Night of the Living Dead
Making Peace with my Zombies: A Personal Narrative
My husband and I have really been enjoying HBO’s new fantasy series, Game of Thrones. In fact, it’s the perfect show in that it bridges two of our most divergent TV tastes; he loves costume dramas and anything set in a castle (which I normally hate) while I love a show with an impending sense of doom (“Winter is coming!”). But one thing threatens to destroy our shared television bliss: zombies. Of course, none of the many enticingly-edited previews leading up to the April 17th Game of Thrones premiere led me to believe that the series would include zombies. No, that little surprise happened in episode three, “Lord Snow,” when young Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), bedridden after being pushed out of a tower for seeing something very, very naughty (it rhymes with bincest), asks his nurse to tell him a scary story. Old Nan complies and tells Bran, a “summer child,” all about an endless winter that happened thousands of years ago. During this winter the sun disappeared all together and mothers smothered their babies rather than see them starve. And, during this winter, the “white walkers” came. These white walkers ate babies! Babies , for crying out loud! Upon hearing this story I was all “Hell to the no!” because I had really fallen in love with Game of Thrones and I did not want to give it up just because it had a few zombies in it. You see, I have an intense zombie phobia. And like all phobias, this one is threatening to take away something I love. So I’ve decided to use this blog post to revisit my zombie phobia and to try to understand it’s hold over me. I hope you don’t mind the indulgence.
This story begins with my older brother, Adam, and his obsession with horror films. The early 1980s was a golden age for the horror film. There were numerous teen slasher film franchises, including Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven), Halloween (1978, John Carpenter), and Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S. Cunningham). But my brother was into a very specific kind of horror film: the splatter film. In conventional horror films, like Dracula (1931, Tod Browning) or Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), the monster is foreign and threatens the characters’ way of life. Yes, there is the threat of bodily harm, but these films (due to the restrictions of the Production Code), rarely dwelled on the destruction of the human body. Victims screamed and then drifted out of the frame. Nice and clean.
But the horror of the splatter film comes from its focus on the systemic destruction of the human body. This horror cycle is preoccupied with the faithful recreation of blood, organs, skin, and bone so that it may later rip these replicas of the human form to shreds.
The splatter film takes what is usually on the inside of the body — safely contained within our skin — and reveals it to the outside. What is especially important about the splatter film is not the high body counts (leave those to Rambo), but the obsessive focus on death itself. Victims are rarely shot with bullets or forced to ingest poison. Instead, the destruction of the human body must take place at close range with weapons — clubs, machetes, knives, fingernails, teeth (shudder) — that require the killer and the victim to have intimate contact with one another. The messier, more prolonged, and more painful the death is, the better.
Yes, these were the kinds of horror films that my brother always seemed to be watching in the mid-1980s. And, naturally, as a younger sister, I wanted to be doing everything my older brother was doing. If he was going to watch Day of the Dead (1985, George Romero), then damn it, I was going to watch it too. I asked my brother about the fateful day that changed everything for me — the day we watched Night of the Living Dead (1968, George Romero) on VHS in our family den. He thinks it was somewhere around 1986, which means I would have been 10-years-old and he would would have been around 15-years-old. And while I distinctly remember him coaxing me to watch the movie by telling me that it really wasn’t that scary, my brother remembers it differently: “I don’t recall forcing you to watch it, you were into it like any kid looking for a thrill would be.” Doesn’t that sound exactly like something a drug dealer would say? Regardless of how it happened, there I sat, for 96 minutes, and watched as a series of reanimated corpses cornered and ate a houseful of people. Including a little girl, just like me. WTF, George Romero?
Looking back on this phase of my pop culture upbringing, I do wonder where the hell my mother was. The film professor in me appreciates that she didn’t do much censoring of television or movies — my brother and I pretty much watched what we wanted to watch. My Mom only started to get concerned about my brother’s horror movie fascination when Fangoria magazine began to arrive in our mailbox every month. Those covers freaked me out.
But by that time, it was too late for me. The deep damage to my psyche was already done. And the real problem? I liked zombie movies. They scared me more than any other horror film and I really liked being scared. Zombie movies combined all of my greatest fears: dead bodies (I still have never seen a dead body), being chased by an unrelenting enemy, painful, prolonged death, and the possibility of being turned into a monster. So I continued to watch zombie movies with my brother. And like any older brother worth his salt, Adam pinpointed my fear and discovered clever ways to exploit it. For example, after we watched Dawn of the Dead (1978, George Romero) together, my brother came up with a great tormenting device: he would chase me around the house pretending to be a zombie. He’d put his arms out in front of him, cock his head to the side, and hum the Muzak that was playing in the mall for most of Dawn of the Dead (see YouTube clip below). This horrible chase would always end the same way — with me locking myself into the nearest available bathroom and waiting, panting and terrifed, for my brother to get bored and lumber away (just like in a real zombie movie). To this day, when I hear generic-sounding Muzak, the muscles in my stomach tighten up.
Due to the combination of watching zombie movies at an age when I was too young to process their terrifying images and being chased around the house by my faux-zombie brother over and over again, I was plagued, for decades, with zombie-themed nightmares. In these dreams I was plunged, in medias res, into the climax of an epic zombies versus humans battle. The battle would conclude in one of two ways: either I was holed up in an old house with a group of survivors — sometimes I knew them, sometimes I didn’t — and we would bide our time, waiting for the moment when the zombies would finally burst through our hastily constructed barricade. Or (and this was the worst scenario), I was by myself, being chased by a horde of hungry zombies who were always just inches behind me. At some point during this recurring nightmare I would recognize that I was dreaming and I would have to make a decision: continue to flee the zombies (and thus, prolong the feeling of absolute terror) or allow the zombies to attack me (which would allow me to finally wake up). Neither option is really an option, you dig?
The turning point for me and my love/hate relationship with zombies happened in 2002, when I went to see 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle) with my friend, Coral. After the movie, Coral was going to drop me off at my empty house; my boyfriend (now my husband) was out of town. But I knew that sleeping alone in my empty house was going to be an impossibility. So instead I ran inside, grabbed my toothbrush and my dog, and hopped back into Coral’s car. As I lay there that night on Coral’s futon, painfully aware of the inanity of a grown woman having to sleep over at a friend’s house after watching a scary movie, I came to a decision: no more zombie movies. And I’ve kept to that, mostly. I lapsed in 2004, when I rented the remake of Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder) (which, by the way, was great). I did this when my husband was out of town and I paid for it with a night of insomnia. I haven’t watched a zombie movie since. And now I only have a few zombie-themed nightmares each year. I still get sad though, like when a group of my friends all went to see Zombieland (2009, Rubin Fleischer) and I had to say “Sorry, friends, just can’t do it!” And I know that AMC’s The Walking Dead is supposed to be great, but I’ll never know its pleasures. Instead, I try to view my zombie phobia the way a lactose-intolerant person views ice cream: you can have a sundae, but your ass is going to pay for it later.
Which brings me to the present day and Game of Thrones. Except for a brief glimpse of a blue-eyed little girl with a bloodied mouth (who I am assuming is a white walker?), no zombies have appeared in the series. But, as Ned Stark (Sean Bean) keeps warning us, “winter is coming” and with it, zombies. When they arrive, I might have to abandon this great television series, or risk giving up my dreams to the undead once again.
So, am I alone in my zombie phobia? Is anyone else out there zombie-intolerant? Or is there another movie monster that plagues your nightmares? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
V: Then and Now
As soon as I heard that ABC was remaking V, the classic 1980s miniseries/television series about extraterrestrials coming to Earth, my mind was flooded with long dormant memories of the original series. Growing up with an older brother who had a taste for the macabre, I was exposed to a lot of popular culture that was not entirely age-appropriate — Stephen King novels, Night of the Living Dead (1968, George Romero), The Dead Milkmen — basically anything with “dead” in the title. And so it should not be too surprising that I watched V, in its various televisual manifestations (miniseries, television series), at the tender age of 7 or 8.
I must have repressed most of my memories of the show because I could only conjure up flashes of images: a beautiful woman eating a rodent, a “Visitor” peeling back his faux human skin to reveal lizard skin below, and a super cheesy 80s era rendering of the inside of a “high tech” mothership. Lucky for me, the internet was more than happy to confirm these hazy visions.
The rodent eating:
This scene is truly laughable now but I’m pretty sure I choked on my Oreos when I watched this as a kid.
I think the special effects here are still pretty effective. They were so effective, in fact, that the series made me suspicious of everyone I knew. If anyone could be a V under their natural looking human skin, then what about Mom? Was she a V? What about Dad? I kept a close eye on the hamster cage just in case.
And something that I don’t remember at all but which is hilarious:
Start watching around the 2:10 mark.
Of course, the 2009 remake of V has far superior special effects. For example, when the mothership arrives in New York City a few minutes into the pilot episode we first see its metal body reflected in the windows of a generic office building. It is a beautiful, chilling moment. Anything that arrives that way cannot be good.
And of course the V’s lizard skins are far more … is realistic the word I’m looking for here? I’ll put it this way: although I figured out that Dale (Alan Tudyk) was an undercover V about 5 minutes after meeting his character, I still let out an involuntary shriek when Erica (Elizabeth Mitchell) pulled back his human skin during a violent showdown.
In terms of themes, the 2009 series has shifted away (at least in the first two episodes that have aired) from the overt Nazi allegory of the original (and no, I did not catch the references to Jewish resistance groups and Fascism and Hitler Youth when I was 7. I was in it for the rodent eating). While V is still playing with some of these themes — for example, the Peace Ambassadors are given blazers reminiscent of SS uniforms and the Vs make generous use of propaganda — there seems to be more of a push to see the Visitors as an allegory of modern terrorism. Only these terrorists have discovered that it is far easier to achieve your objectives if you study your targets, use their language and customs and offer them peace, all while plotting how to gobble them up.
One interpretation I am not willing to swallow (excuse the pun) is that the new V is an allegory for the Obama administration and its politics (also here and on many, many other sites and blogs). The scene in which Anna (Morena Baccarin), the beautiful, calm leader of the Vs, offers Earth a form of “universal health care,” is deftly intercut with a scene in which an underground resistance movement is slaughtered by a band of vicious Vs. Certainly such editing techniques make the promise of universal health care appear sinister, as a kind of bait and switch for more nefarious doings. But I read this much discussed moment less as a dig at the President and more as a topical reference that would resonate with audiences. In other words, given the way our health care debates have been going, universal health care only seems possible in the world of science fiction.
And yes, Anna and her fellow Vs are attractive, charismatic, and popular with “the kids,” just like Obama was/is. But isn’t this the case with most successful leaders (both the good and the evil)? If Anna were ugly and devoid of personality then broadcasting her visage over 29 major cities would not be the best way to convince the world to cooperate with the Vs. I am sure that right wing bloggers and pundits will continue to see the program as further evidence that the Obama administration will bring about the destruction of humanity, but this will not keep me from watching the show.
Quick thoughts on the cast:
1. Throughout the pilot episode I kept asking my husband “Who is that guy?” every time Ryan Nichols appeared on screen. “I know that guy!” Then as the second episode started (we watched them back to back) and the name “Morris Chestnut” appeared on the screen. Since his acting debut in Boyz N the Hood (1991, John Singleton) Chestnut has appeared sporadically on the big (The Inkwell [1994, Matty Rich]) and small (Bones) screen, but I hope his leading role in V will ensure more steady work. The man looks fantastic!
2. I am really hoping that Rekha Sharma, who plays FBI agent Sarita Malik, turns out to be an undercover V since she was also one of the “final five” Cylons on Battlestar Galactica (another wonderful, contemporary remake of a somewhat cheesy sci fi program).
3. Elizabeth Mitchell. You are truly kick ass. That is all.
So are you digging V? is it better than the original so far? And does ABC hate Obama?