(I’d like to thank American Nerd Magazine for originally running this in 2005.)
For me, the films carry these concerns into the latter part of the twentieth century, especially when understood within the cultural framework of the Cold War and imminent Communist invasion. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), depicts the dead coming back to eat the living. Why do the Pittsburgh zombies (Romero’s undead are lovingly named after the city of their, um, birth) rise? The film doesn’t explain, but there is mention of a satellite crash. Coming just six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, it wouldn’t be too hard for viewers at the time to come up with their own ideas about plague-infested or irradiated satellite components sent over from a Communist state.
Maybe Night of the Living Dead depicts a proletariat uprising in the form of a zombie invasion. Picture an American neighborhood. Out in the yards, you have your socialist zombies–all made equal in undeath–storming the houses of the bourgeoisie. Inside the houses with survivors, you have diversity: blacks, whites, men, women, and children. You also have survivors competing to “sell” their ideas for survival in a form of free-market capitalism: “We need to board up those doors and stay up here;” “Hell no, you idiot, we need to get in the basement and wait this thing out.” The Pittsburgh zombies as proletariat are not that far removed from their Voodoo kin.
Romero didn’t stray too far from these kinds of social concerns in his sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). Here, Romero uses a zombie-ridden mall to comment on consumerism. The capitalist is now the slave; the undead want to shop, even if they have no reason to. Romero suggests disappointment with blind consumerism and has voiced displeasure with a film industry where creativity and independence are not as important as bank accounts and star power. But, even with his displeasure and lack of funding, he has been able to make Day of the Dead (1985) (he actually only filmed about half of the script because of funding problems) and the upcoming Land of the Dead (October 2005). Romero’s last Dead movie was made twenty years ago, before the multi-frame-per-second MTV editing of films like Run, Lola, Run (1998) and equally rapid-paced video games began influencing the genre, and it will be interesting to see if these current trends will affect Romero’s film the same way they’ve taken root in some of the recent additions to the genre.
Next: 21st Century Undead Boy