Saturday, June 25, 2005

The monsters are humans who have undergone a symbolic transformation that reveals their true nature.

I just saw the much awaited new installment of a movie franchise that changed not just world cinema, but world mythology. The first movie of the series changed people's ideas about how much a film should cost to make. Sadly, the director later remade the movie in a way that he thought made it more politically correct, but really just ruined it. Many people say the second in the series was really the best.

The director of course is George Romero, whose 1968 Night of the Living Dead was showed how much could be done with low budget independent movie making. He also singlehandedly changed people's image of a zombie from a voodoo slave to a shambling flesh eater. And everyone likes the second movie best, because of this bit of dialogue, about the dead's penchant for shopping malls:

Francine: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives

Well, I could fill in the rest of the ways Romero is like the inverse image of George Lucas, but I'm still shaking from seeing Land of the Dead, and I need (I say need) to talk about the movie I just watched, not Romero's role in film history.

Spoilers for the first three Dead films, but not the current one, below the fold. Holy fuck.

Romero was on NPR today saying that when he writes horror movies, he thinks of the allegory first, and then worries about other details. His best allegories, though, are the one's he made by accident. The most accidental was the casting of his friend Duane Jones as the lead, accidentally establishing a metaphor about race, which was then intentionally carried through the other films. The zombies are pale. The hero is black. The mobs that gleefully chase zombies and ultimately kill our hero are lynch mobs.

The most important theme, though, is the symmetry between the dead and the living. The Monsters are humans who have undergone a symbolic transformation that reveals their true nature. In fact, this is now the essential feature of a zombie movie. It doesn't matter whether the zombies can run, or talk. The point is they are us.

Romero hits that theme hard with this movie. He always hits his messages hard when he puts them there on purpose. There are other allegories for our minute. The living are holed up in a opulent secure compound. In a brilliant touch, they think their wealthy lifestyle is protected because water--two bodies of water, on opposite sides of the gated community--separates them from the shambling masses. Romero is here to remind us that wealth and security are illusions.

Actually, there are three political groups here. The wealthy living, the poor living and the dead. When the poor rise up, the dead are more their allies than enemies. This is a theme he hit in the brilliant first quarter of Dawn of the Dead, when the military attack a housing project, and meet as much resistance from the project's living residents as the dead. (This whole segment was dropped from the recent Dawn of the Dead remake, which was one of its problems.)

Romero is not subtle. When we meet the arch-villain, he his sitting in a high-backed chair facing away from the camera. He swivels (swivels!) to face us when his underling enters to bring him news.

Romero is not subtle, nor should he be. I was thinking about subtlety in rock while listening to S-K's entertain. Carrie sings "If you've come to be entertained/please look away (don't look away)" She's not even subtle when she tries to undermine her own message. Who cares. The point of Rock and Roll is not to be subtle but to look so so pretty when you hit them so so hard on the nose. Look at the video. She how pretty? See how hard?

This is not the best zombie movie I have seen in the last few years. That honor goes to Cabin Fever. But it is better than recent remakes of Romero's work, like 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake. It's better if only because it gives us the allegories we need now, not the ones we needed 20 years ago. The dead are getting smarter. (The two smartest of the dead are an African American man and a white woman who look suspiciously like Ben and Barbara from the original.) We aren't in the same boat: the very wealthy have interests and plans of their own.

The movie, of course, has problems. All of Romero's movies but the first one have problems. He has at least remembered how to pace a movie. At an hour and a half, it says its piece and leaves, like the original, but not like Dawn or Day of the Dead. The ending is a little off. Romero does things for his allegory even when they don't make sense for the characters in the story. Most troubling is the dead end misanthropy of it all. Both the living and the dead are so despicable that our heroes can think of no goal but to go to Canada, "where there are no people." Even they can't live alone, though. The plucky (yes, plucky) band (yes, they are a band) gives us plenty of examples of mutual aid, and do wind up going North together.

Romero soaks (soaks, I say) us in blood when he talks about class. Christ, he should. We are soaked in blood. The New England Journal of Medicine has an article up on the doctors who assist in torture at gitmo. Molly always asks me, when I sneak off to a zombie movie, why I watch them when I know they will give me nightmares. (Real live, just like when you were a kid, mommy can I sleep with you tonight, nightmares.) It is not the movies that give me nightmares, though.

The monsters are humans who have undergone a symbolic transformation that reveals their true nature.

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