Saturday, August 6, 2011

Zombies are Real: Post-Apocalyptia in Pop Film

In the words of the wise [guy] Jason Windsor who created the crappy early 2000's flash meme End of Ze World; "Ruling out the ice caps melting [sorta like Day After Tomorrow], meteors becoming crashed into us [definitely like Armageddon], the sun exploding and the ozone layer leaving us, we're basically going to blow ourselves up." Okay.

It is said that every generation believes that they are the last. "The world is going to Hell in a hand basket." But modern history is especially saturated with doom, during which a pair of World Wars brought to us such manifestations of the macabre as tanks, bombers, gas, and eventually, the nuke.

Ever since, the imaginations of authors and filmmakers have come to rest upon the Apocalypse. What will it be like in reality? What will it be like in the darkest nightmare? And how can some combination of the two be used to expose the destructive nature of humans and perhaps in some way prevent a ghastly conclusion to all of humanity.

Indeed, in apocalypse-narratives, the viewer is almost always placed (for dramatic effect) in the situation of an individual or small group as they struggle to survive the end of the world, or the immediate aftermath of whatever climactic event that aspired.

But more than gimmicky effects, this style of story-making appeals to us because we are cast into the standpoint of the main characters, and are cast into the decision making process of someone who disregards all conventions of a now non-existent society and performs various illegal and destructive acts in the name of self-preservation, such as stealing cars, or weapons, and in the case of zombie films; using them against people.

George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead was so successful in examining some of these themes, that it is rightfully credited with popularizing the phenomenon that would come to be known as zombie film. Night of the Living Dead begins with a young woman, Barbara, who acts as the viewer's surrogate throughout the first part of the movie, but once Barbara becomes incapacitated by fear and insanity so caused by her new apocalyptic reality, the viewer quickly transitions into the thought processes and actions of Ben, a young black worker, as he snaps into action boarding up the farmhouse they've both taken refuge in. Romero here draws a clear duality of reactions to the impending doom; one of denial and ultimate defeat versus a voracious will to fight and to keep alive. He continues to juxtapose the two characters throughout the film, emphasizing Barbara's uselessness and Ben's composure and usefulness, forcing the viewer to ponder his or her own natural reaction to a disaster of similar proportions.

The middle-aged father character, Harry, embodies yet a third paradigm of a human reacting on an animalistic level to the stresses of an apocalyptic environment. Generally unlikable, Harry is more proactive than Barbara, but his efforts are mostly counterproductive and clearly motivated by a cowardice that sharply contrasts Ben's altruism. His stubborn conservatism is demonstrated through his desperate attempts to convince the rest of the group to join him in the basement stronghold over which he feels he has control, and can be seen as a reference to the underlying ignorant fear and discrimination that defines the politics of state and national borders and home spaces.

The final and most compelling moment of the film occurs after each character is lost, one by one, to the "ghouls." Ben, the last remaining survivor, emerges from the basement to a quiet, zombie-free atmosphere, only to be gunned down immediately by an armed posse who mistook him for a ghoul. This abrupt ending to the film leaves the viewer in shock, numbed by the disregard for human life displayed by the zombie hunters, who like soldiers in a "hostile zone" show no hesitation to kill when they themselves perceive a threat to their own lives.


Most subsequent zombie and other post-apocalyptic narratives examine the same basic theme in various ways, but the common thread is the hand-delivered fantasy of operating outside the common laws and norms of refined society in a survival situation, including cannibalism. Some very successful texts in this area include most subsequent Romero flicks, 28 Days Later, AMC's Walking Dead, and a score of related non-zombie films like Mad Max, Children of Men, and The Road.

One doesn't need to be an expert in environmental science to understand that the human population has exceeded what our environment can provide and that an impending dieoff is indeed a reality. In a world where major social and environmental issues are innumerable, and their solutions seem as distantly hopeless and densely intertwined as the problems themselves, could our unconscious minds be seriously preparing for the real post-apocalypse? Does this explain the pop-realism imbued within these films and their subsequent achievements in the mainstream? Is Hollywood subtly trying to tell us not to go off eating each other when the shit really does hit the fan? I'm not sure, but what I can say is BRRAAAAIIINNS!

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