"Just in case society crumbles". George A. Romero and Marxism

1 Meeting necessities. A historical necessity brought forth Night of the Living Dead and made it a worldwide success. Only by grasping the multifaceted nature of this necessity — as sedimented in the film's form and content — is it possible to explain Romero's stylistic power and the critical potential of his horror.
The first episode of the Dead Trilogy — already glowing with the desperate fatalism of its successors — finds itself at the crossroads of fatal epochal trends. It succeeded, though, in turning itself into an expressive vehicle for these necessities, instead of impotently falling victim to them — a failure to deal with the dialectic of freedom and necessity that often ruins both "light" culture-industry products and "obscure" artistic cryptograms. Its frightening chiaroscuro showed a third way that the post-modernists, enchanted by the high art status they long for and unable to understand the real nature of the market, desperately were looking for but never really found. Like other American subversives — Frank Zappa, Philip K. Dick —  Romero questions the schematic oppositions between art and commercialism, showing how artistic consistency can be actually achieved by responding with real-time creativity to the reified demands of the market.
Far from being a b-movies assembler, Romero lived and lives on the dream of being a fine director (Gagne, 1987: 23). He was notoriously driven to direct Night of the Living Dead by economic necessity, after the commercial failure of a pretentious picture entitled Whine of the Fawn. This subjective necessity to "sell out" reached its goal thanks to an objective necessity, i.e. the existence of that push-over audience, ferociously longing for novelties, that shapes the horror movie market. The very existence of this market witnesses the persistence of a collective desire to experience monstrosity. Such a desire has a double, schizophrenic meaning: it both satisfies the general need for escapism — promptly fulfilled by Hollywood and its cheaper ramifications — and expresses the urge for a sort of hallucinated realism, the need to face what lies behind everyday life and its cinematic double.
Horror has always played this eccentric role inside the culture industry: its negativity brings to expression the vague and yet insuppressible instinct for truth from an audience perpetually filled with lies by media. For those who cannot avoid the culture industry's prefab pleasures and don't want to suffer the self-flagellation of the avant-garde, this need for truth manifests itself sensually as self-punition, the masochistic pleasure of seeing oneself tormented by fear and gore. However, rather than endless repetitions of an infantile shock (regression), such masochistic thrills look for an access into the real beyond capitalist deception. Horror movies try to dissipate the opium populi dialectically, i.e. through the extremization of filmic illusion. A progressive element is involved: schizophrenia does not so much characterize the movie-goers as well as reality itself. Romero's idea of filming Dawn Of the Dead (1978) in a shopping mall was not a product of his schizophrenic imagination: "[T]hey had sealed-off rooms upstairs packed with civil defence stuff, which they had put there in the event of some disaster — and that's what gave me the idea [...] I mean, my God, here's this cathedral to consumerism, and it's also a bomb shelter just in case society crumbles" (Romero, quoted in Colson, 2004: 9).
The whole environment of contemporary society is, in fact, designed to exorcise "horror" — a by-product of its own cultural, political and economic logic — but since horror can't be annihilated, its traces are perceptible almost everywhere. Subsequent anguish — the vague and yet frightening intuition that something "out there" could make our usual world fall apart — is a concrete historic-sociological condition rather than an existential category.
No less important than "what" the film showed, was the way it did it, i.e. how the film fitted the audience's need for thrills. Turning a lack of means into a possibility for creative solutions, Night of the Living Dead (1968) resulted in an Aufhebung of the form-content opposition. Budget restrictions and "artistic integrity" forced Romero and his talented collaborators to avoid the cheap renditions of 1950s "rubbers monsters," opting for a more realistic approach to gore (Gagne, 1987: 23). The stylization of gore that resulted reveals its specific social essence post festum. Whereas traditional scary movies used to mask reality in order to make it horrible, Romero strips the flesh off of it, revealing its grim and sick bones. Simplification, a brutal and obsessive reductionism, gives Romero's nightmare its astonishing formal power.
2 Horror as historical concreteness. If Death is what frightens us, Romero serves us with loads of it. No horror film could have a simpler and leaner plot than this: the dead, who are nothing but themselves, take death to the living ones. Romero careful avoids mystery and magic. He rather insists on the immediate, mundane consequences of his primary idea, placing it within a human frame, an immanent dimension. As also shown by Jack's Wife (1973) and Martin (1978), Romero is interested in the supernatural not as a metaphysician, but as a sociologist. [1] Metaphysical speculations on the human condition are abandoned in favour of a historical gaze at human disasters.
Romero's gore is also miles above the unpolitical correctness of 1980s splatter, something that only those who recognize the historical determination of the zombie aesthetic will admit. The living dead had their place in the Hollywood imaginary long before Romero kidnapped them and gave them new life. It is true that Romero also added to it his radical politics, but he also made sure that their politics worked at a visual, aesthetic niveau. At the same time, such politics proves to be deeper and stronger than any "message" poured on the movie-goers from a patronizing, ideological level. The hammering shock of the hyperrealist violence, the impressive masses moving on the screen, the constant sense of claustrophobia and catastrophe: every film-maker with a "protest" message pales in comparison, starting to look cosy and domestic.
But, it is the fact that it welcomes the political consequences what distinguishes Romero's grand guignol from other horror trips, both coeval and subsequent. His realism is hyperrealist not because it is "ironic," but because it rips through the impermeable nature of conventional cinema: it questions the limits of filmic fiction, forcing a lying image to tell a disgusting truth. The consistency of the Trilogy is determined by the political precision of Romero's imagination. Auschwitz is the logical paradigm of annihilation and the aesthetic model of the living dead. Romero's zombies recognize their provenance, not in the quaint pages of fiction, but in the historical actuality of Auschwitz.
Tom Savini, who did the special effects for Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), explains his ability to make gore seem "real" as a consequence of his experiences in Vietnam. "My job was to go in afterwards and photograph damage to vehicles, helicopters and stuff like that ... and the bodies. So I've seen a lot of gore, the way it really looks. Anybody can chop up a foam latex head and put blood around it to make it look like it's been blasted by a shotgun. But, there's something that gives you a queasy feeling deep down below your stomach when it's a real person who was once alive. And it's not just the physical damage — it's the expression sometimes, you know? The position of the body. The stuff you could never plan or stage. I hope I've put that into what you see in my effects." [2]
Romero takes his gore directly from the interstices of Western Civilization. He simply puts it back in its place, at the heart of the empire, where it is systematically deleted. This explains the accumulating, massive effect of his films, their ability to adhere to reality and haunt our perception. Romero turns the narcotising and disciplinary function of cinema into an attack of social criticism. One only has to go to the supermarket after having watched Dawn of the Dead to experience its estranging effect; one is abnormally over-sensitive to the crowd and to the blow out of commodities. The simplest thing — a boy greedily eating his pizza on the escalator — suddenly shows a disquieting side.
3 Mortuary objectivity. It has become a banality to describe the zombies of Dawn of the Dead as the "ultimate consumers" (Gagne, 1987: 87). Anyway, those who see in Dawn of the Dead a mere satire of consumerism — zombies that go shopping, looking for the "ultimate commodity" — underestimate Romero's politics and miss the point. [3] Far from satirizing social phenomena, Romero aims at the core dynamic, the truth of the system. The truth is that commodity fetishism as such implies the consumption of other humans' labour, and hence of their energy and ... flesh. It's not so much that Romero tells a symbolic story; rather that the commodity is — as a "productive expenditure of a certain amount of human muscles, nerves, brain" [4] — a symbol behind which the reality of property relations is hidden. Taking away the medium and exposing the trick, Romero is unconsciously echoing Friedrich Engels' dictum "Capitalism is institutionalized cannibalism." [5]
It is then rather surprising that in his essay on Marxism and the dead, Mark Neocleosus claims we should look for "a way of incorporating the dead into Marxist politics." [6] Capitalism, as Marx described it, is all about the dead. But, whereas Neocleosus talks of dead in terms of "remembrance of past generations" — giving the term a subjective-nostalgic twist — Marx focused on the physical, actual, brutal meaning of the word: the mortification of the worker's body through exploitation. He was also aware, like Romero, that the dead and the living are not just opposite sides of a static relation. According to him, capitalism is the economic process that turns the living into dead and sets the dead against the living.
As Marx wrote: "Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks." [7] The subsequent accumulation of surplus value into means of production (constant capital) strengthens the power of capital over labour, helping to make the gap between the two wider and wider. Under capitalism and in the form of this mortuary objectivity, dead labour is the precondition of the productivity of the living one. Therefore, capital turns everybody into his own living dead, who "keep[s] coming back in a bloodthirsty lust for human flesh." [8] Such duplicity, such inner struggle, as we will seen, is essential to Romero's nightmare too, and helps us to understand the way he weaves the unconscious plot and builds the hidden tensions of his work.
Sure, it would be stupid to argue that, given the above, Romero's Trilogy is just a filmic rendition of Marx' Capital. Such confusion between art and theory is a trademark of cultural studies' idealism, i.e. of the subjectivist approach that ignores the material construction of artistic manufactures seeing these as mere vehicles of abstract "meanings" and "values." The relation between Capital and the Trilogy is instead a parte objecti: they both unveil the deep structures of modern society, although in different spheres and with their own means. It is precisely because Romero was probably not inspired by Marx and that he doesn't preach us anything, that his vision is so real and his films can be Molotov cocktails of unregimented experience.
Nevertheless, discussing "consumerism" without giving the phenomenon any sociological ground, i.e. without talking about capital, is meaningless. Romero is not constructing a moral argument about the positive and/or negative side of "consumerism," an argument that we can accept or refuse, according to our own personal and subjective moral parameters. Critical art like his exceeds the agenda of liberal discussion, as it is focused on objective processes rather than opinions. Given this focus, even an author's opinion is just one element among others, and not the definitive word on his work; as a result of a series of processes occurring in the material world, an art object gives us information about this very world. [9]
This does not imply any ideological commitment to (bourgeois or "socialist") realism, of course. As Philip K. Dick showed, the description of "alternative realities" is a way of becoming conscious of the processes involved in the "real" world, as it questions the limits of our reified opinions of it. A work of art is therefore dialectical rather than dialogical, because, though being an object, it incorporates such processes. That's the reason why Romero's "as if" experiment can't be discussed according to a fixed and undialectical scheme of categories. His films revolutionize the category "consumerism" by laying bare its horrific actuality.
4 Decomposing the subject The same could be said for "violence." Romero's violence — as absurd and gratuitous as it can be — addresses the decadence of late-bourgeois society, its crudity being the graphic translation of a historical necessity. [10] In the mythological Pantheon of bourgeois society, zombies are the nemesis of Kaspar Hauser, the very end of the historical epoch started with Renaissance humanism. Kaspar Hauser embodies the myth of the bourgeois individual, with its ideology of nature state, purity and innocence. Zombies are the dissolution of the bourgeois subject described as decomposition, unstoppable décadence. [11] Contrarily to deconstruction, decomposition can't be reduced to a subjective demontage — endless activity that fails to break through the wall of theoretical solipsism. By describing a decomposing subject, Romero is assuming a natural history perspective, the idea that history should be regarded as a natural phenomenon, rather than a theodicy. As messengers of historical objectivity, Romero's living dead haunt the followers of the late Derrida.
In Romero's films violence is the vectorial result of the zombies' impact on human society. It has no "redeeming value" in strictly moral terms and this is the reason why it does supply us with useful political insights. Whereas moral judgement is restricted to the domain of individual action, politics is bound to the possibilities of collective interaction. By regarding violence in its brutal objectivity, Romero's approach is appropriate to an epoch of decaying subjectivity. Itself launched towards self-destruction, capitalism is depriving the Subject of any concrete meaning, eroding its own ideological foundations: ongoing massification and the growing impotence of individuals are reducing the category of the Subject to philosophical junk. Therefore, the destructive power displayed in the Trilogy carries the traces of self-destruction — to be intended as both social disaggregation and dissolution of the Self. Yet, although tolling the bell, Romero is not keen to play a requiem. He does not moan on the grave of the bourgeois subject, but he doesn't replace it with cartoon super-heroes either, as Hollywood, no less than "socialist" realism, prescribes.
A rotten version of Benjamin's Angel of history, the zombie witnesses of the highest stage of capitalism: the permanent catastrophe. "In the convulsions of the commodity economy," writes Benjamin (1940), "we begin to recognize the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins even before they have crumbled." This self-alienation of man from its surrounding, this detachment from things that sees them as already dead, is, again, not at all an hallucination, rather it is the effect of a "dehumanisation" of reality. Benjamin's use of Surrealism as Kulturkritik is appropriate for an epoch where the day-dream of the bourgeoisie had already become a nightmarish reality. After World War I, mankind became aware that, for the first time, the world could actually fall into pieces. "What has the war left of bourgeois society beyond a gigantic rubbish heap? Formally, of course, all the means of production and most of the instruments of power, practically all the decisive instruments of power, are still in the hands of the dominant classes ... But, what our rulers will be able to achieve with the powers they possess, over and above frantic attempts to re-establish their system of spoliation through blood and slaughter, will be nothing more than chaos" (Luxemburg, 1918). Although state intervention enabled capitalism to survive in spite of its contradictions, it could do nothing to solve them. Social Democracy baptised the administration of catastrophe, procrastinating the end of capitalism ad libitum, in a permanent twilight of everyday barbarism.
It is a world that is somehow already beyond the alternative "Socialism or Barbarism" as Buenaventura Durruti [12] and Theodor Adorno [13] did recognize. The living dead are the proper dwellers for such a decaying world. Not only do its goods decay with increasing speed, shortening the expiring dates and making death the general form of experience, [14] it also considers not metaphorical death and destruction as genuine productive factors. Wars and tsunamis become systemic possibilities, a way of making the production work and the extraction of surplus value possible over and over again. Amadeo Bordiga (1951) described the economic base of catastrophical capitalism as follows: "When the catastrophe destroys houses, fields and factories, throwing the active population out of work, it undoubtedly destroys wealth ... The wealth that disappeared was that of past, ages-old labour. To eliminate the effect of the catastrophe, a huge mass of present-day, living labour is required." [15]
It is this expenditure of living labour in order to replace constant capital (dead labour) that turns even tragedy into a money-making chance. "What is of interest to the bourgeois economy is the frenzy of the contemporary work rhythm, and it favours the destruction of still useful masses of past labour, not giving a tupenny-ha'penny damn for its descendants ... To exploit living labour, capital must destroy dead labour which is still useful. Loving to suck warm young blood, it kills corpses." Bordiga (1951) concludes: "Capitalism, oppressor of the living, is the murderer also of the dead." It is the permanent apocalypse of late-capitalism that shapes the scenario where Romero can set his living dead free, creating that short circuit between death and life that provokes critical insights in the viewer.
5 The zombie-human opposition. In as much as the death of the Subject is just the twilight of the bourgeois Subject, fixations with the "End of History" are misleading, because they ignore the revolutionary possibility implied in such decay. Yet, it remains to be decided, whether the living dead symbolise a fanta-political working class sizing power or the middle class preventing any real social change. [16] A compromise has been suggested by Shawn Rider (1999): "Zombies are the silenced majority who bought into the ideology of the ruling class. They are the labourers who have been exploited and alienated from their product, and they are the consumers who have been led down the road of accumulation and assimilation. While they seem to uphold their individuality, we see zombies ranging in archetype from Hari Krishna's to pee-wee football players, they undermine and usurp these negligible differences. The power is drained from their individuality, and they are all after the same goal: to satisfy their hunger." Such analysis sounds radical but it fails to appreciate Romero's critical imagination, as it ignores the processual nature of both his characters and plots. Not to mention the Trilogy as a whole. As Robin Wood (2001) argues: "The meaning and function of the zombies change radically from film to film. It is consistent, in fact, in only one way, that the zombies constitute a challenge to the humans, not merely to survive but to change. But, the nature of the challenge differs from film to film." [17]
The Trilogy concerns radical social transition; its revolutionary implications remain ambiguous: the original script of Day of the Dead suggests that, thanks to the domestication of the zombies, humanity will rule the world again. A new society is born from the ashes of the old one, but it is a society ruled by corrupted politicians, with the help of sadistic soldiers and mad scientists (Gagne, 1987: 147-148). Hardly a picture of a successful revolution. Zombies are indeed turning our society upside-down, but what really interests Romero is the struggle that defines the zombie-human opposition.
Romero's critique of subjectivity only works within this opposition. There is no "revolutionary proletariat" or "bourgeois decadence": the four main characters in Dawn of the Dead desperately try and prevent the collapse of capitalist society. Their attempt to survive in the shopping mall looks like something old-fashioned. Even when the four begin stealing things after they manage to get all the zombies out of the mall, these are Kindergarten manoeuvres compared to the destructive violence of the nomadic gang of motorcycle-riders in the finale. When Roger dies, he is buried. But, the continuing need for order and stability inside the shopping mall is not mere middle-class nostalgia. It is rather a survival of humanity in a post-human world. In the end, no static opposition — good-bad, new-old, revolution-restoration — is absolutized by Romero; each demands to be understood within the zombie-man relation.
Romero's view of the decomposing subject remains negative and, therefore, concrete in Hegelian/Adornian terms. He casts a black light on the whole process, without resorting to political consolation: what his films try to do is to make the audience aware of its own unconscious destructive tendencies, of the semiotic venom inoculated by the cinematographic industry. The whole imaginary of death in Romero's films is parodistic but, again, it doesn't crawl on the social surface, it penetrates the core. Although a commercial success, Romero's Dead Trilogy calls the death instinct by its name unlike most commercial product; it doesn't do deals with it. The golden principle according to which the culture industry builds the iterative rhythm of its music and the endless seduction-without-coitus of films and commercials is mercilessly revealed. Tanathos is served uncensored, and we're shown the sadomasochistic pleasure of anthropophagy. The Trilogy is a naked lunch, where the déshabillé Emperor is the special guest.
Criticising the triumph of death instinct in modern mass societies, Romero graphically — and painfully — describes the spoliation of the body and the narcosis of the conscience. The most extreme visual element is actually the bite of the zombie. [18] Romero literally breaks the subject into pieces and the viewer experiences this condition of disaggregation; as the flesh of the victims is torn apart, he/she instinctively tends to identify him/herself with the broken body on the screen.
Also uneasy is audience identification with the "inner life" of characters who are no longer human. Psychological cretinism is the consequence of apocalypse, global catastrophe working as a process of natural selection in which only the "tough guys" survive. Day of the Dead is the aftermath of such inner dissolution, as displayed both in the stereotyped figures — the military and the crazy scientist — and the tragic character of Miguel: a broken man, frustrated by the idea of being weaker than his woman, and who eventually decides to kill himself and all his comrades. One tends to condemn his plausible, though nihilistic, "humanity" and stand for Sarah's improbable coldness and strength. [19]
With his characters showing no sign of American traditional super-heroism, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead are great comics, whose living colours take Hollywood cool for a ride. Although the paradox of selling the total destruction of the human race as "fun" has been exploited by the culture industry since Deluge (by Felix Feist, 1933) and by the Bible since year dot, Romero's intent is to plot escape from the golden cage of amusement. If Hollywood decorates reality with sweet emotions, Romero's dark pessimism introduces the contagion of reality. Those who wish to sale to a realm of fantasy are confronted instead with the banality and sordid reality of their own miserable existence.
6 A critique of religious transcendence. It's not by chance that, while overturning the laws of the cinematic dream, Romero plays with a classic feature of another day-dream: religion and its hope for life after death. In his first Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes that history will go on until God "has put all his enemies under his feet" and that "the last enemy that will be abolished is death" (1 Corinthians, 15:25-26). He then proclaims the resurrection of the body, although not of this body here — the weak and earthly flesh — but of a "celestial" and incorruptible one. [20] Nietzsche made it his speciality to show that Christian materialism is a lie, a fraud against the body, its flesh made up of clouds. Educated in Catholicism, Romero takes the opposite route, carrying out Christian materialism with cynical rigour, very like Philip K. Dick's Counter-clock World (1967).
In Counter-clock World Saint Paul's promise of fleshly resurrection comes true like a grotesque joke. Similarly, Dawn of the Dead's famous motto — "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth" — sounds bitterly sarcastic, as if the only Jenseits reserved for mankind was hell. Mankind, that has "put all things in subjection under his feet" (1 Corinthians, 15:27) and is ready to defeat Death through biotechnology, is beaten on time by Death itself. Death offers instant immortality, although not very attractive. Romero's hordes of soulless bodies could be described as a materialist resurrection, were it not so pathetically absurd. The very destiny of the living dead — worse than that of their human victims — is tragic and pointless: once mankind has been exterminated, there's nothing left for them but an endless and miserable vagrancy upon the dull earth. [21]
Romero's materialist vision erodes not only the eschatological dimension of religion but the very substance and origin of the religious phenomenon as such, attacking its key anthropological ground: the burial of corpses. Religious thinkers and Idealist philosophers assure us that the first historical traces of human "self-consciousness" should be dated back to the "discovery" of death. If the most ancient exercises in stone-tool making — Omo valley, Africa, 2.4 million years ago — are undeniably results of conscious activity, it is only through later documents — the Qafzeh burials in Israel, 100,000 B.C. — that man seems to have reached Self-consciousness (Eccles, 1979: 139-140). In 1744, deriving the word humanitas from the Latin verb humando (to inhume), Giambattista Vico (1744: 94) underlined the role played by the care of the dead in the determination of man's nature. As a forerunner of Hegel, Vico provides us with a mix of ideological sophisms and concrete historical analyses which continuously challenge his theological perspective. By stressing the practical side of prehistoric burials — the very organization of social space presupposes the care of the dead — Vico (1744: 236) takes us to the core of our ancestral anthropological enigma: one can hardly underestimate the role played by the removal from view of the processes of decomposition in the birth of religious consciousness and the illusion of a post mortem existence.
Burial is an act by which life is given a metaphysical meaning. Once hidden from view, death makes life autonomous and absolute. Only once putrefaction is hidden away, death becomes a shock for the living eyes, testifying the limit itself of life — like Barbara becoming insane after she's seen the corpse on the stairs in Night of the Living Dead. Death becomes a phenomenon seen through the eyes of something (Life) that defines itself as something else, other. This "other" is the linguistic superstructure of what Freud called Verdrängung. This means that the Life-Death relation is not a static but a dramatic opposition, i.e. an active negation, the result of repression. Thus, it's not so much that zombies and other assorted monsters symbolize "the ultimate other," they rather unmask "Otherness" as a consequence of our ancestral terror. Once recognized that "Otherness" is just the ontological hypostazation of such fear, the subtleties of most contemporary philosophers reveal their affinity with the basic instincts of the Neanderthal. Religious transcendence is the spirit hiding behind the post-modernist totem par excellence.
7 Death and the self. By pointing out that "the living dead are not radically Other so much as they serve to awaken a passion for otherness and for vertiginous disidentification that is already latent within our own selves," Steven Shapiro (1993: 98) is moving in the right direction, although using misleading terminology. His observation is linked to one of Freud's central discoveries: the ambivalence that affects our whole psychical life. The Self makes for no exception. Its dictatorship over the body is inseparable from the permanent desire for self-annihilation, which Freud baptised the Nirvana principle. Lacking Freud's theory of libido, religious thinkers fail to see the ambivalent nature of self-consciousness and tend to interpret it as a gift from above — whereas post-modernists see it as a curse. Such idealistic overestimation of the Self affects their description of prehistoric inhumations. Those who see these as ground-stones of the metaphysics and the care of the dead as the first trace of human touch, are deliberately forgetting the dark side of the story. The highest and noblest metaphysical concepts were preceded by familiarity with putrefaction and every grave hides the hope that the dead won't come back.
In Totem and Taboo, Freud (1913) tried to explain why primitive cultures perceive the dead as bad daemons. Foreshadowing Romero's nightmare, Freud wrote: "The dead, with homicidal instinct, return to take the living ones. The dead kill; the skeleton, according to which we imagine Death today, tells us, that death itself is only an assassin" (Freud, 1913: 75). The dead kill — die Toten töten —, they are bad in their essence. Once someone dies, his soul comes back to haunt his relatives and the village. This explains the taboo upon death which surrounds everything and everyone that was involved with the dead, for "magic thinking" considers any possible relation with the dead — even uttering his name — as a possible evocation — magic is structured by what Freud calls délire de toucher; in other words, it is obsessed with the idea of contagion, another important concept in Romero. But, this does not explain why the souls of the dead are perceived like enemies, disgust for decomposition is certainly not the cause of the taboo (Freud, 1913: 75). Starting from his psychoanalytic praxis, Freud knew that an ambivalent emotion is always involved in the death of our friends and relatives, caused by unconscious wishes of death. Talking about an "agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics," Freud suggested that primitive peoples produce a reaction against the hostility latent in their unconscious similar to that expressed as obsessive self-reproach in the case of neurotics. This hostility, anyway, works in a slightly different way amongst savages. The defence against it takes the form of displacing it on to the object of the hostility, on to the dead themselves. A procedure known as projection.
Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of libidinal anarchism and repressive sublimation, Freud refused the scandalous implications of Self ambivalence, opting for conservative pessimism about human nature. Fortunately, Adorno's thoughts on death in the Dialectics of Enlightenment, Minima Moralia, Jargon of Authenticity and the Negative Dialectics [22] start with Freud, but end with opposite political conclusions. This explains why it is so easy to translate Romero's vision into the theoretical language of the Frankfurter School. Adorno never forgot that, though structuring the Self according to an illusory transcendence, the Death/Otherness relation is also a conceptual bridge to Utopia. It is the historical Urform of negative, critical thought, in as much as it negates the status quo and anticipates another state of things. [23] With Gioacchino da Fiore and Thomas Münzer the promise of heaven descends from the Great Beyond down to the actuality of history and supports the underclass demand for social reforms.
Adorno sees the Self not as a monad as such. Its monadic nature is part of its fraud, of the general Unwesen. Recognizing the collective as immanent to the Self, Adorno condemned Freud's pessimistic mass-psychology as unhistorical and reactionary. He is therefore aware that Death is not an over-historical and metaphysical phenomenon that encounters individuals in fatal tête-à-têtes. Like Romero, he is able to talk about the meaning of death for us and now; he is able, in other words, to discern what capitalism has done to death no less than to life — in his "reflections from the damaged life," one finds plenty of aphorisms dedicated to the experience of the "damaged death." Since the origin of civilization, the repression of death has been also cause of its horror (Adorno, 1964: 514). Completely exorcised by modern society, death is no more essentially part of our life. In a society where healthy yuppies "think they will live forever" — as Zappa puts it — death's exile from life results in a form of deformation of experience.
Like sex and dirt — whose experience is briefly allowed only in the anal pleasures of childhood — death belongs to the zone of the repressed. Civilization "cannot bear to be reminded of that zone [...] It abhors the stench because it stinks. Its palace is built of dog shit, according to Brecht's great formulation" (Adorno, 1966b: 359). Pursuing the dark side of its universalism, Western Culture has indeed put singularity and animality "under its foot." At Auschwitz, where the individual died as mere exemplum, the Nazis pushed this trend to its climax (Adorno, 1966b: 355). It is consequent for Adorno to say that after Auschwitz the bourgeois Subject is an epiphenomenon. Its post-existence is a zombie condition. It is only by recalling "the stench of the cadaver" (Adorno, 1966b: 359) — not by preaching the ontological virtues of Death, à la Heidegger [24] — that we break through the Maya veil of reification.
8 The logic of annihilation. Romero's emancipatory hallucination is a denunciation of the poverty of realist engagement. The power of his vision is denied by those "serious" film-makers who dismiss him as a b-movie-maker. As a matter of fact, it is precisely Romero's use of genres and his ability to transcend them that make his filming idea new and devastating. He openly uses them, as his rotten assemblage shows no trace of avantist purism. But, he transcends them — although avoiding the the formalist alchemy and the cold irony of post-modernism. His negation of genres is mediated via content. Romero transforms genre-films into vehicles of a content they cannot bear; he makes them explode from the inside. One only has to think of what Romero did to the "horror" and "catastrophic" film-forms, formal categories that could both be applied to his zombie trilogy. Not only is it too extreme to fit their schemes, it managed to make them interact one another and mutate. We face no intimistic and sublime danger, no limited horror, but the total annihilation of the human race. Yet, this totalising danger is not the consequence of an invasion from outer space — like in War of the Worlds or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers — or of a natural (i.e. "external") catastrophe, but a danger from within. [25]
The locution "living dead" defines the paradoxical nature of the zombie-phenomenon. It completely overturns our usual understanding of life. In Western tradition, the word "soul" (pneuma, anima) means the active force or energy that moves and guides the body. A self-moving body, a body that moves without a soul, is a life without life, a clear contradictio in adjecto. As a living paradox, the zombie contradicts and destroys more than two thousand years of respectable philosophy. Romero's vague hypotheses about the origin of the plague — chemical or nuclear experiments gone wrong — show his merciless distaste for it. Nature itself has given Platonism the lie.
In Romero's Trilogy, therefore, men are facing an enemy structurally stronger than them. When Peter says "they are us, what we will be," he remembers that the real enemy is death. It's not the bite of a zombie that causes transformation, it's death itself. Nowhere in the Trilogy is the bite of the zombie said to cause resurrection. [26] As a matter of fact, an infected wound kills you and it is death, as a "natural" consequence, that causes the resurrection of your body. No direct connection is established between being bitten and becoming a zombie, as one would normally expect according to a traditional horror topos — vampires, werewolves, not to say the novel by Richard Matheson (1954)) that originally inspired Romero. Yet, it's interesting how the idea of contagion has easily found its way in the mind of the audience, confirming Freud's thoughts on the persisting role played by magic associations in childhood. [27]
The enemy — the annihilator — is an intrinsic mutation of the annihilated and the zombie plague has the iron flavour of a logical necessity: those who die, come back to life and kill other people. The struggle for life becomes a struggle for death: although the inversion of the factor doesn't change the process of struggle itself. The cosmic turn that brought forth the living dead paradox, reveals what Romero thinks of la condition humaine: a struggle for survival and the affirmation of a steady order versus the chaos of nature. The return of the dead means that man is now the living paradox.
This is the unheimlich logic of annihilation that Romero displays in his films. The zombie questions the ontological distinction between life and death, giving back a tertium that causes the opposition to crumble. Coming back from their graves, the dead inaugurate a thanatological process of corruption, which subverts the survival logic of evolution. Struggle for life turns into a struggle for death. The goal of this process is the restoration of immanence, of lost equilibrium. Mankind's survival is, in this respect, anti-teleological. The existence of man is now the only reason for struggle: in the new and perverted order of things, man is the entropic force, the contrasting element, the power of corruption. Somebody in Dawn of the Dead suggests mankind should drop atomic bombs and commit suicide to put an end to the war against Death.
9 A permanent reminder to mankind. Total destruction would surely put things in order again, as the living dead would be the only ones to "survive" as the most adapted species. At the end of the film, zombies take control of the mall again. The little experiment of human restoration has failed, and entropy, the forces of chaos, rule again — at least from a human, i.e. old-fashioned perspective. The blind violence of the zombies suggests, at first glance, their radical not-humanity, it symbolises the blind forces of nature. The evolution of man was driven by its ability to face those blind forces as something other than him. Those who fail to recognise the moment of truth in this self-alienation from nature — the nihilist bikers, for instance — are condemned to regression. Peter is right arguing that the living dead are "part of us."
From the other side, zombies are a permanent reminder to mankind. As a nemesis, they begin a man hunt, making him face the ancestral nightmare he thought he had escaped from, after having subjugated nature and the animals. The traditional horror topic of fire — the monster is scared by fire — is ironically disguised in Night of the Living Dead: the hero Ben protects himself using a primordial trick, through a prehistoric regression. As an admitted third between man and animal, zombies prey on mankind, as if they were indirect and perverse representatives of the animal kingdom, coming back to take the oppressor's life. The absence of animals in the whole Trilogy is a cry in the silence against men's oppression of nature. The safari heads in the house of Night of the Living Dead and in the armoury of Dawn of the Dead and the triumphant crocodile on the stairs of the abandoned bank at the beginning of Day of the Dead are the only animals that are to be seen. Nowhere animals are said to come back to life. [28] Death-in-Life seems to be a special destiny reserved for mankind, a destiny that questions its identity.
Man has always found identification through the exclusion of death and animality: these represent the not-identical that questions and threatens his self-definition as animal rationale — i.e. a spiritual being condemned to suffer a temporary animal condition. [29] It is remarkable, and deserves indeed sociological explanation, that most philosophers aren't able to see this connection, and tend to take the meaning of the word "zombie" as a synonym of "automaton." In his defence of "human exceptionalism" against a positivist identification of Man and Animal, for instance, Kenan Malik insists that men are neither animals nor zombies. Assuming that a "zombie is a human being who seems perfectly natural, normal and alert but is in reality not conscious at all, but is rather some sort of automaton," Malik (2002: 219-220) deprived the concept of zombie of all its critical power. Unfortunately his book inaugurated a zombie debate where nobody questioned his basic assumptions. Voided of its political, historical and biological expressiveness, the word was reduced to a mere terminological update of Decartes' machine: "Descartes held that non-human animals are automata. Non-human behaviour is explicable wholly in terms of physical mechanisms. He explored the idea of a machine that looked and behaved like a human being, what philosophers call a zombie" (Large, 2004).
One should add: philosophers who hadn't seen Romero's Night of the Living Dead! In his need to save humanity from positivist reduction but unable to acknowledge the practical, historical side of man's essence — i.e. describing human nature as a fixed identity, rather than as action and becoming — Malik (2001) resorts to a philosophical compromise at odds with his self-professed "materialism and atheism": "We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But, we are also conscious beings with purpose and agency, traits the possession of which allow us to design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws. We are, in other words, both inside nature and outside of it. [...] This is, in philosopher Kate Soper's words, "the paradox of humanity's simultaneous immanence and transcendence." The main difference between dialectics (since Plato) and post-modernism is that for a dialectician a "paradox" is a question, not an answer. [30]
10 Negative anthropology and inner zombification. It is Romero's ability to talk about the "human" always in connection with the "not-human" that shapes his negative anthropology — to be understood as a critical definition of human nature, rather than as anthropological pessimism (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, Rorty). The anthropological background of the Trilogy is cunningly revealed from Dawn of the Dead on. The living dead are "pure instinct," their cerebral functions reduced to a minimum. Being "part of us" and not something totally extraneous, the relation between man and the living dead is dynamic. The danger they represent to mankind seems to polarize the characteristics of the two species. In Dawn of the Dead, the only chance left to mankind is to make use of reason and cold instrumental intellect, and to suppress emotions. Emotions and feelings such as fear (the troubled reactions of Steve at the beginning of the film), blind love (the woman who got bitten by his former lover) and euphoria (Roger) are destructive. They beg comparison to Peter's coldness and pragmatism — Peter even "calculates" if it's worth trying to save Steve from the zombies that are attacking him in the elevator and, almost wisely, decides not to risk.
Imitating the enemy's behaviour — characterised by an elementary and animal calculation of what-has-to-be-done — is the only way not to fall victim to it. But, it is not — as it may seem — any sort of identification with the aggressor. If sympathetic reaction to human simulacra is the real danger, then cold rationality mimicries this inhuman danger and its "human all too human" look. Rather than dreaming the past, Peter imagines the future. He recognizes the mechanical necessity behind the zombie catastrophe and looks for a way out of it. Peter's coldness is the praxis of an unoppressive reality principle, escaping from the romantic escapism — love, nostalgia for the past etcetera — of those condemned to fall victim of the living dead. The real danger incarnated by zombies is our projection on them; an inverted projection, compared to Freud's thesis in Totem and Taboo. Here, we love the dead and underestimate their real danger.
Most characters in Romero's films underline how easy it is to escape from zombies or to kill them. An sich they're much less dangerous than traditional horror monsters: they have no power. As a matter of fact, they are Untermenschen. [31] Their strength is numerical and resides in the doom collective, itself originally a product of human stupidity — the real on-going cause of the zombie plague, as Romero incessantly repeats. The catastrophe was born under a bad social sign, the war against the dead being a hopeless struggle of humanity against its own stupidity. In Day of the Dead, this process of social disaggregation is reflected in the split between human faculties: a crazy, self-referential science that has lost any relation to reality (Dr. Logan) is set against the cruelty and the useless pseudo-activity of the army (Rodhes). This undialectical split between the mind and the body is a symbolical resignation of humanity to zombie-like social existence, because this is what the living dead are: pure brain at the service of the most brutal instinct.
11 A claustrophobic closure. As a counterforce, Romero displays the practical, manual intelligence of Ben and Peter, as the only resource left for survival. Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead both show in detail the construction of physical barriers against the ghouls. The Night of the Living Dead sequence is particularly touching. A pathetic soundtrack accompanies Barbara's staring eyes as she watches Ben build the wall that will protect the house. After having been reduced to autism, Ben's efforts to immure Barbara alive seal her psychical breakdown with physical enclosure.
From the disquieting intimacy of the farmhouse, through the depersonalised shopping mall, to the hopeless alienation of the underground shelter: the narrative structure of the Trilogy itself testifies to a progressively claustrophobic closure. A hunted mankind takes refuge in the body of mother earth, where the dead originally came from. The "cellar dilemma" in Night of the Living Dead stands as a premonition of these later developments. The coward Mr. Cooper chooses to barricade himself in the cellar, where zombies can't reach him, rather than stay in the house. The cellar, though, has no way out. Absolute safety ends up in its opposite: the certainty of the grave.
Cooper's paranoid reverie of safety and cosy intimism reiterates the worst results of 1950s American culture, with its nuclear family shelters and McCarthian witch-hunts. The director's comment is of unsurpassed sharpness and humour: Cooper and his wife end up being eaten by their much beloved child, a wonderful parable of the 1960s revolution. [32] Analogue to Zappa's dictum "if your children ever find out how lame you really are, they're gonna murder you in your sleep," it recognizes conservative ideology's reaction to revolutionary counter-culture: as the Nazis with Modern Art, parents in the 1950s and 1960s were shocked by the icons produced by a "degenerate" youth. [33] Ugliness, noise and unpredictability were the values the younger generation seemed to have chosen to shape its world. Their parents' shock was only registering the effect of revolutionary un-veiling activity — of a-letheia, i.e. of truth — upon indoctrinated and repressed sensibility. When the doors of middle-class perception are opened, everything appears as it is: scary.
In Night of the Living Dead, Ben decides to forego the suicidal safety of the cellar and to assume the risk of struggle. "Openness, struggle and risk as the only chance to survive," is soon turned into a general philosophical stance by Romero. In order to defeat death, he seems to say, life must be preserved as life, not embalmed. Nothing could demonstrate this vitalistic polemic better than Dawn of the Dead. Once they've conquered the shopping mall, Peter, Roger, Steve and Fran begin a desperate search for "normality." From euphoria, it eventually turns into utter boredom. The "burrow" is furnished like a home, with all comforts (beds, kitchen, TV), and weapons are displayed on the wall like trophies or souvenirs. Dining with Fran, Steve offers her a totally anachronistic wedding ring. She refuses it, aware of the nonsense of it all. The ritualism of wedding, its more than symbolic value, only works within a social frame that gives it effectiveness. Outside this frame, it's just a fraud within a fraud. Yet, while playing tennis on the roof of the mall, Peter let a tennis ball fall on the street, revealing decaying corpses and thousand of dead still trying to get in. An urgent reality threathens the artificial heaven inside the mall. It is this ideal world that is undergone a process of decomposition and corruption.
The climax of "inner zombification" reaches its peak in the mirror sequence. As Fran makes herself up, she looks more and more like the mannequin head in front of her, the association zombie/mannequin being one of the Leitmotivs of the film. Playing with the gun while looking at herself in the mirror, Fran is also echoing the sex/violence association that, although being one the favourite features in post-war culture industry, reached a new quality in the 1970s, when the discoveries of sex revolution were used to update advertising strategies. Romero is again suggesting what every Reichian knows, i.e. that Thanatos — not Eros — is hiding behind the pin-up's smile. As with the "consumerism" issue, attempts to interpret Romero's films in terms of "gender politics" are formalistic and misleading.
Discussing the "ungendered" nature of female zombies [34] or the roles that Romero gives to his heroines, [35] trying to figure out how feminist-oriented his films are, is another way of reducing his exciting work to a boring lists of predetermined opinions. Again, moral appreciation and aesthetic involvement diverge. But, it's the second that leads us to the living structure of Romero's oeuvre. The reason why the Dead Trilogy is so rich and provoking is not that it can be interpreted according to given categories such as race, gender, consumerism etc. It is rather the way in which Romero unifies them that is interesting, focusing on the real problems and their reciprocal relations, instead of making abstract assumptions about cultural topics. His macabre look at Western Civilization points out that labour's struggle against capital, the fight for civil rights, radical feminism, the role of science and technology, the Man/Animal relation, Fascism etc. should all be understood as moments of the same historical development. What the Frankfurt School, as a matter of fact, called the Dialectic of Enlightenment.
12 The dialectics of collectivism. It's necessary to emphasize, how the centrality of the social and collective dimension in Romero's films is shown with purely cinematographic means: Romero puts for the first time "the Mass" itself as main character on stage. Lacking the chic populism of Les Miserables, Romero offers us something more than a noble representation of "people in arms": he stages the mass in all its inertial horror. Romero's zombies are indeed a deranged version of the people: the silent, or rather the moaning, majority. This critique of Hollywood populism reveals what Ben Hur's figurants already were, once capture by the empty-eye of the mechanical camera that steals their souls: self-moving cadavers.
Romero's critique of collective action is centred on the bad collective represented either by the sadistic zombies-hunts or by the totalitarian uniformity incarnated by the living dead. The zombie plague is the return of brutal intelligence and primitive cannibalism, an archaic, chtonic principle in both psychological and sociological terms: it reactivates a primordial and forgotten layer of the brain and the immediate identification of the individual with the collective. A zombie is indeed, as St. Thomas Aquinas defined the human being, materia signata, yet its soul is reduced to such a minimum that its difference from dead matter is questionable. The living dead can, thank to their "basic intelligence" and to the simple algebraical sum of their singular greed for flesh, realize some sort of collective identity in which the individual is dissolved. It is this fusion, a Unity unannoyed by the centrifugal force of the Many, which give them their strength and make the living dead a partly "superior" species. Throughout the Trilogy, their final victory is hardly questioned.
Romero's pessimism is part of his social critique, though, not an assertion of anthropological pessimism. It's closer to Adorno's negative anthropology than to hopeless nihilism, as it articulates the anthropological basis of human beings dialectically and describes "humanity" as something historically determined. Sure, mankind's weakness is basically bound to its own physical and psychical characteristics. Intelligence condemns us to endless arguments on TV — until there's no broadcast any more. The survival instinct leads to intestine war and a struggle for territory and property — in Dawn of the Dead, Steve dies because he couldn't resist the illusion of property. Sociality itself seems intrinsically condemned to degenerate into struggles for power (Ben versus Mr. Cooper), sadism (the zombie hunts, the nihilism of the raiders), sexism (Rohdes' jokes about Sarah), illusory brotherhood (the happy life in the mall, the soldiers in Day of the Dead). Yet, alongside these excesses and with no conciliatory intent, Romero always describes intelligence, instinct and solidarity as man's only hope.
Mankind's condition is indeed tragic, but not desperate as such. If culture and science are of no use, reason is still something we must rely on. And there's some sort of instinctual solidarity that could prevent the complete annihilation of the human race. In Day of the Dead, in certain respects the most "positive" film of the Trilogy, Romero describes the development of John — the individualist who plots a flight without caring for his comrades — and Sarah — who deludes herself believing in a possible collaboration between the civilians and the soldiers. They'll both learn something from each other. But, even in the gloomy atmosphere of Dawn of the Dead, there's room for some positive assessment. Romero planned and actually shot two different finales for the film. In the screenplay version, Peter and Fran both commit suicide. Although he still enjoyed this finale, Romero commented that he liked the characters so much that he found it too hard to let them both die (Gagne, 1987: 91).
Romero's conception of socialization is not pessimistic as such. Seeing the bikers break into the mall and destroy everything, Peter throws away his rings and the money and returns to his previous "warrior" existence. It is as if between the decadence of post-bourgeois existence and the inhuman struggle against each other tertium non datur. Yet, Romero's gloomy vision also underlines the inability of the mere individual to change this destiny, a reminder that true collective action is what humanity actually lacks. Destiny is a consequence of such lack of solidarity. The utopian flavour of this collective appears as a negative shape, the dialectical result of Romero's critique of bourgeois forms of socialization. As Dr. Logan informs us in Day of the Dead, the entire process of socialization is an artificial domestication of the instinct, the reduction of the individual to the collective, driven by the "reward" he/she expects from society itself. It is this balance of "reward" and "punishment" that characterises Reich's understanding of social hierarchy and order as intrinsically sadomasochistic. Romero gives his version of Rechian sex economy in the terrifying scene where Bub, the domesticated zombie, listens to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and is "rewarded" with a dead soldier's flesh: one of the greatest social satires ever seen on the screens.
As we have said, Romero's purpose is to show that zombification is an inner not less than an external decay. In Dawn of the Dead, Peter doesn't kill himself; he doesn't surrender to contagion and, thus, he doesn't solve the tension between life and death — as Miguel in Day of the Dead does. In the face of an easy reconciliation with death, life is defined by struggle and hope. Describing the logic of annihilation that drives the zombie plague, Romero takes sides with the repressed not-identical: his films are a monument to active resistance against the identity contagion. As a consequence, the only "moral" stance that really helps us to define Romero's aesthetics is the dissatisfaction with present reality. The persisting urge for change that is clearly perceivable through his movies — Romero's declared pessimism notwithstanding — is a prerequisite of any understanding of their deep structure. But, of course, such radical commitment to social transformation — no matter how explicitly impolitic — is outside the remit of post-modernist and post-marxist cultural criticism.

1. Ethnobotanist Wade Davis attempted a pharmacological explanation of the Haitian zombie. Criticizing Davis' hypothesis, Luigi Garlaschelli (2001: 71) underlines how a socio-political explanation is even more convincing. The zombie myth originated from both superstitious misinterpretations — "In Haiti, until a few years ago, death was recognised even without medical certification, and burial occurred within a short time due to the hot climate. Thus, cases of apparent death with subsequent "resuscitation" might well have happened. Besides this, bodies are seldom buried, but generally placed above ground in concrete family tombs, which can be easily broken open" — and politics openly directed against the working classes — "During the Duvalier dictatorship regime, the most frightening facets of the voodoo cults were exploited as a tool for social control, and to cover up abductions, secret homicides and tortures." Return to text
2. Interview with Tom Savini in Gagne, 1987: 173. Return to text
3. See, for example, Harper, 2002. Return to text
4. Marx, 1859, Chapter 1: The commodity. See also: Marx, 1867, Chapter 1, Section 2: "Productive activity, if we leave out of sight its special form, viz., the useful character of the labour, is nothing but the expenditure of human labour-power. Tailoring and weaving though qualitatively different productive activities, are each a productive expenditure of human brains, nerves, and muscles, and in this sense are human labour. They are but two different modes of expending human labour-power." Return to text
5. See: Engels, 1876, Part II: Political Economy, IV. Theory of Force (Conclusion): "Wage-labour could [...] be explained as a mitigated form of cannibalism, which, it is now established, was the universal primitive form of utilisation of defeated enemies." The exploitation of labouring forces was part of the Haitian zombie myth since the beginning: "According to widespread Haitian beliefs, voodoo sorcerers (bokors) would administer a "magic powder" to their victim. The victim would lapse into a state of such low metabolic activity that he (or she) might appear clinically dead. The poor soul would then be buried alive, only to be rescued hours later by the sorcerer who dug him up, fed him an hallucinogenic concoction, and sold him as a slave, often to sugar plantations" (Garlaschelli, 2001: 71). Return to text
6. Neocleosus, 2004: 27. We will return to this later. Return to text
7. Marx, 1867, Chapter 10, Section 1. Return to text
8. This motto appeared on the original poster of Night of the Living Dead. Return to text
9. Romero's discontent for what Gagne calls "overanalytical interpretations" could be used to dismiss our efforts as well, and will doubtless be hailed with satisfaction by all those who think that the author is the only one who knows what his own work "really means" and, therefore, the only one qualified to talk about it. Anyway, I believe a critique of the subjectivism of cultural studies runs parallel to Romero's: "I resent the word "message" [...] I've never meant to preach anything. [...] There aren't any real new thoughts, certainly no solutions, and not even any questions in my films [...] I've just tried to get an underbelly into them all, maybe more consciously than other people. It's more frontal in my stuff. With fantasy, there are always people who love to try to take something more from it than just the surface story. But, you shouldn't do that at the sacrifice of the surface, and that's what bothers the hell out of me. I mean, I've read treatises on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but basically, it's a great movie, man!" (Romero, quoted in Gagne, 1987: 5-6). What Romero calls "sacrifice of the surface," i.e. turning the movie into a formal body for arbitrary content, is precisely the slip into subjectivism we're attacking here. Return to text
10. It is no mystery that, having avoided any discussion of the capitalism/consumerism relation, Romero should appear an adept of Romantic anti-modernism: "Dawn bases its politics on hackneyed or stereotypical images of decadence and luxuriance from a dead European tradition" (Harper, 2002). Also characteristic, if not absurd, is Harper's attempt to defend Romero by turning his work into a partial and arid piece of sociology: "In Romero's defence, it might be said that the dramatic exigencies of cinematic narrative rarely permit sociological completeness [!]; Romero's film, one might say, selects only the worst elements of consumerism for critique and should not be taken as a generalizing statement." Return to text
11. "The zombies represent a politically unconscious version of the "return of the repressed," bearing unpalatable truths by their very presence" (Williams, 1996: 18). Return to text
12. "We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history" (Buenaventura Durruti, interviewed by Van Paasen, 1936). Return to text
13. "Marx warned in his famous letter to Kugelmann against the relapse [Rückfall] into barbarism, that was already to be seen ... The relapse happened. To wait for it in the future after Auschwitz and Hiroshima puts an end to the miserable consolation that it could get worse and worse" (Adorno, 1969: 769). I'm quoting Adorno here, instead of Benjamin, because I think that Hardt and Negri's idea that the concept of "new barbarism" should be traced back to Benjamin is wrong (see: Hardt and Negri, 2000); not only does it pitch Benjamin versus Adorno, following a fallacious hermeneutic cliché; it also mistakes Benjamin and Adorno's "strategic and negational" concept of barbarism, as Leslie (2003) has shown. Return to text
14. A world where like in Philip K. Dick's Ubik (1969) — a paranoid vision of the economic boom — things decay and get old as we touch them. Return to text
15. Thanks to Ben Watson for telling me about this. Return to text
16. According to Harper (2003), "Zombies function in Dawn of the Dead as a Lumpenproletariat of shifting significance, walking symbols of any oppressed social group." On her weblog Sara (2003) takes a wider view: "The seeming universality of the zombie "class" in Night of the Living Dead tallies with Marx's assertions about the nature of a revolutionary "class." "The class making a revolution," Marx (1845) indeed says in The German ideology (Part 1B), "appears from the very start ... not as a class but ... as the whole mass of society confronting the one ruling class." In Night of the Living Dead, the undead are depicted, in many ways, as truly classless. The cadavers are costumed from all different walks of life: there are men in suits, men in work clothes, well-dressed women, and undressed women. They all seem to be united in the common goal of eating the living, the "ruling" class, and their mixed socio-economic backgrounds give the appearance of a truly common uprising against the hegemony of life." Return to text
17. In this respect, it is true that especially in Dawn Of the Dead, "the zombies of the shopping mall are the products of consumer capitalism, drawn back to the mall that embodies their utmost desires, the pitiful non-satisfactions of material possessions by which their culture has taught them to live" (Wood, 2001). Before proposing his theory of the silenced majority, Rider (1999) seemed to be on the right track: "It is fitting that Sartre uses the zombie as a metaphor for both the colonized and colonizer. He states in the preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth that European colonizers had relegated natives living in colonial states to the role of zombie. The colonizers' power structure has rendered the natives as a mute subaltern, suitable for slave labour and exploitation. But, he goes further to say the natives' rebellion will render the colonizers as zombies — the native will no longer see their dominators as human beings, and they will assign the Europeans to the role of subordinate, dehumanizing and incommunicable." Return to text
18. The first to be censored, alongside the head shots. The German version of Dawn Of the Dead, for instance, was so heavily cut it looked like a hard version of Bambi. It is interesting that the recent re-issue on DVD, though claiming to be the "longest version ever seen" and an act of rebellion against censorship, does not show the scandalous bits. See Zombie 1 — Langfassung, DVD, Katalog Nr.: 8803, Germany 2004. Return to text
19. It has often been underlined how Romero's characters avoid the predictable stupidity of traditional horror characters: they do what we would normally do in their situation. They're not there just to open the wrong door at the wrong moment and be killed like ciphers. Compared with the imbecile crew in D'Amato's Anthropophagus, the Dawn quartet ooze with Balzachian realism. Return to text
20. See: 1 Corinthians 15:40-44: "There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body." Return to text
21. "Upon The Dull Earth" is the title of a story by Philip K. Dick (2002) that also deals with the concepts of extermination, the totalitarian collective and contagion. Return to text
22. See: Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947; Adorno, 1951a; Adorno, 1951b; Adorno, 1966a; Adorno, 1964. Return to text
23. Adorno underlines, therefore, how both care and fear of the dead are limited interpretations that fail to recognise the social dimension of human existence: as a matter of fact, we also unconsciously envy the dead and feel betrayed by their departure in our everyday struggle. See: Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947: 243. Return to text
24. "If we understand it as something absolutely extraneous to the subject, then death becomes the model of reification itself" (Adorno, 1964: 514). Return to text
25. Romero was actually asked to direct a remake of War of the Worlds (Gagne, 1987: 194). Return to text
26. See: "Vampire, Zombie Biology" in George Romero's Day of the Dead. Return to text
27. Already developed by Romero in The Crazies, the topic of contagion will often be associated with zombies and similar creatures. Italian epigones were especially good at this: see, for example, Incubo sulla città contaminata by Umberto Lenzi or Demoni by Lamberto Bava. A good reprise and an utter overturn of Romero's perspective was Cronenberg's Shivers. Here, Eros and Thanatos are not separated and counterposed, rather they find a hybrid cross-over in the explosion of perverted eroticism. The effect of Cronenberg's collective orgy is exactly the opposite of Romero: the final sequence of the film has the audience hoping for the main character to become an erotic maniac like the others. The woman's kiss, highly sensual although poisonous, comes as liberation. Return to text
28. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, before arguing in favour of the human resurrection, Saint Paul distinguishes our body from that of the other animals: "All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds" (1 Corinthians 15:39). Return to text
29. Although Dawn Of the Dead's soundtrack was made by Italian director Dario Argento, Goblin's funky and pseudo-African fills and riffs could be read as a musical allusion to cultural "Otherness," thus providing further connections to Romero's critique of Western Civilization. It is likely that zombies would be perceived by a WASP as his racial nemesis: "The actual religion of voodoo, or voudon, most likely originated from the ancient religious practices of Africa. Modern day voudon was most likely born in Santo Domingo, or modern day Haiti, where slaves devoted rituals to the power of nature and the spirits of the dead-slaves taken from a country rich in the culture of mysticism and religious "voodoo." A very distinct culture, the Haitians are the descendants of slaves who revolted against their slave masters and won their independence — and kept it, at that. According to Wade Davis, the term voodoo was most likely adopted from the African Fon — an ancient tribal group once located in West Africa on the Ivory Coast — spirit, Vodu. For many enslaved Africans living in Haiti, such spiritual traditions provided a means of emotional and spiritual resistance to the hardships of life. Over time, slaves were brought from Haiti to New Orleans, and with them came the more Americanized versions of voudon" (Hunt, 2003; 2004). Return to text
30. Romero's ability to articulate radical politics using the zombie ambiguity makes the question whether zombies represent capitalism or the forces that could overthrow it, utterly nonsensical. The intrinsic dialectic of zombie logic shows the limit of every attempt to reduce them to unilateral symbols. See James Hartfield's "ironic" critique of the global movement as a zombie resurrection of Marxist concepts: "Sociologist Ulrich Beck recently argued that the peculiar condition of the present is that we live under the rule of "zombie categories" whose actual content has long since evaporated, persisting only because of a lack of new terminology to describe present conditions. The contemporary debate on imperialism makes "zombie categories" out of the arguments of Marx and Lenin, terminology which seems to make sense to today's anti-war movement, but only because they are not taking them very seriously.
The old left can provide the rhetoric, but the content is the contemporary romantic anti-development mood" (Heartfield, 2004). Irony only works when the ironized subject is not aware of his weakness. In this case, it is Heartfield's self-confidence in being à la page, that prevents him to see the limits of his own rhetoric. He easily becomes victim of other people's irony, viz. of Socialist poet Tim Hall (1997:1-2), whose Karl Marx was buried denounces the persisting fashion among intellectuals since 1848 of declaring Marx dead. In a stanza dedicated to the 1960s revolution, Hall wrote: "In the 60's Karl sprang back to life / Like a zombie from the dead, / But unlike zombies he had liberation / Theories in his head. / Eager young picked up his banner / And brought him back to flush, / But when the tide ebbed many hastened / To bury him in a rush." Return to text
31. Romero once defined the zombies as the "underclass of the monster world" (Beard, 1993: 30). Return to text
32. "As far as the tone of the piece, I think it just came from the anger of the times [...] It was 1968 and nobody was in a very gleeful mood about the way the world was going, and so it just seemed appropriate to put those themes into the film as well" (Romero, quoted in Colson, 2004: 9). Return to text
33. Aware of these political implications, Zappa declared: "I am trying to use the weapons of a disoriented and unhappy society against itself. The Mothers of Invention are designed to come in the back door and kill you while you're sleeping." It's clear that Zappa, too, was playing with the idea of parents-killing at the time. Although still understandable as an example of 1950s teenage indignation, a song like "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama" should be coupled with "Mom & Dad" to see how Zappa had a clear insight of what was going to happen: "Mama! Mama! Someone said they made some noise / The cops have shot some girls and boys / You'll sit home and drink all night / They looked too weird ... it served them right," ("Mom & Dad" from We're Only In It For The Money, USA 1967). "Sleeping In A Jar," from Uncle Meat, suggests the idea that the child has killed his parents. Return to text
34. "Romero's female zombies are not only undead but virtually ungendered; for instance, they are responsible for as many acts of violence as their male counterparts. In their apparent immunity to ideologies of gender (except in the outward form of their clothing), Romero's female zombies are excellent vehicles for the subversion of gender roles" (Harper, 2003). Return to text
35. "The mirror scene draws on the stereotype of the weak-willed woman succumbing to the seductive charms of consumer glitz. In this way, Romero makes use of the patriarchal, Eliotesque reproach of lovely woman stooping to folly. From a conservative or crude Marxist perspective, Fran's narcissism can be seen as a sinful "fall from grace" of the kind that patriarchies typically demand and condemn. This concern that women may be morally imperilled and/or politically neutralised by the snares of mass consumption recalls the Frankfurt School's inflexible critique of false consciousness" (Harper, 2003). Return to text

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(first published as "Exploitation films in the severe style. George Romero's zombies as critical materialists" on Soundscapes - Journal on media culture ISSN 1567-7745, vol. 7, december 2004)

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