs, even in the context of Romero’s relatively-smart-zombie universe. Taking a huge step from using a rock to try to shatter a window (Night), or holding a baseball mitt (Dawn), some of the first zombies shown in Land of the Dead are “playing” instruments, grouped together in a gazebo band (03:14). Now, I wouldn’t run out and sign them up for America’s Got Talent or anything, but two of them were actually getting sound out of their instruments. This is particularly impressive for the zombie tuba player; where does the breath come from???

            The most interesting and intelligent zombie of the film, though, and one of the more interesting zombies of zombie fiction period, shows up just moments later after the service bell dings at Big Daddy’s Gas and repairs and Big Daddy’s zombie dutifully answers it (03:33). Initially, there’s very little to suggest that Big Daddy is doing anything beyond acting on residual instinct, no different than Peter’s explanation for what was drawing the zombies to the mall in Dawn of the Dead. Any notion that Big Daddy is just a regular zombie, however, are quickly dispelled when he notices Riley and Mike scouting the area. Unlike pretty much any zombie we’ve seen in a Romero film (and most zombies otherwise), Big Daddy does not simply stop what he is doing and head mindlessly towards the fresh me. Instead, he seems to grunt an order at the young couple zombies meandering nearby, who immediately make their way towards the human observers (04:07).

            This is something completely new. Even in Day, where a zombie salutes, shaves, fires a gun, and flips the bird, there isn’t even a hint of communication between zombies. Bub, for all his genius, is a singularity, alone in his intelligence. Here, though Big Daddy is clearly much more aware than the other zombies (he ignores the "sky flowers" that transfix the rest, for example), they at least display an ability to be commanded, which puts even the “normal” zombies in Land a level above every zombie not named Bub in a Romero film. Their awareness, their ability to “communicate” (one sided though it may be), and their emotion, make these zombies – not just Big Daddy, but the Couple, the Cheerleader, the Butcher, and the others too – almost human. More human, I would argue, than the not actually dead zombies of 28 Days Later and even the domesticated zombies of Fido. Their humanity, or at least their semblance of humanity, occasions a slight shift in their positions, however, from one of the monsters, to one of the victims. In other zombie texts, we often see human characters that are every bit as horrific as the zombies themselves. But the horror embodied by the humans in those texts is not enough to cancel out the monstrousness of the zombie figures. They are just two different kinds of monsters, usually preying on the same group of survivors. But these zombies, whose human traits serve to further distance them from people like Mr. Kaufman, Cholo, or Chihuahua, are exploited and victimized as well.

Miss America?
          Indeed, the zombies in this film are not only massacred for fun, they have also been commodified to a startling degree. They’ve become sport and entertainment, a game, a spectacle, to shoot paintballs at and have your picture taken with. A safe, neutered thrill. (27:12) But the zombies aren’t the only ones being exploited outside Fiddler’s Green; the lower class humans aren’t treated much better – left hungry and sick, or thrown to zombies for sport (28:17). In Land of the Dead, the zombies are less like the evil humans than those who are aggrieved. This connection is made for viewers very early on by Riley, who contends that humans aren’t much different than the stenches: “Isn’t that what we’re doing, pretending to be alive?” (03:58). When this idea is reinforced at the end of the movie, after Riley decides not to use Dead Reckoning to eliminate the zombie horde that has overrun Fiddler's Green because the zombies are “just looking for a place to go. Same as us,” there is very much the sense that a reckoning has nonetheless occurred (1:27:49). For all the gore and viscera that accompanies Big Daddy’s army’s inexorable march to Fiddler’s Green, the film does not end with a sense of horror, or even ennui, but justice. Though it would be a stretch to say that every human killed by a zombie in Land of the Dead deserves it, they all lived in relative degrees of complacency under a system built upon the outright exploitation and marginalization of others (Others). Once a group of those marginalized “peoples” unites and rises up, it’s hard to mourn the casualties along the way. It’s almost like there’s a lesson to be learned here...

Monday, December 8, 2014

People Killing People: 28 Days Later and the New Zombie

The first "modern" (post-2000) zombie film that we covered in class this year was Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. For this film, I wanted the class to investigate how these zombies differ from the ones we saw in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and explore what those differences might have to say about our culture. Here is the assignment (my model blog entry follows right after):

This week we will be watching Danny Boyle's 2002 film, 28 Days Later (NOT the sequel, 28 Weeks Later). One of the more interesting things about this movie is the way that it dramatically reimagines the zombie figure. It challenges, in some very overt ways (and some more subtle ones) the rules and conventions that we have become accustomed to in zombie fictions. For this blog, I want you to identify a few of the ways that these "zombies" differ from the ones we've seen in Romero's films. I would rather you pick the one or two differences that most interest you and focus on them, as opposed to attempting to catalog every way that these zombies are different and new. Once you have explored these differences, I want you to make an argument about what this shift in the presentation of the zombie indicates about our culture. Why did the zombie have to change to fit our current sensibilities? What does this new zombie say about us?

In 1968, George Romero presented us with a new vision of horror: the zombie. For almost 35 years, his presentation of the zombie was the standard, some slight deviations aside (“Braaaains!”). The 2002 release of 28 Days Later changed all of that. Indeed, in many ways, Danny Boyle’s new iteration of the zombie acts as an update of sorts, a reimagining of the creature to suit the shifting sensibilities of modern audiences.

At its core, the Romero zombie is a slow-moving, mindless, reanimated corpse that craves human flesh and multiplies by killing its victims, and can only be stopped by a direct attack on its brain. There are a few other traits from Romero’s films that have fallen away in other representations – rudimentary tool use, a fear of fire, eating crickets, etc. – but the traditions that have loosely been followed for over three decades are based on those characteristics explicitly outlined by the “experts” on the news in Night and Dawn.
The “zombies” we encounter in 28 Days Later are decidedly different. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are never identified as “zombies” in the film. These creatures, though in many important ways zombie-like, are never identified as such by the characters in the film. Instead, they are referred to as “the infected.” Unlike in Apocalypse Z, however, where this term is also used (perhaps a little more euphemistically) to describe the monsters that have caused the fall of civilization, here the term is used literally. Whether it is the doctor at the beginning of the film explaining what has been done to the chimps, or Selena giving Jim the worst while-you-were-sleeping talk ever, when viewers are told that what caused this outbreak “was a virus, an infection,” it is meant quite literally (19:44). These “zombies” are not reanimated corpses, they are infected humans. Which is to say, they aren’t dead, they just live differently. Very differently. But they’re still just… people. In 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle confronts his viewers with monsters, infected and not, that are stunning in their very humanity. Although the infected are quite different from those not afflicted by the virus - they cannot communicate, they are basically mindless, are wildly contagious, and multiply at an alarming rate – they might be most frightening in their awful similarities.

In another interesting departure from the conventions established by Romero, the “zombies” of 28 Days Later aren’t much more difficult to kill than an uninfected person. I mean, the infected the zombie figure clearly doesn’t react to pain the same way that people do; even engulfed in flames, they will continue their single minded pursuit of human destruction. They aren’t indestructible, though, and trauma to the brain is hardly the only way to dispatch them. Being riddled with bullets (1:04:19) or hacked up with a machete (28:17) is no less fatal to an infected person than it would be to anyone else. They can be burned, starved, or blown apart by claymores. Their tolerance for pain is higher, sure, even much higher, but there is nothing at all supernatural about these beings. Nothing more than sick, deranged people, these “zombies” are alive like us and die like we die.

Shifting the zombie figure from the nearly invulnerable risen-dead to simply "the infected," living people who have contracted an aggressively contagious virus, reflects what I believe is a growing skepticism of the supernatural at the time. Following the real life horror of 9-11, the world had less and less patience for paranormal ghouls and goblins. An audience that watched thousands of people die in a terrorist attack broadcast live on national TV didn’t need their dead to walk; their living were plenty frightening as is. In 1968, Romero frightened us not by making zombies believable, but by depicting realistic reactions to inconceivable, indeed impossible, events. The interpersonal conflict and the societal collapse of Night of the Living Dead could not but resonate at a time of so much social unrest and upheaval. Boyle is doing something else entirely. While Boyle’s film certainly speaks to a similarly pervasive cultural anxiety and uncertainty, his zombie is perhaps most horrifying because it obeys the laws of the universe as we know them. Doctors do experiment by creating new viruses and diseases. Viruses do mutate, often at an alarming rate. Our world is a very frightening and violent place. When Major West tells his assembled dinner party that what he’s seen in the four weeks since infection is simply “people killing people,” much like they always have, and asserts that this “puts us in a state of normality, right now,” he isn’t just talking about the world within the film; he’s pointing an accusatory finger at our reality as well (1:13:36). This, or something like it, could actually happen. It is this horrible, horrible plausibility that has allowed the zombie to re-take its place as our worst nightmare and preeminent monster.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have seen a LOT of zombie memes. Whether shared by a friend, like this one,

or stumbled upon on my own (my arduous research includes a great deal of time looking for and at zombies on the internet),

the variety and sheer prevalence of zombie themed memes is truly impressive. The extensive popularity of these memes, which has ballooned in recent years just like everything else associated with our favorite undead flesh-eaters, however, is in many ways no less impressive than the apparent universality of memes themselves. There seems to be a meme for everything. I mean everything:

Dog Shampoo

Monster Trucks

Underwater Basket Weaving

For the memes above, I did a Google image search for the first three things that popped into my head (my brain is a special, special place) with the word "meme" and got multiple hits for each one. There are even memes about memes.

Like zombies, the meme seems to be a phenomenon that is particularly well suited (perfectly suited, really) for this specific cultural moment. Given the irrefutable "now-ness" of both forms, the zombie and the meme, perhaps analyzing the ways they intersect can help us gain a better understanding of what it is about each that allows them to resonate so deeply (not that all memes or zombies are all that"deep," but you get my point).

Doesn't believe in god...
or trimming his eyebrows
So, first, what the hell is a meme? I mean, we've all seen them, hundreds of them probably, but what exactly is a meme? This question is only slightly easier to answer than "what is a zombie?" though it provides similar twists, turns, and misappropriations along the way. The word "meme" was apparently coined by Richard Dawkins (yes, the The God Delusion guy) in his book, The Selfish Gene (1976). I say apparently, because some have noted that a suspiciously similar term, both in spelling and usage, "mneme," pre-dates his coinage by about 50 years. There's a striking parallel in the arcs of "meme" and "zombie," from ultimate origin to current iteration. 

- Fun with analogies - 
mneme : Dawkins meme : Internet meme :: nzambi : Haitian zombie : Romero zombie

Moving on: Dawkinsian memes are best defined as the cultural behavioral counterpart of genes. For Dawkins, memes, which can be "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots, or of building arches," in short, any cultural entity, are passed on and replicated from person to person, and brain to brain, in a way that is remarkably similar to the way that genes are propagated via sperm and eggs (The Selfish Gene). Which is to say, the same way that genes are passed on, combined, and modified to create new versions of the genetic material, ideas and behaviors are also passed down, combined, and modified to evolve or become extinct over time. This is an oversimplification, to be sure, but I feel like I've conveyed the nuts and bolts of the concept. The idea is to apply some of the theories of natural selection to the field of cultural evolution. I haven't looked into the field of memetics as much as I would like, but the concept is compelling. It would be interesting to see someone attempt to classify human culture according to memetic (not sure if that usage is appropriate) variations the way the animal kingdom is broken down into family, genus, phylum, species and all that fun stuff.

Anyway, that's where the term "meme" comes from, and certainly, you can see echoes of the internet meme in Dawkins's ideas. But the internet meme is doing something a little different (perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of Richard Dawkins memes out there). Where Dawkins intended for meme to describe the transmission of ideas from person the person verbally or via behavioral cues, Internet memes are mimic-able cultural units - i.e. catchphrases, activities, or bits of media - that are transmitted from person to person via ... 

The Internet.

The manner of transmission, however, while the most obvious, is not the most important difference between Dawkinsian and Internet memes. I could be interpreting Dawkins a little wrong, but his memes seem to more likely to spread via similarity than difference. Even when they combine, evolve, or mutate to create new memes, they are propagated by the points they have in common. For Internet memes, I would argue the opposite is true. Although the base form of any meme will stay largely the same - a socially awkward penguin, Harlem Shake videos, a picture of Keanu Reeves - the meme itself is propagated primarily by the number of variations that can be imposed upon it. These deliberate alterations, are what help an Internet meme spread to a wider audience, who will then, in many cases, make their own version of a given meme. There is an intentionality to the modification and spread of Internet memes that largely seems absent from Dawkins's original concept. And, whereas the reach and durability of Dawkinsian memes seems predicated on how many people think or behave in similar ways, the popularity of Internet memes seems based on how readily they can be adapted to suit the needs of the people using them (as well as how many people the Internet allows these variations to be shared with). Sound familiar?

The rampant popularity of zombies and memes, and even zombie memes, seems to center around the same features: adaptability and personalization. Although individual instances of Internet memes are rarely as open to interpretation as the zombie figure, which, as I've said, can represent nearly any personal or cultural fear or anxiety, the underlying meme forms are often so customizable that their range can be every bit as broad. There is a meme that can say whatever it is that you want to say, whether that happens to be a joke

 or scathing social commentary. 

And if there isn't, you can make one up. 
You're welcome.
Something just occurred to me about zombies and memes, but I need to work through it before I can talk about it. I'll come back to this, whether it's in another post, or as an update to this one.