Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Celebrate the Obama-versary With Zombies

Celebrate the Obama-versary With Zombies

Today is a red-letter day for two, seemingly unrelated reasons - unrelated that is except in the fevered excesses of my twisted logic. Try to follow along with me as I explain my delusions.

Hail to the (Kenyan) ChiefFirst, today is the one-year anniversary of Barack Hussein Obama's inauguration as 44th President of the United States of America. A moment that many people, myself included, never thought would happen.

And frankly that first year has been a little bit rough. Looking from afar up here in Canada, it seems that in an attempt to be a more inclusive President than his predecessor, Obama has become slightly paralyzed.

If you only watched Fox, you might assume that Obama has been doing nothing but destroying the U.S.A. by being throughly and completely un-Republican. I would argue that he has been too - What's the word? Sympathetic? Respectful? Of Republican viewpoints and ideology. (c.f. not killing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, not closing Gitmo)

And I am here to give some advice, because giving completely unqualified (and undesired) advice that will never be listened to by anyone relevant is what these here Interwebs were designed for.

Beef Wellington's Favourite Comic Book!Which brings me to the second awesome thing about today. It was announced today on Variety that AMC has ordered a pilot for a Walking Dead TV series based on the Image comic book series by Robert Kirkman. The script for the pilot was written by Frank Darabont (basically the best Stephen King adaptor period) who will also direct the pilot and produce the series. Also signed on as a producer is Gale Anne Hurd (Terminator, Aliens).

Walking Dead's one-sentence pitch has always been "a zombie movie that never ends", so it is very appropriate and fairly awesome that it will be made as a TV series. AMC may seem a bit of a stretch as a network when you look at Mad Men, but based on the first three episodes of Breaking Bad, they are not afraid to gross out their audience, so I have high hopes for this series.

(Need I mention that The Walking Dead is awesome? Granted, relentlessly depressing like all great Zombie fiction dramas, but because it is a much longer form story, you can get attached to characters much more than you can be in a two hour movie. And when the Zombie hordes eat that character that you have been following for 50 issues (say roughly the equivalent of ten feature films) the loss gets you in the gut in a way that a feature film simply can't manage.)

And it is incredibly appropriate that the pilot for Walking Dead should be green-lit on the first anniversary of Obama's inauguration, because Zombie films are the most political of all horror films.


Wait. What?

Let me explain.

Roger Ebert in his review of Zombieland wrote about Zombies:
Vampires make a certain amount of sense to me, but zombies not so much. What's their purpose? Why do they always look so bad? Can there be a zombie with good skin? How can they be smart enough to determine that you're food and so dumb they don't perceive you're about to blast them?
It is exactly the purposelessness of Zombies that make them perfect for political commentary. That and the lack of real rules regarding Zombies. No matter how slavishly fans cater to the rules laid down by George Romero, there are huge variants in the walking dead: there are non-eating Zombies, omnivores who will eat anything and picky eaters who only want specific food like brains; some are dead, some are dying and some are alive; some can be killed like any human, some can only be killed in specific ways, some can't be killed; some zombies aren't contagious, some are insanely contagious (one drop of blood to the eye and you turn instantly) and some Zombie viruses take a long time to turn their victims, amongst many other variants.

That variation allows filmmakers to use Zombies as ferocious (and hungry) political commentary, whether it is George Romero commentating about the emptiness of our shopping-mall culture in Dawn of the Dead or Danny Boyle simultaneously skewering PETA and the military in 28 Days Later.

The other secret to Zombie films is that Romero built his Living Dead series on the intersection between the Haitian Zombies legends and the Cold War paranoia alien invasion films like The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

If you look at The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers both films are about alien plants who eat (or I suppose compost) humans in order to create duplicates who try desperately to pass as human. When their deception is uncovered, they react with violent rage. The last minutes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers have the hero desperately running from the not-quite humans assembled as a mob. The genesis of the shambling Zombie horde.

To prove that Zombie films are political commentary, here are five of my favourites along with the political lesson that watching this film could give to Barack Obama.

5. Hatchet (2006)
Directed and written by Adam Green

Zombie Classification: Dead, non-contagious, loner, impossible to kill

There are those who would argue that Victor Crowley like Jason Voorhees and WWE's The Undertaker is not in fact a zombie. There is a longer argument that I could indulge in, but side-stepping all of that allow me just to point out that they call it "The Zombie Sit-Up" for a reason.

Hatchet makes it onto this list partly as a result of odd timing that gives the film an unexpected political resonance. It was the last film shot in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina adding a political frisson to this "Old School American Horror" tale of a group of tourists who take the wrong turn during a swamp tour and run into a ferociously angry Victor Crowley who like all Angry Dead takes his revenge on the living. The film reminds us that in Louisiana, since you hit the water table well before you dig down six feet, you don't so much bury the dead as temporarily submerge them.

The swamp that destroyed the credibility of George W. Bush was not the morass of Iraq and Afghanistan as much as Katrina which pointed to the hypocrisy in Bush's message. What was the point of restricting freedoms in the name of safety, if you can't deliver on your promises of safety? The chaos of the Bush administration's ineffectual response to Katrina proved that they would have been equally ineffectual in the face of another terrorist attack, which put their entire platform into question.

Compare Bush's reaction to Katrina with Obama's reaction to the earthquake in Haiti.

Political Lesson: You can't prevent disasters, but you will be judged on how you respond to them.

4. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Directed by Dan O'Bannon, screenplay by Dan O'Bannon, book by John A. Russo, story by Rudy Ricci and Russell Steiner

Zombie Classification: Dead, contagious, picky-eaters, hard-to-kill, mob, talkative

The first great Zombie comedy is surprisingly subversive. The Zombies are created as a result of an Army experiment gone wrong. The Army not only knows of the possibility of a Zombie epidemic they actually have a horrifying contingency plan in the event of an accidental spill of their Zombie-creating toxic goop. (As opposed to say not making the stuff in the first place.)

Meanwhile, the Zombies mock the crumbling infrastructure of the U.S. of the 1980's, "Send More Cops!" "Send More Paramedics!" The Zombie variation on "911 is a Joke."

If you look at Rudy Giuliani's successful career as New York Mayor, one of the very simple things that he did was to hire more cops, which surprise! surprise! resulted in a reduction of the crime rate. Mind you he was able to successfully expand the N.Y.P.D. because others (including Giuliani as District Attorney) had cleaned up the police force from its' brutal, corrupt and inefficient Serpico days. The N.Y.P.D. of the 90s was still capable of corruption, brutality and inefficiency, but it was more the exception than the rule.

Political Lesson: Beware of military adventures. Invest in infrastructure. More cops help reduce crime. More paramedics help save lives. More fire-fighters help stop fires.

3. End of the Line (2007)
Directed and Wriiten by Maurice Devereaux

Zombie Classification: Live, non-contagious, die like humans, mob, Zombies-by-proxy

Zombie-by-proxy is a lovely term that I found about thanks to Jim Emerson's Scanners blog. It refers to humans who act like Zombies, the primary example being George Romero's The Crazies - the remake is about to be released. The Zombies in 28 Days Later - plague victims who starve to death when they run out of victims are essentially Zombies-by-proxy.

The End of the Line give us what I described on its release as "Compassionate Zombies". The monsters of the films are religious zealots on a subway who receive a message that the end times are here and begin slaughtering the non-believers on the subway to spare them from the horrors of the apocalypse foretold in Revelations. (Using knives because the Bible doesn't talk about guns.)

The horror is made worse because the monsters know that they are monstrous, but somehow convince themselves through religious fervour that their actions are justified.

Political Lesson: You can't win an argument with a zealot. It's pointless to even try.

2. Zombieland (2009)
Directed by Reuben Fleischer, written by Rhett Resse and Paul Wernick

Zombie Classification: Dead, contagious, omnivores, hard-to-kill, mob

This spiritual heir to Return of the Living Dead was dismissed on its release as a Hollywood Shaun of the Dead, but there is a lot more going on here. The film takes a quick shot at our Fast Food Nation claiming that the Zombie epidemic started with a burger contaminated with Mad Cow Disease.

But it is with Columbus' rules for surviving a Zombie Apocalypse that the film finds resonance, "
The first rule of Zombieland: Cardio." While these rules for survival do keep Columbus alive, they also prevent him from living. To really live, he must learn to break the rules that keep him alive.

Quick awkward confession about Canadians. Our favourite President pre-Obama was Jimmy Carter. We liked him because he was honest, polite and seemed like too nice a guy to be President. (We feared Reagan, thought Bush Sr was a hypocrite, knew Clinton was a hypocrite, knew George W was an idiot.) Now of course, all of the reasons that we liked Jimmy Carter as President were the reasons that the U.S. voters considered him a failure as a President.

So, as a Canadian who likes Obama because he is honest, polite and seems like he is too nice to be President, I fear that Obama will be considered a failure like Carter unless he learns that while the velvet glove is fine, sometimes the iron fist may be necessary especially with his political enemies.

In other words...

Political Lesson: Sometimes to survive you need to break the rules, or to quote Tallahassee, "Time to nut up or shut up!"

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero, Written by George A. Romero and John A. Russo

Zombie Classification: Dead, contagious, omnivores, hard-to-kill, mob

The Grand-Daddy of them all obviously and as I mentioned up above built on the intersection between the myths of the Haitian Zombies and the cold-war paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

One of the reasons that Romero's classic still speaks to us, is still relavant more than 40 years after its release is that it gives no easy answers. The film can be (and has been interpreted) as ferocious political criticism on variety of topics.

To quote Brian Eggert from Deep Focus Review

Commentators interpreted the film’s zombies as capitalists, racists, counterculturalists, and extremists, to name a few. The cannibalism was described as humanity’s irrational compulsion for violence—our seemingly imbedded need to destroy one another. In total, the film was commonly explained as a protest against the current Vietnam conflict, a critique of the media, cynicism toward familial and governmental establishments, and a severe blow against civil defense. Which of these readings was correct? All of them. None of them.
The other reason that the film still speaks to us is its hero, Ben Hanser played by Duane Jones. Romero has always insisted that he cast Duane Jones as Ben Hanser because he was the best actor that he knew who wanted the part; in other words Duane Jones got the part because he was the most qualified person for the job.

And there is very much a sense in the film that Ben Hansen is the hero not because he is a black man or because the filmmaker is trying to make a point. Ben Hansen is the hero because he is the hero, point finale. Compare this to the Sidney Poitier films of the period where his films always seemed on the verge of congratulating themselves for casting a black man in the part or for making a bold statement about civil rights.

Sadly, in much of the commentary and reaction following Obama's election and inauguration there was the same sense of Poitier like self-congratulation on the election of the first Black man to become President. The first political lesson that we should take from Night of the Living Dead is the hope that if Obama is re-elected in 2012, it will be because he is the most qualified candidate, or to quote paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. "[He] will not be judged by the color of [his] skin but by the content of [his] character." America finally catching up to Romero, 40 years after the fact.

This, by the way, is not to argue that Obama was the least qualified person for the job in the 2008 election. Just that from the way everyone talked about his win after the election and during the inauguration, the fact that the Obama/Biden ticket was an obviously better choice than the McCain/Palin train-wreck was immediately forgotten as everyone indulged in a frenzy of self-congratulation for finally healing the racial divide.

The other political lesson from Night of the Living Dead is the one that I hope we do not repeat. Romero's film is about the rise of a hero during a time of great crisis, who is destroyed by his heroism.

Like many people, I have faith that Obama can be a Great President. I only hope that if he rewards our faith in him, that we will receive a better reward for his heroism than Ben Hanser did at the end of Romero's Night of the Living Dead.