Tuesday, July 1, 2008

We Are The Dead; How Horror Came To Life

I had planned to spend the semester researching horror cinema figures like zombies, and vampires because I believe they reflect social unrest and taboos in American history. But before I could even get through writing my proposal it was clear that I had little interest in vampires, an undeniable hunger for more information about the evolution of the zombie from the slow walking flesh eaters of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, to the rapid blood spitting Londoners of 28 Days Later. My goal was to establish links between the actions and thoughts of the living dead and undead, and those of the living popular culture. The first step was to compare the consumption habits of the living with those of the undead.
Zombies, those known to American audience, eat living human flesh. According to Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide, they will also eat animals, but if given the choice, will always go for a living person. The appetite of a zombie knows no bounds. So, if you or I were to engage in an eating contest with a zombie, we would not stand a chance because their bodies don’t function under the same laws as our. They will eat until there is nothing else to eat.
This never ending desire to consume is similar to that of capitalism. Capitalism presents itself as a system in which everyone gets a fair chance to succeed, but the element that drives capitalism is greed. Greed is what makes you want the biggest slice of pizza, or the nicest house on the block, or the fastest car even though many of these things are well beyond your means to obtain them. So in order to get these things in addition to food and a place to lay our head, we go to work. This is where it gets dark.
Work, according to Karl Marx is basically a man exchanging his life for something he will never have so long as he is working. Happiness. Once you buy into the glamorized lives that corporations try to sell you, you become part of the advertising process yourself. Many believe that it is a fair exchange to go to work for 8 or 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, to help their boss make more in a day than they will in a week. But the reward makes it all worthwhile. The problem is, the reward is just a product of someone else’s 45 hour work week that goes not into their pocket, but their bosses. In this context, capitalism not only feeds on the living, just like zombies, but also creates more capitalist without even having to work, because the first one to buy and wear its product will convince someone else that they should do the same.
The majority of these points are illustrated the films including the first zombie flick Victor Harperlin’s White Zombie staring Bela Lugosi released in 1932, and decades later in Shaun of the Dead by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, released in 2004. Both films have zombies who threaten the live of the living, but it is the living who pose more of a threat on people than anyone else. Lead characters in Shaun of the dead could easily survive the outbreak if they would simply cooperate with each other and think of the good of the whole, rather than the good of the individual. Those in White Zombie could have avoided involvement with the voodoo priest Murder Legendre if lusting after another man’s wife didn’t lead to selfish acts on the part of Beaumont, an already wealthy plantation owner who always seems to want more.
These movies tend to work in circles as well. Anyone you see in the opening montages, or first few minutes of these films, will most likely be the living dead by the half way mark doing the same things they did in life, only a little bit slower, and covered with blood. This consuming cycle very apparent in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. Romero’s sequel of sorts to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, brings the lead characters to a mall. Amidst the sea of fur coats, guns, designer clothes, jewel, and other expensive luxuries, Romero places the living in an environment where endless consumption comes natural for people, while undead inside appear to stumble around like they’re window shopping, waiting for the next big deal. Choosing a mall was no coincidence. The public was spending more time shopping and finding themselves more in tune with a pair of running shoes than their neighbor. Similar attitudes were felt in the postmodern movement by Haim Stienbach who expressed that “shopping had replaced art making as the ultimate act of self expression. “He went to say that “the department store had become the cathedral of postmodern desire and the act of shopping was the postmodern version of democratic choice.” If this was true then there was no difference between the living and the undead. And why should there be? Everything that is fears or hated about the undead, is within us all. People sometimes don’t know when to stop. People also have a tendency to choose the easier path, which usually ends in going nowhere fast. And last but not least, people have a tendency to be selfish, with primarily their best interest in mind.
All of which brings me to the subject of my final paper, how the horrors of Night of the Living Dead could not have been possible with the horrors of the Vietnam War. The United States was involved in Vietnamese activity years before the fabled Gulf of Tonkin incident in which LBJ publicly accused the North Vietnamese of attacking a U.S. destroyer. This of course was untrue, but was enough to convince congress that attacking North Vietnam was the right thing to do in the name of freedom and democracy. If any of this sounds familiar, it just gets better. The president got a lot of help from the media in creating a support the troops rally by keeping families at home informed of the progress being made in Vietnam and how the U.S. was winning the casualty war. This time period became known as the Living Room War.
Started in mid-1965 with the Vietnam War, and became known as the “Living Room War,” labeled by Michael Arlen, and refers to the activity of families being able to watch an active war from a safe distance, and commercials. The scheduling for news programs during the late 1960’s goes as follows. First, is the Battlefield Round-up, known to journalist as the “Five O’Clock follies,” followed by policy briefings from Washington, and closing with a film report. In the beginning, programs focused on “American Boys in Action, emphasizing their bravery and skill.” Visuals of blood and guts were kept to a minimum because networks did not want to offend their audiences with the true “horror of war.” The small amount of combat footage shown consisted of smoke clouds in the aftermath of bombings. Essentially, Americans believed everything the television said for years, and protests against the war were considered unpatriotic. The best thing to do was to “stay the course” because America was doing the right thing. As the years went by, soldiers started coming back, and things in Vietnam were not going as well as the public assumed. We weren’t winning, and the decision to draft young men who weren’t treated fairly by democracy in their own country were forced to fight for a hypocrisy in another, only made things worse.
Aside from similarities to the current operation in Iraq and soon Iran, the plot of Night follows the chain of events almost perfectly. The dead come back to life and start to kill, and the government, LBJ, refuses to give a clear answer as to what caused it. Before people are given a chance to figure things out on their own, news stations begin broadcasting instructions for how to survive the attack, but avoid telling anyone why it is happening. Local authorities assure the public that everything will be taken care of in a short time, and that the living would prevail. Anyone protesting the television is insulted, and told again that the television is right. As attempts are made to follow the instructions given by the television, more lives are lost and people start to realize that their better off thinking things through on their own. I won’t give away the ending if you haven’t already seen this, but I will say that it’s ending is very similar to that of the Vietnam Wars.
These films would not be possible if it weren’t for a very real belief in zombification from Haiti and West Africa. Haitian’s in the 17 century didn’t fear dying, but coming back from the dead to work in a foreign land with no reward, forever. It’s not zombification, but slavery they are speaking of, and it is just as real as a draft. The Haitian’s fear of never dying was used to control them by the wealth and those with the knowledge of drugs necessary to make one a zombie. Crossing the wrong person could make you very ill, and placed in a trance giving everyone the impression that you’ve died. After burial, your body is exhumed and placed under the control of the houngon who poisoned you in the first place. If you’re lucky to get out this situation, either by the death of the houngon, or salt, you’ll be free, but brain damaged.