"Choke on 'em! Choke... on... 'em!"

03.17.2004 | Richard O'Keeffe | Film

I have always loved zombie movies. Countless hours of my childhood were spent in darkened rooms watching straight-to-video’s greatest undead hordes eviscerate hapless citizens in films set neither far away nor long ago. These shambling corpses bleeding through the walls of humanity’s last sanctuaries, consuming the flesh of the living and spreading their festering contagion excited me like little else. This was, of course, before girls.

Still, even as a callow youth I preferred my undead carnage leavened with humor, and to be more than gore for its own sake, which left me partial to George Romero’s Pittsburgh Zombies, so named for the city they were filmed in. “Night of the Living Dead,” the first of the lovingly nicknamed Dead Trilogy, presented the American family circa 1968 literally eating itself alive in the face of social upheaval. 1978’s “Dawn of the Dead,” set in a mall, is an anti-consumerist screed, as even in death the zombies continue to shop in as unconscious a manner as when they were alive. The New York Times critic assigned to the flick walked out after a few minutes and filed a two graf review noting “I have a pet peeve about flesh eating zombies who never stop snacking.” The Italian Communist Party, more hip to the joke, gave the flick a rave review. The final installment, 1985’s less successful “Day of the Dead,” in which the living try to enslave the dead, was a critique of Reagan’s America that made up in gore for what it lacked in nuance.

The trilogy, with its mix of carnage and social critique, represents postmodernism at its best. The basis of countless inane cocktail party conversations, postmodernism’s legacy has been laconically pompous twenty-somethings yammering on about the “death of the author” or some such, and bragging about their never-to-be written novels. The attempts of these thumb-twiddlers to abolish the divisions between high-, middle and low-brow art in favor of some undead Culture in which Van Gogh and Hype Williams commingle as equals is as appalling as any zombie. But such smug philosophizing has at least infused dimension and smarts into our most guilty cinematic pleasures, giving birth to a baby worth nurturing even as it splashes around in some pretty foul bathwater.

Horror films’ stint in purgatory in the 1980s and 1990s can be blamed almost entirely on the “Friday the 13th” franchise. It was always mystifying to me how a series of films that espoused such reactionary sentiments — that sexually active young adults should be marked for death — could be marketed so successfully to teenagers themselves. Filled to the brim with sexual violence, the most cheaply Freudian being a scene where a girl emerges from a nude midnight swim and is murdered with a spear gun to the eye, horror films were tarred wholesale (nor did the “Halloween” and “Leprechaun” franchises help matters) with the brush of misogyny and pointless self-hated. Just as it seemed these films were on the way to the cinema trash heap, along came the “Scream” trilogy to revive the genre of bloody and intelligent vengeance.

Belatedly capitalizing on its past successes, Hollywood has at last come around to the Zombies of Pittsburgh, with a “Dawn of the Dead” remake hitting theaters on Friday. There has been some trolling in the undead stream recently with “28 Days Later,” “Resident Evil” and “House of the Dead,” but the latter two, spun off from popular video games, have narratives about as compelling as a hotly contested round of Pong.

“28 Days Later,” though, is a landmark film, cribbing the very best of the genre’s conventions — fear of infection and anxiety over power—and ratcheting up the voracious speed of its own zombies (technically infected humans, but this is a distinction without a difference). Doing so mutes the age-old zombie movie question, “Why don’t they just outrun these spastics?” The speed — and the cinema verité cinematography — push forward a plot which aggressively compares the violence of the infected with the feckless transgressions of the living, who use their attackers’ sub-human nature to justify their own dehumanizing acts.

Such moral ambiguities are the coin in which the best of these films trade. In practice this means — and I can’t stress this enough — absolutely no voodoo. Whenever a medicine man appears performing some arcane blood rite in order to create undead slaves it’s time to pack your bags and go home. This seems a strange line to draw.  After all, when corpses lusting for the taste of human brains get afflicted with wanderlust, you might imagine everything to be fair game.  Why should this be the deal breaker?

It’s simple. Exotic brutality isn’t the point here; it’s mundane brutality that drives the best zombie movies, the ones that ask hard questions about the living. The undead are hardly classic bad guys. In “28 Days Later” and “Dawn of the Dead,” they are less horrific than the still-living. Unlike vampires running around in Merchant-Ivory period costumes putting sexy bites on people’s necks, zombies are ragtag and tacky. Most of the Pittsburgh zombies are snapshots of their former selves; housewives still in their bathrobes or confused teenagers still wearing their Hare Krishna robes provide a kind of humor that only highlights the arbitrariness of the circumstances that establish one as either monster or victim. There is no dark and magnificent leader, twirling his mustache and cackling through long monologues, only groaning voids. And the space between the living and the living dead is not one of moral distance, but of dumb luck.

I can already hear the exasperated protests — that these beautiful film mudpies are exploitive, adolescent and utterly lacking in artistic merit or even entertainment value. To such dour critics, I quote the last words of Captain Rhodes in “Day of the Dead,” who furiously rasps as zombies gulp down his vital organs, “Choke on ‘em! Choke… on… ‘em!”