Recent Comments

Jennifer Van Houdt

Thanks for your post, Ben—it’s an enlightening account of the local dimension of Romero’s work and, I think, a fitting way to conclude this week’s posts.

I simply wanted to add that your emphasis on the nonhierarchical character of Romero’s work reminded me about telling moment in one of his interviews regarding Land of the Dead, where Romero laments that the money spent on fancy cigars for Dennis Hopper could have paid for extra days of shooting (https://tinyurl.com/ohszc2f). Though a simple comment about budgets, I think it speaks to the ethic Romero’s productions evinced and what you’ve underscored here (even when working with larger film studios).

Romero's ghouls shambling
Jennifer Van Houdt

Thanks for the astute post, Ryan—I find it a compelling account for thinking through the zombie’s iterations over time.

I’m curious if you think there’s any characteristic of this empty signifier set in stone, or perhaps even definitive of the kind of allegorical malleability the zombie exudes. For example, do you think zombies, post-Romero, will likely stay flesh-eaters/biters (falling back on that same core)? Or perhaps does the zombie’s initial mindlessness—even if pushed beyond expectation like in Day of the Dead—contribute in its function as a “utility tool”? I’d like to know what you find the important outlines (if any) of this signifier to be.

Romero's ghouls shambling
Ryan Lizardi

I definitely agree that one of the most consistent traits of the Romero ghoul/zombie is the real danger only in the unstoppable mass (its one of those Romero legacies that the genre always seems to “snap back” to even after successful deviations). There are certainly some examples where the danger is comparatively atomized, to reflect similar societal concerns. I have write at length about the most notable example, 28 Days Later, where the “infected” trace their cinematic ancestry to the Romero ghoul/zombie, but are remarkably quick and pose a serious threat even on an individual level.

See this clip where there only two but their speed and power make for formidable foes - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-a68r1d9iQ

Romero's ghouls shambling
Ben Ogrodnik

Hi Ryan. Thanks for your post.

I agree with your point that “there will undoubtedly be countless variations and deviations from Night’s ghouls.”

However Romero’s revitalization of the zombie came at a powerful cultural turning point in 1968, and many of the characteristics he ascribed to them have obvious resonances with the culture of the US at that tumultuous time.

Many traits of the zombies since then have endured - their apparent mindlessness, their propensity for violence, etc.

I think one of the biggest recurring traits is that the zombie, since Romero re-conceived it, has to be a social mass. Something that is a large, unfolding, growing structure without a unique singular identity. Zombies after all tend to be portrayed as frightening, unstoppable crowds.

Is this an aspect where the genre may look to change? As our society gets increasingly technologically and economically atomized, do we need a new conception of the zombie that is similarly atomized rather than mass-ified?

I am not an expert in recent zombie trends - sadly - but I would be curious what new directions seem to be for this venerable movie monster!

The Political Economy of the Living Dead
Ben Ogrodnik

Good post.

One transgressive aspect of the zombie, which I think the discussion has touched on, is their violation of a spatial division of inside and outside, in both physical and cultural terms.

Day of the Dead’s military bunker and Night of the Living Dead’s farm house represent defensive spaces, and defensive conceptions of identity, that fall apart under the swarm of zombie masses.

This idea of containment against the zombie Other, and the desperate (ultimately hopeless) struggle to preserve divisions of outside/inside as they fall apart, are aspects of Romero’s zombie franchise that have re-emerged in recent, socially conscious horror films.

I’m thinking of Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015) and Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night (2017). Both films - like the Dead franchise - are based around spatial divisions and the bloody destruction of a sense of identity built around keeping the alien Other outside at all times.

It is obvious how relevant Romero’s ideas have become in our own time where the US political culture is increasingly isolationist, self-destructive and paranoid about being contaminated by all kinds of outsiders…

Hi Kyle, Great post. I tend to agree that language is usually interpreted as a sign of civilization and humanity. It makes sense that lovers of human communication, in all its forms, have a long history of privileging language over action. However, written and verbal communication use different parts of the brain, different parts of us “speak” depending on how we chose to communicate. This is made dangerously clear in the film as Stark, the writing mind, tries to destroy Beaumont, the acting mind. So, my question for you is: are we different people when we act? Is it possible that the mind that writes might actually hate, fear, or resent the mind that acts, the mind that talks? Which mind best represents a subject, which mind should we trust? Why do the parts of us that speak do so much rhetorical work to demonize or debase the parts of us that act?

The Political Economy of the Living Dead
Andrew Spieldenner

I’m struck thinking about the roles of zombies as antagonists. The horror genre antagonists and protagonists provide social commentary about our world. They reveal cultural constructions of power, social norms, and fears. They become signifiers for the moment they emerge from.

What, then, do zombies do?

Zombies circle humans. They hunt, they feed, they shamble, they riot, they rot… they do these things, but they do it by circling humans - whether together or alone. Zombie narratives, then, become all about humanity. What does the success of zombies in the past two decades - their proliferation throughout popular culture - indicate about us? Are they a response to a narcissistic need to make it “all about us?”

The Political Economy of the Living Dead

Hey Kyle, Thank you for the comment and the question. I think Romero’s theory of community might be very well developed and of particular relevance now. First and perhaps most apparent is his critique of the formation of community based on the exclusion of “others.” The zombies’ “unlife” could serve as an allegory for “bare life.” Zombies are identifiable, interchangeable, human enough to represent an existential threat, yet stripped of enough humanity to make any act of violence against them easy to justify. The survivors, on the bases of their common enemy, forge a community based on the principles of us vs. them. And yet, Romero shows us just how destructive and violent that form of community can be.

Even as the zombies seem to parody the consumer rat race, they also don’t actively work against each other. Each Z is out for its own sake; they might impede each others progress but there does not seem to be any malice in a zombie, just hunger. This leads me to believe that the zombies lack any coherent notion of community until Land of the Dead. Land is different because during one of the human raids into occupied territory, as zombies are being killed indiscriminately, zombie subjectivity is born. This is the first time that the audience sees zombies experience the deaths of there own kind as a loss. The zombies become grievable subjects, if only to each other. In the Land of the Dead the sense of community based on shared precarity ultimately triumphs over the community based on exclusion.

Ryan Lizardi

I was struck by the way your post cogently lays out a prescience I had not previously considered in Romero’s work. I had always looked at his allegorical and satirical commentaries as holding a mirror up to society, but the argument that he was holding up binoculars to the future is intriguing.

Though not nearly as acclaimed a film, Diary of the Dead might also speak to the eventual and absolute explosion of YouTube/streaming culture. Yes, YouTube was founded in 2005, but I do not think it is at all a stretch to say that by Diary’s release in 2007 it was not nearly the cultural juggernaut that it has been since.

The Political Economy of the Living Dead
Kyle Christensen

Antonio, as I was reading through your curator’s notes, I was struck by your description of the zombies in Land of the Dead as “cooperatively mov[ing] closer and closer towards something resembling class solidarity.” I find this notion of solidarity amongst these monsters intriguing in that it might move us beyond the discussion of class/consumption and zombie narratives that you have concisely addressed here, and toward other discussions regarding how community is represented in these films. To be sure, the Living Dead series has always explored what happens when particular human communities are invaded by the undead (even the strangers trapped in the farmhouse in the original Night of the Living Dead begrudgingly become a sort of community, and by extension, a microcosm of the issues affecting larger society). Likewise, as your reflection suggests, human beings also create narrow communities based on their shared value systems (including, again, their mutual class values).

I wonder if there is an argument to be made about the existence of community amongst zombie populations, as well. On one hand, these monsters do work together as a united front in order to invade each new locale they stumble across, something that they could never do if working alone. On the other hand, communities are also purposefully constructed, negotiated, and enacted, which the Romero zombies (devoid of any propensity for logic and rational thought) are perhaps not capable of achieving. Maybe the question is not whether the zombie horde would “count” as a community as it is traditionally defined, but whether zombies radically alter and threaten our understandings of community as we currently know it. Thanks for a great post that now has my wheels turning…