Zombie Nation

Cannibalism and human depravity? Dante would have loved it. Scott McLemee interviews a religious scholar about our fascination with the living dead.

February 20, 2008

For countless dead bodies to become reanimated and swarm through the streets as cannibalistic ghouls would count as an apocalyptic development, by most people's standards. Then again, it is not one that we have to worry about all that much. Other possibilities of destruction tend to weigh more heavily on the mind. But if you combine extreme improbability with gruesome realism, the effect is a cinematic nightmare that won't go away -- one of the most durable and resonant forms of what Susan Sontag once described as "the imagination of disaster."

It all began with the release of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead in 1968: a low-budget independent film that more or less instituted the conventions of the cannibalistic zombie movie, as further developed in his Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985). Other directors have played variations on his themes, but Romero remains the definitive zombie auteur -- not simply for founding the subgenre, but for making it apocalyptic in the richest sense. For the root meaning of "apocalypse," in Greek, is "an uncovering." Romero's zombies expose the dark underside of American culture: racism, consumerism, militarism, and so on.

His most recent addition to the zombie cycle, Diary of the Dead, which opened last Friday, returns viewers to the opening moments of the undead's onslaught. But while his first film, Night, was set in a world where radio and television were the only sources of information for panicking human refugees, Diary is a zombie film for the age of new media. Romero's band of survivors this time consists of a bunch of college students (and their alcoholic professor) who are busy making a film for class when the end of the world hits. One of them become obsessed with posting footage of the catastrophe online -- a chance for Romero to explore the ways that digital technology makes zombies of its users.

As an enthusiast for Romero's apocalyptic satire, I was somehow not terribly surprised to learn last year that Baylor University Press had published a book called Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth. The author, Kim Paffenroth, is an associate professor of religious studies at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York.

Romero's zombie apocalypse brings "the complete breakdown of the natural world of food chains, social order, respect for life, and respect for death," writes Paffenroth, "because all those categories are meaningless and impossible to maintain in a world where one of the most fundamental limen, the threshold between alive and dead, has become a threshold that no one really crosses all the way over, but on which everyone lives suspended all the time." And in this moment of revelation, all the deadly sins stand fully revealed (and terribly rapacious).

The release of Diary of the Dead seemed a perfect excuse finally to interview Paffenroth. He answered questions by e-mail; the full transcript follows.

Q:You mention in your book that George Romero's work has literally given you nightmares. How did you go from watching his films to writing about them, and even publishing zombie fiction of your own?

A: Well, I was fascinated with the original Dawn when I was still a teen, but I'm afraid my level of commentary seldom got beyond -- "Zombies! Cool!" And then, to be honest, I didn't think of or watch any zombie films from the time Day came out until the Dawn remake was released. But during those years, I was just reading everything I could -- especially ancient and medieval literature, philosophy, and theology. So when I saw the Dawn remake, things clicked and I could give a more thorough and complicated response than I had when I was a youth, because I could then see how Romero was building on Dante and the Bible.

And to be frank, at that point I'd written a lot of books about the Bible and other theological topics, and no one read them. To an author, that's probably the worst disappointment imaginable. So I took a chance that if people didn't want to read about these theological subjects directly, maybe through the filter of their favorite monster genre, they'd be more open to the discussion and analysis. And it seems that they are.

As for making the transition to fiction writing, that's just crazy hubris that strikes all of us at some point -- the idea that anyone would want to read the tales we write -- and some of us are dogged and patient and lucky enough that it actually amounts to something. I never get over it, when I realize that there are some people who like my fiction and look forward to what I'll write next. That's a huge rush and I want to keep it going as long as I can.

Q:In the New Testament, Jesus dies, then comes back to life. His followers gather to eat his flesh and drink his blood. I am probably going to hell for this, but .... Is Christianity a zombie religion?

A: I think zombie movies want to portray the state of zombification as a monstrous perversion of the idea of Christian resurrection. Christians believe in a resurrection to a new, perfect state where there will be no pain or disease or violence. Zombies, on the other hand, are risen, but exist in a state where only the basest, most destructive human drive is left - the insatiable urge to consume, both as voracious gluttons of their fellow humans, and as mindless shoppers after petty, useless, meaningless objects. It's both a profoundly cynical look at human nature, and a sobering indictment of modern, American consumer culture.

Q:The human beings in Romero's world are living through an experience of "hell on earth." as your subtitle says. There are nods towards some possible naturalistic explanation for the dead within the films (that a virus or "space radiation" somehow brought corpses back to life) but the cause is never very useful or important to any of the characters. And some characters do think mankind is finally being punished. Is the apocalyptic dimension just more or less inevitable in this kind of disaster, or is it deliberate? To what degree is Romero's social satire consciously influenced by Christian themes? Or are those themes just inevitably built into the scenario and imagery?

A: I think "apocalyptic" has just come to mean "end of civilization," so of course, any movie or book with that as its premise is, by definition, "apocalyptic." And even if we throw in the interpretation "God's mad at us -- that big, mean God!" I still don't think that's very close to real, biblical apocalyptic.

Romero's view is a lot closer to biblical apocalyptic or prophetic literature, for he seems to make it clear, over and over, that humanity deserves this horror, and the humans in the films go to great lengths to make the situation even worse than it is already -- by their cruelty, greed, racism, and selfishness. Whether this is conscious or accidental, I really can't address with certainty: I only note that his prophetic vision is compatible with a Christian worldview, not that it stems from that.

Q:The fifth movie in George Romero's zombie cycle, Diary of the Dead , opened over the weekend. Does it seem like a progression or development in his vision, or does it simply revisit his earlier concerns in a new setting?

A: I think each film in the series has a special target that is the particular focus of Romero's disgust at the moment. The media has always been at the periphery in each of the previous films -- cooperating with government ineptitude and coverup in the first two until the plug's pulled and there is no more media -- but now it's the main subject of this installment.

Romero does a great job capturing the sick voyeurism of addiction to cell-phone cameras and the Internet - there are so many shots in this one where you just want to shout at the characters, "Put down the camera and HELP HER! SHE'S BEING EATEN ALIVE YOU IDIOT!" It is surely no accident that the two people who most help our protagonists are either cut off from the media (the Amish man) or they themselves have been the target of unfair representation in the media (black men who are called "looters" when white people in Katrina were said to be "salvaging" or "gathering" supplies). And the one time a crime is committed by one group of humans against another, the camera is forced off.

With that being said, I think in many ways it does return to the vision of Night of the Living Dead with its overwhelming cynicism and despair. Certainly the last shot is meant to evoke the same feeling of finality and doom as the first film, the gripping doubt that there's anything left in human society worth saving.

Q:It feels as if Romero is suggesting that Jason, the character holding the digital camera, is himself almost a zombie. There's something creepy about his detachment -- his appetite for just consuming what is going on around him, rather than acting to help anyone. But there are also indications that the cameraman does have a kind of moral commitment to what he is doing. He's trying to capture and transmit the truth of what is going on, because doing so might save lives. What did you make of that ambiguity? Is something redemptive going on here with behavior that otherwise seems quite inhuman?

A: I'd have to think about it in detail, once I have the DVD "text" to study. My initial reaction is that that interpretation mostly comes from the voice-over by Deb, his girlfriend and the narrator of Diary. The exact motives of Jason remain hazy to me. He says he doesn't want fame (what would it mean in their world?), yet he's obsessed with the 72,000 hits in 9 minutes. But he doesn't exactly explain why in that scene. I don't think he said that maybe some of the 72k people were saved or that he's doing a public service or helping save the world.

He just seems addicted and intoxicated by the 72k number itself -- like even if it's not fame, it's a junkie's fix, it's a validation of his value, as indeed is the chilling (and slightly comical) act of handing the camera to Deb at the end. As she keeps accusing him: if it doesn't happen on camera, it's like it doesn't happen.

So the camera is not reflecting reality, it's creating it. And Jason's version of reality is better than the government's falsified version of the first attack, because it's more accurate, but it's no less addictive or exploitive or inhumane by the end.

Q:Good points, but I still think there's some ambiguity about Jason's role, because this is a problem that comes up in debates over journalistic ethics -- whether the responsibility to report accurately and as a disengaged observer becomes, at some point, irresponsibility to any other standard of civilized behavior. Arguably Romero is having it both ways: criticizing Jason while simultaneously using the narrative format to ask whether or not his behavior might have some justification (however ex post facto or deluded).

A: Perhaps artists can have it both ways in a way journalists can't. Artists deal in ambiguities, journalists (supposedly) deal in facts. But with cell phones and the internet, suddenly everyone is a potential "journalist" and the facts are even more malleable and volatile than they ever were.

Q:You note that this subgenre has proven itself to be both popular with audiences and marginal to Hollywood. "Zombie movies," you write in your book, "just offend too many people on too many levels to be conventional and part of the status quo." And while not quite as gory as some of Romero's earlier work, Diary ends with an image calculated to shock and disgust. Is this a matter of keeping the element of humor under control? While a spoof like Shaun of the Dead was an affectionate homage to Romero, the element of social satire there didn't really have much, well, bite....

A: That's a great way to put it - that humorous homages use humor to offset the gore (look at the really over-the-top squashing scene in Hot Fuzz for an example of just how much gore you can offset, if the movie's funny enough!). But it also works the other way -- that biting social criticism needs some bite, needs to be a little out of control and not tamed or staid. I like that idea.

That being said, Romero makes my job a lot harder. The gore hounds sometimes put their hands over their ears and chant "LALALALA! I can't hear you!" if I say that some image they love on an aesthetic level might *mean* something -- while I think a lot of readers or viewers who might be receptive to critcism of our society just can't make it past the first disemboweling.

I would suppose it's an artistic judgment, and for me at least, Romero has been hitting the right balance for a long time, and is continuing to do so.


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