This summer, Zack Snyder will release his Superman film, The Man of Steel. While I am cautiously optimistic (Christopher Nolan is producing, Michael Shannon is the villain and the camerawork looks beautiful), I think Snyder has shown that even with the best of premises, he can turn things ugly. At the same time, his flashy advertising background and love of high definition slow-motion make his style attractive. Likewise, in interviews he comes off as charismatic. I believe it's worthwhile, however, to draw attention to the fact that he, either intentionally or not, has inserted homophobic, racist and nationalistic elements into his past films. That subtext can be seen as both outward and obvious (300) and more hidden but still present (Dawn of the Dead). At the same time, I think this is actually most apparent in a side by side comparison of his remake of George Romero's 1978 film. I've been stewing on these ideas for a bit and on the eve of the release of MOS, I thought it not horrible timing.
|Start with a heresy of the best. |
George A. Romero, director of the Night of the Living Dead (1968) series, in an interview with Playboy said, "The Zombie films are what I perceive as just my platform, a pulpit. They have given me an opportunity to at least, not necessarily express opinions or criticize, but observe what’s going on in society. That puts a bit more intellectual juice into the plot instead of just having a guy in a hockey mask with a knife."
Romero’s political and social commentary is both intentional and current. His second film in the “Dead” Series, Dawn of the Dead (1978) is brilliant. It's one of my favorite films. It concerns the lives of four individuals as they attempt to create a consumer utopian fantasy in a suburban mall, away from the chaos of a world that is being taken over by zombies. By the end of the film the African American protagonist, Peter, and the pregnant female protagonist, Fran, are the only survivors. Their survival is a mixture of hope and despair, but it has deep social implications. The importance of the film lies in its ironic use of the mall as social commentary. Dawn of the Dead, similar to Romero’s other zombie films, makes statements about gender, race, class and reproduction. It also portrays the anxieties of the 1970s and is a prophetic pre-cursor to the 1980s in its critique of consumerism.
And then we come to Snyder...
Snyder’s 2004 remake involved the lives of nine individuals trapped in a mall. The social commentary on consumerism was almost nonexistent in this version, however. There are no long montages of living the good life with all the consumer goods you've always wanted. Likewise, the themes in the film of miscegenation and natality seem to have very little, if any, intentional reason for being in the film. As a result, the treatment of these themes has both racist and nihilistic connotations. Snyder’s reasoning behind his films is nearly insulting for its lack of thoughtfulness:
My instinct is that movies where people are fighting and shooting are the movies I want to see. I don’t really look for a movie that has anything specific in tone, action and story. I’m just looking for something that feels cool to me. Where I think about it and say, “Yeah that sounds cool! (Epstein)
The themes of childbearing and natality hang over both Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Snyder’s 2004 remake. Critiques of consumerism and commodification can be seen at the forefront of Romero’s film. Inter-racial relationships are present in both versions. However, the presentations of these themes are at odds in the different versions of the story. Romero’s vision is clearly a radical critique of capitalism and the ability of people to cause their own and other’s downfall. Snyder’s film is much more ambivalent and can be read as even reactionary and offensive. The presentation of child-birth, hope and rebirth are likewise portrayed differently in these films.
The Dead Will Walk the Earth in new blue jeans...
The end of the 1970s and the years following September 11 seemingly have very little in common. However, both times seem to be an attempt to recoup from national tragedies. The late 1970s and 1980s attempted to deal with the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the 1960s in general, through conspicuous consumption. Immediately following the terrorist attacks in 2001 President George W. Bush, in a joint session of Congress and the American People said, "I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy. Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity. They did not touch its source. America is successful because of the hard work, and creativity, and enterprise of our people. These were the true strengths of our economy before September 11th, and they are our strengths today."
Using consumerism as both a bulwark against economic hardship after a disaster (Inflation in the late 1970s or the market response to September 11) and escape from the feelings of vulnerability, Americans were, in essence, told not to worry about it. And, Romero believes, they did just that. “That’s where we were going. Everybody was just dancing. The crisis was over and we were just listening to the Beegees." What else could they do? The Cold War and the War on Terror were both originally based on an unbeatable enemy, an implausible and illusive idea. One military strategist argued, “Declaring war on terror is like declaring war on air power” (qtd. in Danner). In the shadow of an enemy that cannot be stopped, is possibly one of us, and seems to be almost a type of disease that creates more of itself the harder we fight it, the symbol of the zombie does not seem like crazy science fiction. The Secretary of Defense during Vietnam, Robert S. McNamara, stated in a memorandum to President Lyndon Johnson, “the enemy must be taking losses… at the rate of more than 60,000 a year. The infiltration routes would seem to be one-way trails to death… and it appears that he can more than replace his losses." Similarly in a secret memo in 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld asked the question, “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?"
Symbols of American Prosperity
Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is an extremely important film, because of its biting satire. By placing a mall as the centerpiece of a zombie film it immediately draws attention to the image of the zombie as capitalist consumer. The late 1970s and 1980s was a time of unprecedented prosperity and consumption. It is not only the mall and the zombies that work as stand-ins for capitalism, however. The four “heroes” of the film are seen as similar to the zombies and to the later “raiders” that will eventually break into the mall and end their utopian existence. Through similar actions of consumption and glorification of things, these three groups are linked.
Stephen comments that the zombies are at the mall because, “it’s an important place in their lives.” Yet, it also becomes an important place to Stephen, as he refuses to stay quiet as the raiders come and begin to take a lot of the commodities in the mall. He argues, “Its ours! We took it!” Here, the capitalist fight over commodities ends up being Stephen’s death.
You Got it All Wrong, Snyder...
The critique of capitalism so prevalent in Romero’s film seems to fade into obscurity in Snyder’s remake. Snyder’s film takes place in a mall, yet zombies are rarely seen inside the mall itself, they simply congregate outside. Likewise, the zombies are not portrayed as mindless and clumsy consumers who desire things for no other reason than to possess them, but as very frightening predators who are not distracted by the flashy commodities in the mall. They seem more like rabid animals than people. They move very quickly and a single zombie poses an immediate threat. As Kim Paffenroth states in her book, The Gospel of the Living Dead, “This softened or lessened criticism of materialism is also seen in the depiction of the zombies in the film, for they are both more bestial and subhuman, but also therefore less odious and sinful."
The 1978 film’s tagline was “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth." The tagline for the 2004 remake was “When the undead rise, civilization will fall." It's clear that who is at fault is essential to the film. In Romero’s film capitalism is at center and so it seems a logical extension to argue that the sins of conspicuous consumption and the immorality of global capitalism has brought the dead back to life. However, there is also a continuation of Romero’s critique in Night, as he portrays racism still at the center of the sinfulness. Near the beginning of the film Peter and Roger, the two police officers who go to the mall, are part of an attempt to contain the zombie outbreak in poor African American and Hispanic tenement housing. One police officer with them does the same as the rednecks in Night and uses the opportunity to kill as many of the residents as he can. In essence, in Romero’s view, the world, and the U.S. in particular, have brought it on itself. His film portrays the inexcusable actions of humanity and leaves the blame nowhere to go but on ourselves.
|Cool outfits with no logos, guys|
In Snyder’s re-telling mankind is not at fault, a disease has simply ravaged humanity. Or, if we are, it is because of the anger of God because of sexual immorality. Ken Foree, who plays Peter in the 1978 version, is seen as a televangelist saying the tagline from the original. However, he follows it up by claiming that homosexuals and those like them are the cause. Nothing is said to disregard the statement. There is no other argument to say that homosexuality is the cause, but by no means does the film work against stereotypes or attempt to prove that homosexuals have any place within the group. Glen, a homosexual man, feels the need to confess that he is gay to the two security guards, and one of them replies “I’m in hell!” Later, as the group is attempting to escape, Glen is seen to be too weak to handle the chainsaw and ends up killing one of their own in the group. No group is shown to be at fault, but Glen is certainly not shown to have the ability to survive in such a dangerous climate.
In the same way that the fault seems to lie with no one, the greed of mankind does not lead to the destruction of the group in Snyder’s version. In the 1978 Dawn a combination of the raiders’ and Stephen’s greed lead Peter and Fran to flee the mall and search for sanctuary. In the remake a benevolent action to attempt to save a neighboring gun shop owner from starvation leads to the demise of the group. This heroic action has not been unseen in national tragedy. The firefighters and policeman at the Twin Towers on September 11 were similarly selflessly heroic. However, it is not the heroism that is telling, but the fact that the survivors are almost entirely without fault. Basically every character, but one wealthy man, is redeemed within the span of the film. The group does not jealously guard the mall, nor is anyone else attempting to break in. The group only wishes to help one another. This state of simplicity calls to mind the national response to the terrorist attacks of September 11. Many posed the question, “Why do they hate us?” President George W. Bush would respond by offering similar simplistic and escapist thinking such as, “They hate our freedoms." This type of response leads to the assumption that nothing could have been done and that American foreign policy could in no way be at fault. However, what this line of thinking ignores is the persistent and forceful entry of American Cold War policies and capitalist venture into the Middle East. What Snyder’s remake does is connect to this same sense of simplicity. And, simplistic thinking, in turn leads to destructive outcomes.
|Carpeting Walls should probably come back in a big way|
The zombies and the mall in Snyder’s film, as has been seen, offer only ambiguous social critique. Even if the vision of disease as cause for zombiefication may work as allusion to AIDS or cancer it seems difficult to draw bigger conclusions than that. The theme of childbirth in both Romero’s and Snyder’s films do provide opportunity for drawing conclusions, however. In George Romero’s film, Dawn of the Dead (1978), the African American protagonist, Peter, learns of the pregnancy of Fran, the female member of the foursome, and asks her lover Stephen, “Do you want to abort it? It’s not too late and I know how.” This question comes after the audience has learned that the Pittsburgh area has descended into chaos due to the dead rising back to life to devour the flesh of the living; a decidedly bad environment to bring a new life into. Stephen responds by shaking his head in disgust at the idea. The camera then pulls into the room where the pregnant Fran is sitting. She has not been included in the decision of their future child and is appropriately disturbed at the aspect of it. She later mutters to Stephen, “nobody cares about my vote.” The theme of child-birth and the complications of such a decision is one of many themes the Dawn story intertwines in its politically post-apocalyptic vision.
Fran and Stephen’s relationship seems uncertain. Stephen attempts to propose to her with a ring that he took from a jewelry store in the mall. She proves to be the strong one and refuses the forced marriage, saying “It wouldn’t be real.” Stephen dies at the hands of an unstoppable group of zombies, leaving Fran and Peter with the question of what to do. Fran has since learned how to drive the helicopter and shoot and is prepared to run from the mall. She had correctly predicted, “You’re hypnotized by this place. It’s so bright and neatly wrapped. You don’t see it’s a prison too.” Peter nearly succumbs to despair and is going to kill himself. At the last minute he decides to fight for life. He shoots, punches and kicks his way through zombies to join Fran in helicopter escape. This ending is hopeful for two reasons. Peter and Fran have shown themselves to be competent survivors and the audience will recognize their high chance of survival. Likewise, Fran’s child, a signifier of a future generation and hope, is in good hands with the inter-racial couple. Peter knows how to abort a child, and so most likely knows how to deliver one. Likewise, the pairing of two disenfranchised members of society, an African American male and white female who have bore the brunt of society’s systemic oppression, is evidence of the strength of the oppressed. The creation of inter-racial relationships, black men and white women, occurs in both Dawn and Night. Here, Romero implies the struggles of these groups have a better chance of success if they bind together. This theme of hope does not appear in Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn.
|Racist CG Baby that looks terrible|
In Snyder’s version the pregnant woman, Luda, seems to be nearly nine months along when she is introduced. She is Russian and white, her lover, Andre, is an African American man determined, “to give that baby everything I didn’t have.” What the audience finds out soon after is that Luda has been bit and she is slowly turning into a zombie. Andre keeps her in hiding so that he can continue to deliver the baby. By the time Luda goes into labor she has started to turn. Andre goes on with the operation. When the baby finally comes it is born a zombie. Although the film is created in our supposed post-racial society, the implications are dreadful. The age-old fear of miscegenation, inter-racial procreation, is evoked. The black man and white woman have created an abomination. It is neither black nor white and it is a menace to society.
Fran and Peter’s relationship, although seen as decidedly non-sexual, portrays the positive possibilities of such a couple. Andre and Luda, on the other hand, show the racist fears of such a relationship. To make sense of this in the post September 11 world it is necessary to think about the extensive “other-ing” of the terrorists and concurrent fear of illegal immigrants. Alongside the innocence response to the attacks there was also a racializing of the “enemy.” The fear of terrorists has become a fear of all Arabs and even included Latinos in a race to seal off the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The racial fears prevalent in Snyder’s Dawn are representative of these images in popular culture.
The frightening aspect of horror films like these is their ability to capture the period. Romero’s incredibly insightful denunciation of the escapism of late 1970s consumerism offers possibilities for resistance to cultural consumer hegemony. Likewise, by offering a solution to this problem through an alliance between oppressed groups of society Romero gives an example of effective resistance. On the other hand, Snyder’s supposedly politically banal reading of a highly radical political horror film offers only a racist and hopeless view of the current situation. Whether intended or not, this vision supports American historical and political ignorance while at the same time endorsing racial and isolationist fears. In essence, when Peter responds to Stephen’s plea to join others by saying, “Wake up sucker. We’re thieves and bad guys, we’ve got to find our own way,” he accepts their reality and creates the possibility for them to become the good guys.
|Slo-motion Owl Fascism|
And, it only gets worse...
Snyder's films after Dawn only cement this idea of his apparent racist and jingoistic view of the world. His follow-up film was the very successful 300, a film so racist and celebratory of violent nationalism that it seems almost unnecessary to discuss. It is also about 95% slow-motion. Seriously. Based on the Frank Miller comic book, 300 is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, an inspiring tale of 300 Spartans who stand up against the onslaught of the tremendous Persian army of Xerxes. A similar legend as The Alamo, it is likewise simplified and exploited for nefarious political reasons. Here, the Spartans are a stand-in for the West, while the Persians are a stand-in for the Middle-East. The Spartan soldiers are white, burly and virtuous. The conniving politicians are portrayed as weak and evil. The Persians are shown to be dark-skinned, immoral, and unmerciful. Much more can be said, but for the purposes of this post, I'll just leave it at this: Iranian bloggers and journalists were so taken aback and offended by the film that they wrote headlines like, "Hollywood Declares War on Iranians."
He followed up 300 with Watchmen (a brilliant graphic novel turned simplistic artifice), Legend of the Guardians (a children's film about the dangers of fascism that we must fight with military might) and Sucker Punch (a supposedly empowering film with all female leads, but they are all presented scantily clad and use only violence to solve their problems..)
As this post is already too long and overblown, I'll leave it there. So, here's hoping that Man of Steel is different.
1. Becker, Matt. “A Point of Little Hope: Hippie Horror Films and the Politics of Ambivalence,” The Velvet Light Trap 57 (2006): 42 -59.
2. Danner, Mark. “Taking Stock of the Forever War,” New York Times Magazine. 11 Sept. 2005. (No page numbers available, acquired on internet)
3. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Dir. George Romero. Perf. David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reniger and Gaylen Ross. DVD. The MKR Group, Inc., released 1978. Distributed By Anchor Bay, 2004.
4. Herring, George C. The Pentagon Papers. United States. McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993.
5. Loudermilk, A. “Eating ‘Dawn’ in the Dark,” Journal of Consumer Culture. 3 (2003): 83 – 108.
6. Lowenstein, Adam. Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
7. Waller, Gregory A. The Living and the Undead: From Stoker’s Dracula to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.