Friday, March 26, 2004

Destroy All Monsters! (or, Zombies vs. Werewolves)

While I was out, Josh Levin at Slate magazine linked to my brief essay on George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. Levin's article covers slightly different ground, focusing on how and why today's movie zombies got so strong and speedy.

At the end of his essay Levin writes, "Maybe, as blogger Tim Hulsey argues, the obsolescence of the slow zombie signals the decline of 'mobocratic' culture in favor of a modern taste for individualism." One would hope so, but for my part I suspect the rise of the "fast zombie" might indicate the opposite. In the new, souped-up zombie world, the very idea of "the individual" seems at best irrelevant and at worst impossible.

Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later seems to have inspired the undead of the recent Dawn remake. Since I haven't seen the Dawn remake yet, I'll talk about Boyle instead. His raging hordes of "infecteds" don't seem zombie-like in any traditional sense. They don't shuffle or amble, but run. They have emotions -- or rather, one emotion (rage) -- and they seem to act with some deliberation against uninfected humans. They're strong rather than weak; their abilities seem superhuman rather than subhuman. They're not even dead yet. One of these zombies could lick any three of us in a bare-knuckles fight.

The only thing which Boyle's zombies lack, and which differentiates "them" from "us," is what we'd call "reason" or "civilization." This emphasis on civilization as a necessary condition for humanity is what makes 28 Days Later less like a zombie movie, and more like a typical werewolf flick. In the post-Romantic conflict between civilization and its discontents, Romero's Dead trilogy comes down on the side of discontent, as most zombie films do. Werewolf films, however, tend to support civilization, if only through negative example.

The werewolf movie got its biggest break in 1941 -- surely a good year for Americans to reflect on the latent beast within civilized man -- with Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man. A bit of doggerel written for the film summarizes the basic premise of any werewolf movie:

Even a man who is pure at heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.

In the werewolf movie, that any individual, regardless of his good intentions, has the potential to become a monster. The enemy always lies within the self, waiting for some trigger -- and the best way to avoid succumbing to that enemy is to deny one's self altogether. The otherwise dull 1960s Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf took this idea and turned it into a metaphor for psychotherapy, or what passed for psychotherapy back then: A man genetically predisposed to lycanthropy is very carefully "trained" to avoid all strong emotions (love, anger, self-assertion of any form), lest the inner wolf be released. He is not informed about the wolf, of course, and therein lies the problem. Of course, the psychological conditioning and reparative therapy all fall through in the third act: In all werewolf movies, the curse of blood may not be denied.

The werewolf is not a team player but a cold-blooded killer, pitting his superhuman abilities against weak, helpless victims. Most werewolf movies include at least one scene in which the wolf meets someone he knows in human form -- a sweetheart, or a comrade. The suspense of the scene arises from the following question: Which will prevail, the wolf's propensity to attack or the man's personal ties? Sometimes the man wins the conflict, but the most successful werewolf movie of the past three decades, John Landis's American Werewolf in London, resolves this scene in favor of the wolf's predatory instinct. In keeping with the early-'80s focus on "law and order" and severe punishment, Landis implies that the beast within cannot be restrained or redeemed.

Despite the fact that Boyle's "zombies" run in packs, they strike me as a fulfillment of individual physicality in much the same way that the werewolf is. Therefore, at least in Nietzsche's formulation, they represent the same type of monster to civilized man. Naturally, such a threat must be destroyed, in the name of keeping the weak masses safe. It's no coincidence, then, that the "equalizer" in the fight between civilized humans and werewolf superpredator is the gun (with its all-important silver bullet).

In a nutshell, that's how Nietzsche's ressentiment basically works: The weak mob acts together to take down the strong ubermensch who, like Boyle's infected victims or the zombie hordes of the Dawn of the Dead remake, could beat us if we fought him fairly and directly. Naturally, since the ubermensch eschews the civilization that holds the mob together, he is seen as a beast, or beast-like, by this crowd.

The result is a trend we haven't seen in a good long while: Pro-Enlightenment horror films. Instead of making a statement against mobocratic democracy -- where the weak, poor and undistinguished oppress the strong, rich, or prominent -- the remake of Dawn might actually come down on the opposite side of the equation (as 28 Days Later seems to).

Instead of opposing a majoritarian tyranny of the weak, today's sped-up zombie film might well advocate it. Now the good guys and the bad guys belong to Nietzsche's loathsome masses. The zombies are a strong mob, the living are a weak mob, and no sense of a singular, unique self can be said to exist.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Taking a few days off

Postings should resume Friday ... I think.

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