Zombie Metaphors: An Incomplete History

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05072007_28weekslater_article.jpgBy Matt Singer and Alison Willmore

Vampires have become sexy, mummies CG, monsters sympathetic, but no horror baddie remains as au courant as the lowly, lurching zombie. The reanimated undead continue to be the indie subject of choice for highbrow horror and lowbrow schlock, in part because they’re the cheapest to whip up — slather some grayish make-up and fake blood on a few extras, and voilà! — but also because they’re the most mutable stand-in for the less tangible things that plague us. It’s this symbolic potential that seems to be behind the recent zombie film resurgence: beside this week’s ’50s conformity spoof “Fido,” there’s festival mockumentary “American Zombie,” which purports to investigate L.A.’s “non-living community”; the brutal and epic sequel “28 Weeks Later”; Glasgow Phillips’ zombie western “Undead or Alive” and others. Below, we take a wander through some of milestones of zombie symbolism.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Directed by Edward D. Wood Jr.

Widely ridiculed for decades as one of the worst movies ever made (and not entirely without justification, either), Edward D. Wood Jr.’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” made nearly a decade before Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” hides a poignant allegorical critique beneath its pie tin flying saucers and bad Bela Lugosi stand-ins. Wood’s zombies are brought back to life by well-meaning (but also kinda dickish) aliens, who come to Earth with a warning: our constant desire to create bigger and more powerful weapons will eventually result in weapons so dangerous they will threaten the safety of the entire universe. Why the aliens thought that bringing a Swedish professional wrestler back to life in a small Southern California community would somehow alter the course of the military-industrial complex is largely left to the imagination, but that doesn’t change the fact that Wood’s zombies, like so many later ones, come to serve as a symbol of mankind’s self-destructive nature.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Directed by George A. Romero

The seminal zombie movie from the genre’s undisputed master isn’t as explicit in its messages as some its sequels, but its openness makes it even more interesting. In the forty years since its release, George Romero’s no-budget landmark has been discussed as everything from a critique of the Vietnam War to a reaction to the civil rights movement (its hero, an African-American, survives the zombie onslaught only to be murdered by the redneck-ridden cavalry). The text is so rich the interpretations are endless: the last time I saw it, “Night” struck me as an indictment of human indecisiveness — while Rome (or, in this case, rural Pennsylvania) burns, the survivors can’t decide whether to flee or to hide, whether to stay in the living room, or hunker down in the basement. Meanwhile, scientists bicker over whether some space probe from Venus is causing the dead’s reanimation. Like it matters! As that great Serlingian ending proves, we’re all screwed either way.

Dead of Night (1974)
Directed by Bob Clark

Almost a decade before Clark made a mainstream name for himself with “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story,” he turned out this rough but wickedly effective indie horror film equating zombism with Vietnam vet trauma. The Brooks family hasn’t heard from soldier son Andy for long enough that his father and sister suspect the worst; it’s only his devoted mother who keeps the faith with a fervor that borders on madness. Her conviction that her son is alive seems to actually pull him from the grave — he arrives in the dead of night, having hitchhiked to the house, and, given that we witnessed Andy’s death in the jungle before the opening credits, it’s clear nothing good is in store. Andy’s changed — he’s monotone, unresponsive and spends most of his time staring at nothing from a rocking chair on the porch. Oh, and he’s picked up an addiction — he needs injections of fresh blood to keep himself from rotting. Dread builds over the course of the film, but so does a sense of tragedy; everyone is unable to understand that Andy has been (literally, in his case) to hell, and can only respond with frustration that he’s not the same.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Directed by George A. Romero

Ten years and three movies after the success of “Night of the Living Dead,” George Romero refined and expanded his vision of an undead apocalypse. Working with five times his original budget (a still shockingly paltry $500,000), Romero managed to top himself and make one of the best sequels of all time. This “Dead” installment critiques American consumer culture: four refugees from the zombie onslaught stumble on an abandoned shopping mall and lock themselves inside to ride out the storm. At first, the mood is euphoric, as they live out all their wildest shopping spree fantasies. But the fun doesn’t last. Even before their muzak-tinged utopia gets overrun by unruly bikers and hordes of flesh-eaters, they’re as depressed as a lottery winner who realizes his money can’t buy him happiness. There’s no defeating the darkness, but Romero’s uncharacteristically upbeat ending suggests you can escape it, especially if you leave the mall and vow never to return.

[Photos: “28 Weeks Later,” Fox Atomic, 2007; “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” DCA, 1959; “Night of the Living Dead,” Continental Motion Pictures Corporation, 1968; “Dead of Night,” Entertainment International Pictures, 1974; “Dawn of the Dead,” United Film Distribution Company, 1978]

[On to Part 2]
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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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