Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 17, 2017

George Romero (1940-2017): zombie politics

Filed under: Film,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

When “Night of the Living Dead” premiered in 1968, antiwar activists and socialists like me saw it mostly as escapist fun—a film like “The Wild Bunch” that would get our minds off the war and the difficulties of building the left in the USA. It was to the credit of documentary filmmaker Rob Kuhns to have discovered how close George Romero was to us politically. His “Birth of the Living Dead”, which can be seen on Amazon video, connects his film to the political climate in the USA in a break with the zombie genre.

Before Romero’s film, the zombie was featured in movies set in Haiti or some other Caribbean Island far removed from reality. It was Romero’s breakthrough to make the film unrelentingly realistic, including scenes of zombies eating entrails or lurching toward their prey in that characteristic gait. Also, unlike the traditional zombie movie set in Haiti, Romero made a movie about a society in advanced disintegration fully aware that it reflected what was happening in the streets of Newark or Detroit.

Romero got his start making commercials in the Pittsburgh area. Even then he was willing to push the envelope, making the first beer commercial actually showing people guzzling down a drink. After he worked on a film that showed Mr. Rogers, the benign host of a PBS children’s show, getting ready for a tonsillectomy, he was inspired to do a zombie movie since Mr. Rogers’s procedure struck him as gruesome rather than reassuring. Before going down that road, Romero considered doing an American version of Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring”. Fortunately, he saw that as unmarketable and moved onto a more feasible project that would make his mark as a director.

Romero is the star of Kuhn’s film, a likeably self-effacing and witty figure. He talks about how the film was cast, drawing from local personalities including many of the clients of his advertising agency who worked for free and had a blast doing so.

Besides Romero, we hear from a number of knowledgeable film critics and scholars including Elvis Mitchell, an African-American who explains the importance of casting an African-American actor—Duane Jones—in the lead role. Jones is an authority figure just as much as Rick Grimes, the sheriff in “Walking Dead”, but nobody ever says a word about not taking orders from a “Negro”. In its way, “Night of the Living Dead” was as much of a breakthrough for Black identity in films as the more obvious bids from directors working in the Blaxploitation genre. In the final scene Jones’s character is killed by a police-led posse that is as not that much different from vigilante squad just as the case today with an epidemic of cop killings.

After making a series of likable but inconsequential films for the next 37 years, Romero returned once again to the zombie genre with a film that I regard as his best and most political. As a blend of horror movie escapism and social commentary, his 2005 “Land of the Dead” succeeded wildly. (Available for $2.99 on Youtube linked above.) Romero audaciously used the conflict between the living and the ‘undead’ as a metaphor for the contradictions of late capitalist America but with sympathies for the zombie rather than those who were “protecting” private property.

The living dwell in a gated and heavily fortified city that is patrolled by centurions who have not earned the right to permanent residence there themselves. The centurions occasionally organize themselves into death squads and make forays into zombie territory where they kill at random and retrieve canned goods and booze for the consumption needs of the urban population. The shops in zombie territory are still staffed by the “stenches” who once worked there but who have only dim memories of their old occupations. An undead gas station attendant might hold up a nozzle but is clueless as to which end of the car it goes into; an undead gardener aimlessly pushes a lawnmower in circles in the middle of the street at midnight, and so on. These are lost souls who no longer fit into the commodity-producing scheme of things. What is worse, they subsist on eating the flesh of the living.

It is no accident that the city featured in the film is none other than Pittsburgh, director George Romero’s home town. This once bustling headquarters of America’s most powerful and prosperous steel companies was one of the first casualties of deindustrialization. It has been transformed into a citadel for service industries staffed by the college educated. The older, run-down working class sections of town that are home to unemployable steelworkers and other blue-collar workers made redundant by the “economic miracle” could easily have served as on-location settings for the zombie strongholds in “Land of the Dead.” (For economic reasons, however, most of the film was shot in Canada.)

Pittsburgh is ruled by Kaufman, a cynical capitalist played by Dennis Hopper. From a high-rise named “Fiddler’s Green” that dominates the city, he spies on the activities of the city’s population through television monitors. If anybody steps out of line, they will be picked up by the centurions, murdered and then dumped into zombie territory. This Pittsburgh has a lot in common with Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” another rigidly divided class society.

For that matter, “Land of the Dead” has enough cultural references to provide fodder for a dozen MLA panels. For example, you will find suggestions of “Bladerunner,” “Mad Max” or any of a number of other dystopian films.

The film also hearkens back to earlier classics like the Boris Karloff Frankenstein films, mostly in its capacity to make you feel a degree of sympathy for the monster. In “Land of the Dead,” you can’t escape feeling sorry for the flesh-eating zombies who only mount an assault on Pittsburgh after suffering one death squad raid too many. Led by “Big Daddy,” an African-American zombie (played skillfully and solely through grunting or howling by veteran actor Eugene Clarke) who was a pneumatic drill operator in his previous life and who still wears the coveralls of his trade, they lurch toward the city to take revenge. It is to Romero’s credit that he can nearly make you cheer for this uprising of the flesh-eating dispossessed.

The only thing that stands between Pittsburgh and the advancing zombie army is a heavily armed and armored troop carrier nicknamed Dead Reckoning. It bears a strong resemblance to vehicles on the streets of Baghdad today. Dead Reckoning has been commandeered by Cholo (John Leguizamo), a centurion who seeks revenge against Kaufman for not allowing him to buy an apartment in Pittsburgh. As somebody who has spent some time shopping for a co-op in Manhattan, I can identify with this character. Unless Kaufman turns over millions of dollars in ransom to Cholo and his gang, he will open fire on the city.

Kaufman sends Riley (Simon Baker), Dead Reckoning’s former commander, out to thwart Cholo’s plans and to save the city, which is the source of his wealth. Riley has been jailed for interfering in a gladiator type combat between two zombies that has been staged in a Las Vegas-like casino within the city. He, like the GI’s speaking out against the occupation of Iraq today, is one of the few centurions that has not been completely dehumanized by Kaufman’s system. If Riley and his friends are successful, they plan to hightail it to Canada and leave Kaufman’s madness behind. Obviously, such a plan will resonate with any filmgoer who has taken note of our northern neighbor’s more civilized stance on matters such as gay marriage or the war on terror.

In an interview with Los Angeles Weekly, Romero explains the importance of Pittsburgh:

When I got there — I went there to go to college and I’ve lived there ever since– the mills were all still open. Of course, you had to have your headlights on at noon and change your shirt three times a day. Nowadays, there are still people living in little towns like Braddock saying, “The mills will reopen someday. Don’t worry about it.” It is about lost potential. It was a thriving immigrant community. It was sort of the industrial American dream, but what nobody realized at the time was that it was the Carnegies and those boys who were keeping the city going. It seemed for a while like Pittsburgh was built on the backs of the workers, but it never really was. Those people have always been second-class citizens and the town has always been, at its core, very wealthy. So there’s a little bit of that in this movie too ­ it just so happens that it’s now a reflection of the entire country.

For George Romero, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” was “a soap opera with a zombie occasionally”. It is hard for me to argue with that especially since I have a soft spot for nighttime soaps like “The Desperate Housewives” or Spanish television’s “Grand Hotel”. As much as I love George Romero, I think that the show is popular because it is both entertaining and because it is socially relevant, just like “Land of the Dead”.

Since its inception, the show has honed in on repeated and futile attempts to escape both zombies and predatory human beings. In season four the main characters led by ex-cop Rick Grimes try to live at peace inside an abandoned prison that is protected by chain link fences from zombie attacks. You of course have to wonder how much difference there is between a prison and their gated community. The miniature commune grows its own food and lives by its own fairly civilized standards until they succumb to a combined attack by zombies and human predators, led by “The Governor” who has presided over his own safe haven that in reality is a concentration camp ruled by force.

In season five we see Rick’s band on the move again, this time hoping to become part of Terminus, supposedly another refuge from the zombies. Once they enter through its walls, they discover that the inhabitants are cannibals.

The existential bleakness of “Walking Dead” is clearly a reflection of the mood of despair that is widespread in a society constantly bombarded by news of nonstop war, jihadist terror, looming climate catastrophe, species extinction including our own, and a general sense that there is no alternative to the Dark Age that we live in. The inability of Rick’s band to find any sort of solidarity or mutual aid is ultimately more frightening than any zombie’s teeth.

Lately life has begun to imitate art as protestors at the G20 Summit in Hamburg took on the appearance of zombies. One of the event organizers, Catalina Lopez, told Reuters TV: “The goal of our performance today is to move the people in their hearts, to give them the motivation to get politically engaged again. We want to create an image, because we believe in the power of images…we want to motivate people to take part. To free themselves from their crusted shells, to take part in the political process.”

While I have to give them credit for inspired political theater, becoming free from “crusted shells” will finally take place not because of their performance but when capitalist society reaches such a unlivable state that people will be forced out of their routine into the streets by the millions as occurred 50 years ago when I entered radical politics.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Voir dans la Web-revue ""The Walking Dead" : survivre en milieu apocalytique" d'Anne-Lise Melquiond. Voir aussi l'entrée sur The Walking Dead, Actualités #26, décembre 2014.  Lire le post intéressant du philosophe marxiste Jason Read sur les films de zombies (en anglais). Pour une appréciation politique de Romero venant de l'extrême gauche, voir le texte (en anglais) du blogeur Louis Proyect, https://louisproyect.org/2017/07/17/george-romero-1940-2017-zombie-politics/ […]

    Pingback by Web-revue des industries culturelles et numériques — September 1, 2017 @ 12:08 am


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