“They’re coming to get you…”
A line from an old movie flutters through my mind. I step outside and my neighbour stumbles out with her face caked in makeup — another line of movie sweeps through my head “I see dead people.”
It doesn’t stop there. A host of suits trudge past, absently flailing their briefcases and lunch-bags. On the train, haggard creatures stare out into the distance as iPods funnel an endless drone into their empty craniums.
Remember the 1978 Movie, Dawn of the Dead? It is literally brimming with scenes where zombies wander through shopping malls, staggering blindly past makeup stands and t-shirt booths. I see this re-enacted every time I visit a shopping centre.
Then there’s the gruesome feeding frenzies where zombies dismember, disembowel and cannibalize their kill? There’s a sloppy-eater in every fast-food store that rips out a drumstick, smacks his lips and sinks his canines into some batter-fried dead animal — with an upsized fries and Coke on the side, of course.
I blame George A. Romero. He fathered a whole family of Dead movies, starting with Night of the Living Dead, which indelibly changed the way I saw the average somnambulist vagrant for ever.
Birth of the Dead
It’s easy to see why the zombie was a powerful metaphor back in 1968 when Night of the Living Dead was released. Infected by cold-war mentality and the brutalities of the conflict in Vietnam, the traditional class based divisions in America withered away. In its place civil rights movements from black-power to feminist, youth and gay-rights organizations were rearing their restive heads. Various racial and religious groups like the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nation burst through the earth.
To the benighted conservatives huddled in their farmhouses, a Zombie-Apocalypse might not have seemed too far removed from what was happening. The crux of Night of the Living Dead is centered on a group of citizens holding fort in a farmhouse with zombies teeming at the perimeter, literally snapping at the walls. These scenes are rife with lines like “we don’t know how many of them there are,” portraying a major social concern of that era – the fear that ‘they’ could outnumber ‘us.’ Romero could very well have lifted the dialogue and the setting directly from his surroundings.
The time Night of the Living Dead was released was particularly volatile with the paranoia often boiling over and spilling into violence. As Romero mentions in interviews, he had finished shooting and was literally driving the film to New York on the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This tragedy lent chilling resonance to the resolution played out in Night of the Living Dead: The hero of the movie, Ben (played by Duane Jones, the first black actor to play a lead role in a horror film) is mistaken for a zombie and shot dead by a bunch of rednecks.
These cracks in the fortitudinous farmhouse walls were not restricted to America. The same year British Conservative MP Enoch Powell made the notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech predicting bloody racial conflict in the United Kingdom.
…and the Dead Live On
Today, in 2008 where the dust of four decades has buried overtly divisive politics, you would expect the rumblings of the metaphorical ‘Undead’ not to register so high on our internal Richter-scales. Nevertheless, it still rattles my bones and unsettles my mind.
Why do I not feel a kinship with many of the people that surround me and automatically posit the caricature of the walking dead upon them? After all, I’m not so different from those that I zombified earlier — I wear a suit to work. I listen to music on my MP3 player on the train. I sometimes shop at the mall and I often eat meat.
Cultural theorists and sociologists like Baudrillard and Sartre have proffered a notion they call identity fragmentation – “a shattered, disconnected and incoherent sense of cultural meaning.”
Fuelled by hyper-speed communications and relentlessly mined by rampant capitalism, the identity of the emerging generation is far removed from the traditional divisions of class, race, religion and gender. Instead it is a dizzying jumble, a disorienting pastiche of appropriated symbols and signifiers.
The man I bumped into last evening was wearing an old-style cardigan with his formal business attire, the girl serving drinks at the bar had a sailors tattoo on her arm, I had a meeting with an IT consultant who wants to be a filmmaker, the ageing punk-rocker visits the Buddhist temple every weekend…and the list goes on – from Gay Vampire Goths to Pro-life Asian Vegans to Existential Skinhead Feminists, our cohabitants are not just the usual cast of B-movie cemetery dwellers – life outside my humble abode is a veritable freakshow.
In this random and vastly varied multitude of difference how does one find comfort and meaning? On their 2002 hit, “Schism” the progressive rock/metal band Tool, rather obliquely, present the problem and a possible solution: “There was a time that the pieces fit, but I watched them fall away/Mildewed and smoldering, strangled by our coveting / I’ve done the math enough to know the dangers of our second guessing / Doomed to crumble unless we grow, and strengthen our communication.” This line of thought is very much echoed by cultural critics and thinkers who postulate the indispensability of cultural discourse.
We’re All Gonna Die!
There is an amazing prescience to Romero’s vision in Night of the Living Dead. Around the halfway mark the surviving humans in the farmhouse are divided into two factions of whom Ben (the lone young African-American among the white majority) and Harry Cooper (the podgy balding family-man) assume the leadership roles. Harry wants the group to barricade themselves in the cellar but Ben categorically repudiates this idea stating that it is better to watch the Television or listen to the Radio for solutions than be trapped in the basement.
The resemblance of this fictitious situation to the struggle for ascendancy in the most powerful nation in the world. A pragmatic young black man who is very much the first of his kind to attain the status he’s achieved, pitted against a hardnosed, balding conservative, is striking. What remains to be seen is whether the final decision would be to descend into the cellar and bolt the door or to keep a watchful eye out to make an informed decision. Thus the choice to remain garrisoned or look for a route of escape is up to us. As cultural theorists and thinkers (and the band Tool) would propound, it is unfettered and unprejudiced communication that would lead us to a truer form of liberty.
Meanwhile, we should pray that all prognostications from Night of the Living Dead do not eventuate – especially its bleak denouement where each citizen of the farmhouse ends up dead.