Every generation gets the movie monster it deserves. The Depression spawned Frankenstein and Dracula–a victim of modernity and a figment of predatory, shape-shifting capitalism. The nuclear age begat mammoth mutants; the chaotic 1970s produced super psycho-killers; the feminist era inspired hyper-macho crazies and the ultimate patriarchal cannibal, Hannibal Lecter. For reasons that have much to do with the rise of Fortress America, our current creature of choice is the invader from space.
In September this life form will land in prime time with two new series, Invasion and Threshold. It’s already produced the summer’s biggest blockbuster, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, in which a cosmic Qaeda does its terror thing. But aliens haven’t always been mean. Some are sweet–think E.T.–others progressive, like the visitor in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), whose only demand was world peace. Back in the cold war the evil invaders were mainly after mental enslavement, but in these even less generous times their agenda is human extinction. And forget about liquid eyes and campy costumes; today’s aliens are bony and buck naked, signifying their primal, transgressive power. That’s been the model ever since Independence Day (1996), and Spielberg has applied the look and spirit of that film to the post-9/11 landscape.
This is the fourth dramatization of H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel (if you count Orson Welles’s infamous radio charade). None of them have preserved the author’s intention to create a metaphor of subjugation that would resonate with the conduct of his own imperialist civilization. H.G. was a socialist; his adapters have no such impulse, least of all Spielberg. His War of the Worlds is stripped of liberal guilt. We are under attack almost from the opening credits, and by the time the New Jersey suburbs have been ravaged (Manhattan being off-limits for such fantasies these days), there’s nothing to do but thrill to the awesome computer-generated imagery and root for your species. In a more relaxed time Spielberg gave us utopian pageants like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). But this hawkish moment demands spectacles of righteous revenge, and he has complied by making a very Republican horror film.
We are innocent, they are evil–that’s the moral of this movie, and it plays like a Zell Miller speech. But there’s a subversive way to spin the concept of a Hobbesian universe. It can stand for the state of nature in which all human society is based. That’s the terrain of the summer’s much more important chiller, George Romero’s Land of the Dead. This zombie film comes far closer than Spielberg’s pageant of conquest to capturing the deeply ironic perspective of Wells.
A Hollywood insider would know better than to freight a frightfest with critical theory, but Romero was an outsider artist before the word “indie” had cachet. His films are set in the Pittsburgh area, hardly an iconic locale. And he works in a B-movie genre that isn’t supposed to harbor revelations. In his hands the dead not only walk; they signify.
A generation of movie buffs and mall rats has grown up with Romero’s zombie tetralogy, which began in 1968 with the stark docudrama style and seditious ambiguity of Night of the Living Dead. In this pitch-black comedy, corpses rise inexplicably and with one goal in what’s left of their minds: to devour the living. Instead of the usual wooden zombie affect, these creatures pursue their prey with an intense yearning that’s almost a Liebestod. Because they move slowly it’s fairly easy to kill them–permanently–by bashing their brains. Good old boys take to this task with relish, but when they mistake the hero for a zombie something unanticipated happens. Because Romero has cast a black man in this role, he can play with the iconography of race. The film’s climactic moment is a grainy freeze-frame of the hero’s body being dragged away by the “saviors” of civilization. It’s impossible not to think of a lynching.
In most horror movies, society prevails by outsmarting the uncanny. In Romero’s work it’s the zombies who learn. By Dawn of the Dead (1978) they’ve evolved enough to have a vague sense of their former lives. They converge on an abandoned shopping center, stumbling among the commodities while the remnant living try to gun and club them down. These scenes of a bloodbath in the temple of consumption evoke both the slaughterhouse and the numb hysteria of an after-Christmas sale. The zombies aren’t us, but they aren’t exactly unlike us, and that congruence will strengthen as the saga unfolds.
In this year’s installment the undead are legion, and with live game growing scarce they close in on a luxury highrise that’s become a fortress for the rich. The kingfish of this citadel, a dictator-realtor, is poised against the zombie leader, a caring corpse painfully aware of the slaughter of his people, who want nothing more, after all, than to eat. Here is Wells’s metaphor filtered through an almost Brechtian lens. Land of the Dead casts an image of America as a ravening wasteland where them that has gets–until they get consumed.
This is not just a political metaphor. It evokes the final victory of mute organic matter over “sentient” human beings, a truly terrifying idea–and not one Spielberg would dare to entertain. In his films the center always holds. But in Romero’s poetics of horror, things fall apart, mere anarchy is loosed and a rough beast slouches toward Pittsburgh to be born.