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Now Streaming: The Plague Years

When things are very American, they are as American as apple pie. Except violence. H. Rap Brown said violence “is as American as cherry pie,” not apple pie. Brown’s maxim makes us see violence as red and gelatinous, spooned from a can.

But for Brown, in 1967, American violence was white. Explicitly casting himself as an outsider, Brown said in his cherry pie speech that “violence is a part of America’s culture” and that Americans taught violence to black people. He explained that violence is a necessary form of self-protection in a society where white people set fire to Bowery bums for fun, and where they shoot strangers from the towers of college campuses for no reason—this was less than a year after Charles Whitman had killed eleven people that way at the University of Texas in Austin, the first mass shooting of its kind in U.S. history. Brown compared these deadly acts of violence to the war in Vietnam; president Lyndon B. Johnson, too, was burning people alive. He said the president’s wife was more his enemy than the people of Vietnam were, and that he’d rather kill her than them.

Brown, who was then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and who would soon become the Black Panther Party’s minister of justice, delivered a version of this speech, or rant, to about four hundred people in Cambridge, Maryland. When it was over, the police went looking for him and arrested him for inciting a riot. Brown’s story afterward is eventful and complicated, but this is an essay about zombie movies. Suffice it to say, Brown knows about violence. Fifty years after that speech, having changed his name to Jamil Abdullah al-Amin, he’s spending life in prison for killing a cop.

The same day Brown was giving his speech in Maryland, George A. Romero, a director of industrial films, was north of Pittsburgh in a small Pennsylvania town called Evans City. Romero was shooting his first feature film, a low-budget horror movie in black and white called Night of the Living Dead. Released in October 1968, the first modern zombie movie tells the story of a black man trying to defend himself and others from a sudden plague of lumbering corpses who feed on the living. At the film’s end, he is unceremoniously shot and killed by cops who assume he is a zombie trying to kill them. The cops quickly dispose of his body, dumping it in a fire with a heap of the undead, as a posse moves on to hunt more zombies.

We want the Zombie Apocalypse to happen because it is the one disaster we are truly mentally prepared for.

Regional gore films were nothing new in themselves; a number had appeared earlier in the 1960s. Night of the Living Dead, with its shambling, open-mouthed gut-munchers dressed in business suits and housecoats, might have seemed merely gross or oddly funny in a context other than the America of 1968. But Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated six months before its release. The news on TV, which most people still saw in black and white, consisted largely of urban riots and war reports from Vietnam. The My Lai Massacre had occurred the month before King was shot.

Romero’s film, seen in the United States the year it came out, had more in common with Rome Open City than it did with a drive-in horror movie made for teens—it was close to a work of neorealism. And it was unfunny and dire, much like John Cassavetes’s Faces, released the same year, whose laughing drunks stopped laughing when they paused to look in the mirror. Romero was a revisionist director of horror in the same way that Peckinpah and Altman were in their career-making genres, the western and the war movie.

Romero cast an African American in the lead, and he shifted the horror genre’s dynamic, aligning it with black-and-white antiwar documentaries like Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig, also released in 1968, and distinguishing it from the lurid color horror films Roger Corman and Hammer Films had been turning out up till then. Those films made certain concessions to the film industry; Night of the Living Dead did not. This was an American horror movie, so it needed no English accents or familiar character actors. It was grim and unflinching, showing average citizens, played by average people, eating the arms and intestines of their fellow townsfolk. Romero drove home this central point—that a zombie-infested America differed from the status quo only in degree, not in kind—by ending his film with realistic-looking fake news photos depicting his characters’ banal atrocities.

Mainstream film reviewers, including Roger Ebert, were shocked and disgusted by Night of the Living Dead. They discouraged people from seeing it, but Romero’s images proved to be indelible. The film’s reputation grew. In 1978 Romero made the film’s first sequel, Dawn of the Dead, this time in color. Today, if there’s one thing every American knows, it’s that zombies can only be killed with a shot to the head. This is common knowledge, cultural literacy, a kind of historical fact, like George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. American-flag bumper stickers assert that “these colors don’t run,” but one of them does. It runs like crazy through American life, through American movies, and now TV, like a faucet left on.

Dead Reckonings

The Huffington Post has had a Zombie Apocalypse header since 2011, under which the editors file newsy blog posts chronicling our continuing fascination with zombie pop culture, alongside any nonfiction news story horrible enough to relate to zombies or cannibalism. The infamous Miami face-eater attack of May 2012, which the media gleefully heralded as the start of a “real” zombie apocalypse, contributed to America’s sense that it could happen here, provided we wished for it hard enough. Reading through the Zombie Apocalypse posts, one gets a growing sense that we want the big, self-devouring reckoning to happen because it is the one disaster we are truly mentally prepared for. It won’t be the total letdown of the Ebola scare.

The face-eating incident was initially linked to bath salts: ground-up mineral crystals everyone hoped would become the new homemade drug of choice for America’s scariest users. It turned out the perpetrator, although naked, was only high on marijuana. He was black, killed by the police as he gouged out his homeless victim’s eyes and chewed his face on a causeway over Biscayne Bay. The incident was captured on surveillance video. Here in the golden age of user-generated content, the zombie movies self-generate—much like zombies themselves. The bridge backdrop of this all-too-real zombie vignette neatly summed up both the crumbling condition of America’s infrastructure and our more generalized state of neoliberal collapse.

The zombie apocalypse, our favorite apocalypse, seems to unite the right and left. It combines the apocalypse brought about by climate change and the subsequent competition for scant resources with the one loosed by secret government experiments gone awry. Better still, both of these scenarios, as we’re typically shown in graphic detail, will necessitate increased gun-toting and firearms expertise.

More than that, the fast-approaching zombie parousia allows us to indulge our fantasies of a third apocalypse, one that only the most clueless don’t embrace: the consumerist Day of Judgment, in which we will all be punished for being fat and lazy and living by remote control, going through our daily routines questioning nothing as the world falls apart and we continue shopping. Supermarkets and shopping carts, malls and food warehouses all figure prominently in the iconography of the post–Night of the Living Dead zombie movie, reminding us that even in our quotidian consumerist daze, we are one step away from looting and cannibalism, the last two items on everyone’s bucket list.

Still, despite its galvanizing power to place all of humanity on the same side of the cosmic battlefront, the zombie apocalypse, like all ideological constructs, nonetheless manages to cleave the world into two camps. One camp gets it and the other doesn’t. One is aware the apocalypse is under way, and the other is blithely oblivious to the world around it.

To confuse matters further, people move in and out of both camps, becoming inert, zombified creatures when obliviousness suits their mood. People blocking our progress on the street as they natter into their hands-free earsets stare straight ahead, refusing to admit that other people exist. At least they don’t bite us as we flatten ourselves against walls to pass them without contact. A paradox of the ubiquity of zombie-themed pop culture is how there are surely next to no people left who have not enjoyed a zombie movie, TV show, book, or videogame, yet there are more and more people shuffling around like extras in a zombie film, moving their mouths and making gnawing sounds.

The smartphone-based zombification of street life is a strange testament to Romero’s original insight, which becomes more pronounced as the wealth gap widens. The disenfranchised look ever more zombie-fied to the rich, who in turn all look the same and act the same as they take over whole neighborhoods and wall themselves up in condo towers. This, indeed, is exactly what happens in Romero’s fourth zombie movie, 2005’s Land of the Dead, which predicted things as consequential as what happened during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and as minor as the rise of food trucks.

The Zombie Apocalypse is also a parable of the Protestant work ethic, come to reap vengeance at the end of days. It assures us that only very resourceful, tough-minded people will be able to hack it when the dead come back to life. If the rest had really wanted to survive—if they deserved to survive—they would have spent a little less time on the sofa. But here, too, the simple and obvious moral takes a perverse turn: the best anti-zombie combatants should be the ones who’ve watched the most zombie movies, yet by the very logic of our consumer-baiting zombie fables, they won’t be physically capable of survival because all they did was watch TV.

Selective Service

What these couch potatoes will need, inarguably, is the protection of a strong leader, one who hasn’t spent his life in the vain and sodden leisure pursuits that they’ve inertly embraced—Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, for instance. Why such a person would want to help them is a question they don’t ask. With this search for an ultimate hero, the zombie genre has veered into the escapism of savior lust, leaving Romero’s unflinching, subversive neorealism behind. In Night of the Living Dead, a witless humanity is condemned by its own herd mentality and racism. In latter-day zombie fictions, a quasi-fascist social order is required, uniting us regardless of race, creed, or color.

The predicament of the characters (and the actors) in all the nouveau zombie movies relates to this passive consumerism. Both the characters and the actors in new zombie movies have to act like zombie films don’t already exist, even though the existence of Romero’s films is what permits the existence of the film they are in. Somehow, the characters pull their savvy out of thin air. They must pretend that they have never heard of zombies, even as they immediately and naturally know what to do once their own particular Zombie Apocalypse gets under way.

This paradox underscores the fantasy aspect of the twenty-first-century zombie infatuation, in which a fixed set of roles is available for cosplay in a repeatable drama that already took place somewhere else. The difference between Romero’s films and the new zombie movies is that the more time that passes since 1968, the more Romero’s films don’t seem like they were designed as entertainment—even as they are endlessly exploited by the zombie-themed cultural productions that copy them, and even as they remain entertaining. The new zombie films cannibalize Romero’s films in an attempt to remake them ideologically, so that we will stop looking for meaning in them and just accept the inevitable.

The Primal Hordes

A primal fantasy of the Zombie Apocalypse is that when the shit hits the fan, we will be able to kill our own children or parents. We won’t have a choice. The decision to get rid of the generation impeding us will have been made for us by the zombie plague, absolving us of responsibility. We are, after all, killing somebody who is already dead and who, in his or her current state, is a threat to our continued existence.

Against the generalized dystopian entertainment landscape that followed the economic collapse of 2008, the Zombie Apocalypse made more sense than ever. But YA action-drama dropped it in favor of promoting teen heroes who were stronger than their nice-but-loserish sad sack parents. This is the uplifting generational affirmation that imbues Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games franchise and Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy.

YA comedy, on the other hand, did not ignore zombie movies. Instead, it domesticated the Zombie Apocalypse, making it friendly. Nonthreatening zom-coms showed young viewers how the opposite sex was really not that scary, that being in a couple was still the most important thing, and that dystopias gave nerds an unprecedented chance to prove they could get the girl or boy. Dystopia, it turns out, is really a best-of-all-possible-worlds scenario for starry-eyed-kids-with-a-disease, or so we learn from zom-coms like Warm Bodies and Life After Beth.

The latest iteration of this trend, which sets a zombie heroine in a marginally less dystopian world that mirrors our tentative economic comeback, is the CW TV show iZombie. The series is a brain-eating entertainment for tweens in which they learn you can be okay and have a chill job even if you’re a living corpse who’s just trying to figure things out. When a zombie gets her own tween-empowerment show on The CW, it’s a good indication that zombies don’t carry the stern, unbekannt stigmas they used to. Zombies, much like corpses in TV commercials, are used as grotesque comic relief in things like animated Adult Swim shows. Such is the diminished status of the zombie; it is now a signifier that can be plugged in anywhere. To paraphrase the undead philosopher of capitalism’s own walking-dead demise: first time cannibalism, second time farce.

Reality Bites

The way zombie movies progress, with isolated groups splitting into factions and various elimination rounds as contestants disappear, suggests that Night of the Living Dead is also a secret source of reality TV. It makes sense, then, that 2009’s Zombieland, one of the first YA dystopian zombie entertainments, was penned by screenwriters who created The Joe Schmo Show and I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!

Zombieland’s protagonist, a college-age dude played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a bundle of phobias, an OCD-style follower of rules who finds himself in a Zombie Apocalypse after an unexpected date with a hot girl out of his league (Amber Heard) goes wrong. Mentored by Woody Harrelson, who more or less reprised this same role in the Hunger Games movies, Eisenberg’s millennial character undergoes a reality-TV-scripted makeover. In expiation for his pusillanimity in the opening reel, he winds up rescuing a tough girl (Emma Stone) who also would have been out of his league in the pre-Apocalypse scheme of dating. Zombieland presents Eisenberg as gutless and Stone as ruthless, but she’s the one who ends up a hostage, and he becomes her hero. In fact, one of his rules, “Don’t be a hero,” changes on screen to “Be a hero,” as we once again learn that millennials really do have what it takes to kill zombies. Earlier in the film, Eisenberg accidentally shoots and kills a non-zombie Bill Murray, playing himself, showing that millennials can also, regretfully, take out Baby Boomers, including the cool ones who aren’t undead.

Edgar Wright’s 2004 Shaun of the Dead, the first movie zom-com, was a more intelligent version of this same storyline. An English comedy from the “Isn’t it cute how much we suck?” school, Wright’s film acquiesced to the coupling-up plot rom-coms require, but not without first presenting the routine, pointless daily life of its protagonist (Simon Pegg) as pre-zombified. Shaun of the Dead will likely remain the only sweet little comedy in which the protagonist kills his mother, a scene the film has the guts to play without flinching. The joke of Wright’s film is that it takes something as brutal as a zombie apocalypse to wake us from our stupor and to show us how good we had it all along. By the film’s end, Pegg and his girlfriend (Kate Ashfield) are in exactly the same place they were when the film started, but now at least they live together. A cover of the Buzzcocks’ song “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays” jangles over the credits, providing a zombified dose of circa-1979 irony.

Wright and Pegg’s goofy rethinking of the zombie movie proved how firmly zombies are entrenched in our consciousness, and how easy they are to manipulate for comedic effect. The same month Shaun of the Dead came out, a Hollywood remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released. It, too, cleaned up at the box office. This new Dawn of the Dead seemed like it was made by one of the nerds in the American zom-coms, a jerk desperate to prove he’s bad-ass. (The director now makes superhero movies.) Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” accompanies the opening credits, setting a high bar for artistic achievement the ensuing film does not come near to clearing. Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” plays at the end—its placement there as repulsive as anything else in the film.

As all nouveau zombie films must, the remake starts in the suburbs, where a couple is watching American Idol in bed, underscoring the genre’s newfound connection to reality TV. The film’s CGI effects, which at the time injected a souped-up faux energy into the onscreen mayhem, dated instantly. They’re now the kind of off-the-rack effects featured in Weird Al videos when someone gets hit by a car.

The main point of this new Dawn of the Dead is that after the Zombie Apocalypse, people will spend their time barking orders at each other and calling each other “asshole.” The film nods in the direction of loving the military and the police, and totally sanitizes Romero’s use of a shopping mall as a site of consumerist critique. Like many films of the 2000s, it postulates that living in a mall wouldn’t be a Hobbesian dystopia at all; it would be rad. If the remake had been made five years later, maybe it would have had to grapple with the “dead malls” that began to adorn the American landscape with greater frequency after the economy collapsed. Instead, the mall serving as the film’s principal backdrop is spotless and fun. The remake’s island-set, sequel-ready false happy ending makes one long for the denouement of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games—a longing more unimaginable than any real-life wish-fulfillment fantasy about the Zombie Apocalypse actually coming to pass.

The American Way of Death

Fanboys liked the Dawn of the Dead remake and, inexplicably, so did many critics. Manohla Dargis, then at the Los Angeles Times, wrote that the film was “the best proof in ages that cannibalizing old material sometimes works fiendishly well,” a punny sentiment she might well walk back today.

The next year, when George A. Romero released his first new zombie film in twenty years, it did not fare as well in the suddenly crowded marketplace of the undead. While Land of the Dead (2005) is fittingly seen as something of a masterpiece now, on its initial release it puzzled genre fans, who had gotten used to the sort of “fast zombies” that were first featured in the nihilistic-with-a-happy-ending British movie 28 Days Later (2002). Romero’s new film was as trenchant as his others, but many fans weren’t having it.

IMDb user reviews provide a record of their immediate reactions. “This movie was terrible!” one wrote the month Land of the Dead premiered. “The storyline—can’t use the word plot as that would give it too much credit—was tedious! Some say it was a great perspective on class? Are you kidding me!!!” Less then a year into George W. Bush’s second term, Romero was archly depicting a society much different from the one he’d shown in Night of the Living Dead. This new society—today’s—was more class-riven, more opportunistic, more cynical. And Romero, even while moving in the direction of Hawksian classicism, was exposing these failings with radical acuity. His dark fable of two Americas at war over the control of the resources necessary to survive was concise, imaginative, and well constructed. Few at the time wanted to consider the film’s style, which seemed out of date compared to the Dawn of the Dead remake. Fewer still wanted to grapple with its implications.

Ten years later, it is clear that no American genre film from that period digests and exposes the Bush era more skillfully than Land of the Dead. Romero’s film was uncomfortably ahead of its time, and like his other zombie work, it hasn’t dated; it speaks of 2015 as much as 2005. Tightly controlled scenes avoid the pointlessness and repetition of the nouveau zombie films, limning class struggle in unexpected ways. Zombies, slowly coming to consciousness, use the tools of the trades from which they’ve been recently dispossessed to shatter the glass of fortified condos. A zombie pumps gas through the windshield of a limo. The rich commit suicide, only to come back to life as zombies and feed on their children. America, as the original-zombie-era Funkadelic LP taught us, eats its young.

As zombie fantasies go, these scenes are much richer than the random, unsatisfying mayhem of the nouveau zombie films. Romero, unlike his counterparts, does not shy away from race. He shows African Americans pushing back against the injustices and indignities of a militarized police state, thereby completing a circle that began with Duane Jones’s performance in Night of the Living Dead.

Walking Tall

For the latest generation of zombie enthusiasts, the zombie genre means just one thing: AMC’s massively popular cable series The Walking Dead. The show is so much better than any of the recent non-Romero zombie movies that it’s among the leading exhibits in the case against the cineplex. The show’s politics and implications are widely discussed, and The Walking Dead has engendered national debate about all sorts of ethical issues, including something Romero’s films raised only in the negative: America’s future. But the first problem The Walking Dead solved was how to make its own debates about these things interesting: whenever scenes get too talky, a “walker” sidles up and has to be dispatched in the time-honored fashion. At its core, the zombie drama is like playing “You’re it!” The show could be called Game of Tag.

The Walking Dead debuted in 2010, emerging from a period in U.S. history when, all of a sudden, we found ourselves in a junked, collapsed, post-American environment. New dystopian dramas, especially the YA ones, reflected this chastened reality. The Walking Dead looked at first like it might become just another placeholding entry in this cavalcade of glumness, much like TNT’sSpielberg-produced, families vs. aliens sci-fi show Falling Skies. Zombies were maybe the most dated way possible to dramatize our newly trashed world.

It was The Walking Dead’s dated qualities, however, that saved it from becoming cable TV’s Hunger Games. The show’s grunge aesthetic and majority-adult cast situated it elsewhere. And if that particular elsewhere felt like the past as much as the future, that was part of what made the show work for premium cable’s Gen X audience. Greg Nicotero, a makeup man who worked under Romero, is one of the show’s producers. His presence indicated the people behind the show took the genre seriously, unlike anyone else in Hollywood who had touched it.

Television works by imitating success, by zombifying proven formulas through a process called mimetic isomorphism. When television producers saw The Walking Dead’s ratings beating broadcast-network ratings—a first for cable drama—they took notice and began spawning. Copies of copies like Resurrection, The Last Ship, The Leftovers, and 12 Monkeys showed that plague is contagious, but it doesn’t have to be zombie plague. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead continues its success, and AMC will debut a companion series this summer, unimaginatively called Fear the Walking Dead.

If the worst zombie movies unselfconsciously imitate higher-gloss broadcast-network reality trash like Survivor, The Walking Dead succeeds by staying closer to the lowest grade of cable-network reality TV. The world of The Walking Dead is closer to Hoarders than it is to Big Brother. Hoarders presents an America engulfed in mounds of trash that its psychologically damaged possessors can’t part with. Mounds of Big Gulp cups and greeting cards and heaps of car parts and instruction manuals overwhelm their homes, spilling into their yards. Shows like Storage Wars, Pawn Stars, and American Pickers present an America of valueless junk that maybe somebody can make a buck on—if only by televising it for our own lurid delectation. These shows are the opposite of pre-collapse valuation shows like Antiques Roadshow, in which the junk people had lying around proved to be worth more than they had imagined. The detritus of Hoarders is worthless, the kind of trash that will blow around everywhere after the Zombie Apocalypse.

Hoarders vs. Horde

In his recent book 24/7, an analysis of the end of sleep and our twenty-four-hour consumption-and-work cycle, Jonathan Crary writes that “part of the modernized world we inhabit is the ubiquitous visibility of useless violence and the human suffering it causes. . . . The act of witnessing and its monotony can become a mere enduring of the night, of the disaster.” Zombies, not quite awake but never asleep, are the living-dead reminders of this condition, stumbling through our fictions. When they are not transformed by the wishful thinking of ideology into our pals, they retain this status.

Celebrated everywhere, zombies are the opposite of celebrities, who swoop into our disaster areas like gods from Olympus to rescue us from the calamities that also allow them to flourish. Zombies, far from being elevated, descend into utter undistinguishable anonymity and degradation, which is why they can be destroyed in good conscience. Brad Pitt, one of the producers of ABC’s Resurrection, also starred in World War Z, the most expensive zombie movie ever made. The last line of that odious movie—the first neoliberal zombie movie—is “Our war has just begun.”

Whatever that was supposed to mean to the audience, these fables of the plague years drive home just who the zombies are supposed to be—and who, when the plague hits, will helicopter out holding the machine guns. Col. Kurtz’s faithful devotee from Apocalypse Now, Dennis Hopper, the counterculture hero who became a Republican golf nut, plays the leader of the remaining 1 percent in Land of the Dead. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” he says when he’s faced with the choice between his money and our lives.