There was a bunch of apocalyptic movies in the 90s exploiting the vibes surrounding the approaching millennium. As it happened, the latter part of the 90s was relatively stable. The late 80s and early 90s saw the fall of Iron Curtain and communism relegated to the dustbin of history. There were economic good times under Clinton, who was a ‘new kind of Democrat’. There was the rise of Tony Blair in UK too. It was as though the right vs. left dichotomy was a thing of the past. Clinton was a free market globalist liberal who could work with conservatives in congress. With the rise of internet stocks, it seemed as though most Americans would become prosperous. As the 90s progressed, many believed the US was ‘building a bridge to the 21st century.’ Clinton was even called the ‘first black president’, as though race no longer mattered. We could almost forget about the Gulf War, the LA riots, and the Oklahoma bombing. Crime rates were falling. NY, once considered irreversibly in decline, was again a safe place to live. Of course, there was the threat of terrorism, but Americans shrugged off the first attack on the twin towers in the 90s. The fact that the towers had stood the test and the culprits apprehended and brought to justice made most Americans feel safe and invincible. There were some major bombings overseas–most notably in Africa–, but the world wasn’t much alarmed as, well, the third world was the third world–as usual. As long as we could occasionally lob missiles at nations like Afghanistan or Sudan, we thought we were safe. More troubling for us was the disintegration of the deal between Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps, that was a portent of things to come.
Anyway, most of us were in a celebrating mood as the new year/decade/century/millennium dawned. So, all those Hollywood films about the End of Days or Armageddon were made and watched in jest; it was more like an apocalyptic chic than anxiety about what might REALLY happen. (Similarly, radical chic has always been for the privileged secure in their belief that the revolution would never touch their lives.) We felt so secure and strong that even the idea of the sky-falling-down was part of the cool celebration; we hyped it as though to mock it. So, we had movies about satan’s evil plans, an asteroid about to tear Earth a new arsehole, or some other concoction about everything blowing up reeeeaaaaaal good. They were nothing more than cinematic fireworks, pure popcorn movies. 2000 came around, people celebrated around the world, and all seemed well. To be sure, the stock market tumbled, but most Americans felt it was a momentary lull to pull back from the excesses of the 90s, the hip-hop age. So, we ended up with a ‘humble’ president in the man of George W. Bush. We looked to a period of stability, sobriety, and slow-down before things would start booming again.
But, then 9/11 happened. The feeling of invincibility went out the window. The stock market fell even more. But, Americans, being Americans, rallied and supported the lightening war against Afghanistan and achieved quick victory. It was as though America would own the 21st century. The attacks on 9/11 gave US the moral capital to use its force around the world.
But, then came Iraq. Bush wanted to be a man for the ages. He gambled and lost–at least in the short term. He couldn’t have given a better present to anti-Americans, leftists, and Islamic radicals. Even his supporters grew embarrassed of their commander-in-chief and then, even of the military, and began to harbor doubts about American power around the world. Oddly enough, genuine apocalyptic fears reached critical mass only after 2003. The Iraq war was the catalyst–not only because of the long-drawn-out war and political complications in Iraq, but because of the moral revulsion created by Abu Gharib, Guantanamo, and the issue of torture–, but there were other factors too.
Being out of power politically, leftists and liberals–who control the media, academia, and entertainment–grew angry and unhinged and produced books, music, and movies whose purpose was to make Americans and the world feel disgusted at America-under-Bush as much as possible–politically, diplomatically, militarily, culturally, morally, environmentally, etc.
The Katrina disaster was everything rolled into one–fears about global warming, unpreparedness of our government, racial tensions, ineffectiveness of Bush, national disconnect among regions, the divisions between ‘haves and have-nots’, etc. Liberals and leftists had a field day making, turning it into a secular version of ‘god punished us for our sins’. It was their Noah’s Ark story… from which we needed a Messiah(and guess who?).
In the 90s, with Clinton at the helm, Hollywood gave us stuff like “The American President” and “The Contender”. With Bush as president and Congress dominated by the GOP, leftists and liberals in the media were determined to make as many Americans hate their own country as much as possible. The main reason why young people have turned overwhelmingly liberal in the last several years is because they depend on popular culture and celebrity news for information on much of anything. For most young people, the Bourne Trilogy, Matrix movies, V for Vendetta, articles in Rolling Stone ragazine, statements by Rock stars, TV talk shows, MTV, and etc. are the source of their worldview. Initially, due to 9/11, leftists and liberals were restrained in their anti-Americanism, but Bush’s Iraq misadventure gave them an opening. As the war dragged on and disgusted even many American conservatives who felt duped by Bush and his ‘neo-con cabal’, the leftist and liberal attacks on Bush’s America grew stronger and gained momentum. Even superstar conservative film makers gave us a pretty bleak vision of the world. Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” was blistering and bleak, not a movie to feel good about. His next film, “Apocalypto” was about the corruption and fall of a civilization intoxicated with hubris and arrogance. And, his drunken meltdown did severe damage to his career in a Jew-dominated industry. Clint Eastwood made two excellent films–Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima–, but they weren’t rah-rah movies by any means. They were defeated at the box-office, and conservatives had little to rally around–not their president, no cultural figures, no nothing… except some blustering talk radio hosts becoming more irrelevant by the day as they’d thrown their lot with Dubya.
For many people, it really seemed like US was helplessly on the ropes. That the so-called mightiest nation was hopelessly mired in a poor and desperate country made many people lose confidence. And, Bush increasingly seemed like an idiot or buffoon, incapable of even stringing together simple sentences. He had talked tough like a Texan cowboy before the war on Iraq, but as the war dragged on, he sounded more like a retarded dummy on someone’s lap.
Just when US seemed to be in big trouble, we heard more news about the rise of China. Trade deficits were going through the roof. And, national borders were utterly broken. If patriotic conservatives were unable to do anything about the Invasion by foreign illegals–a problem plaguing Europe as well–, was there a future for the Western world?
There was a true cloud of apocalyptic fears gathering in our culture and politics. If the pre-2000 apocalyptic films were in jest, films since the Iraq War took on genuinely dark overtones and conveyed the real possibility of an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic landscape.
It was this sense of malaise which laid the ground for Obama’s rise. Though a cheap, dirty, thuggish, and self-promoting Chicago machine politician–and black nationalist and stealth Marxist radical–, he had the fortune of being handpicked by the super-rich and super-powerful liberal and leftwing Jews who run the national media, culture, and academia to run as the New Hope of mankind. Of course, many sappy white gentiles loved him too, especially the privileged ones whose socio-historical consciousness was formed in schools taught by liberals and by PBS documentaries and Hollywood films that give us the impression that blacks are inherently nobler than the insipid, bland, and generic honkeys.
If white girls voted for Obama out of political jungle fever, white boys voted for him because they’d been castrated into metro-sexual faggoty-ass dweebdom.
But, there was a political, spiritual, and cultural climate for this kind of CHANGE. There was a sense that Clinton had ultimately failed us in the 90s. US grew richer but the boom did end in bust, and Clinton was no moral exemplar. So, Hillary couldn’t convince people that she represented something new. As for Bush’s compassionate conservatism, it turned out to be socialism-with-tax-cuts-for-the-rich; as for his cautious and humble foreign policy, oh well. As for McCain, he looked old and mummified. He didn’t have the look and spirit of something new. So, there was Obama. By going with Obama, Americans could pretend to be back in the year 2000, starting the millennium anew. It’s as though we’d made a mistake in 2000 by going with Bush–not that Gore would have been any better. They were both insipid white males. Of course, many Americans are wary of black politicians and black folks, but Obama looked and sounded special. He had some of that black soulfulness without coming across as aggressive and intimidating; he mastered the art of Oprah’s pompous fatass bullshittery which melts the hearts–and minds–of stupid white dupes who dream of a Great Black Hope who’s worthy of admiration and respect and not out to intimidate or beat up. He seemed intense without really being angry. He seemed smart without being intellectual. To be sure, he’s a pompous, self-centered, narcissistic, and insufferable jiveass motherfuc*ing jerk, but in this Age of the Celebrity, that sort of thing sells.
Anyway, Obama is the fantasy voodoo doll that will supposedly erase our memory of the past 8 yrs, or even 16 or 20 yrs. It will be the end of apocalyptic fears, and the start of something new–or so Americans(and fools around the world)think. With the economic catastrophe–largely caused by liberal Jewish finance capitalistss who supported Obama and have much to gain from Obama’s administration–, people want some kind of relief, new sign of hope.
So, what is the nature or mood of our apocalyptic anxieties? Consider a film like “Children of Men”. Though far from a great film, it frighteningly depicted a plausible scenario of total social breakdown. It really presents a vision of hell and effectively exploits all our fears–low birthrates among whites, illegal invasion, terrorism, state power, militarism, mob rule, etc. Also, it’s documentary style makes us feel trapped and claustrophobic. Events seem unpredictable and real than staged and choreographed. In its cluttered and chaotic universe, Hollywood suspense is an unaffordable luxury. Things happen or they don’t. You get shot or you don’t–but you’re bound to be hit sooner or later. “Children of Men” is ultimately a sensationalistic, trashy, and shallow, but it’s impossible to shake off its harrowing effects. Some people have compared “Children of Men” with “Blade Runner”, but the comparison is fundamentally flawed because the world of “Blade Runner”, though dark, is fascinating and awe-inspiring( and cool) rather than revolting or repulsive. I can imagine fans of Blade Runner wanting to visit the world of Tyrell corporation and the replicants, but who’d want to spend a single minute in the world of Alfonso Cuaron’s film? So, at the very least, Cuaron succeeded in creating a genuinely unnerving apocalyptic landscape.
Two other films of comparable style and effect are “Cloverfield” and “Diary of the Dead”. Neither is great by any stretch of the imagination but both are effective in the way of “Children of Men”. They both convey horror and despair beyond the scope of crowd-pleasing spectacles.
Cloverfield is post-9/11(and the Iraq War) as “Independence Day” and “Pearl Harbor”–and the End of Days films of the 90s–are pre-9/11. When NY and the White House were blown up in “Independence Day”, the audience cheered–not out of anti-Americanism but out of incredulity. And, audiences who flocked to see “Pearl Harbor” felt safely distanced from the actual event and marveled at it as movie theme park. Movies like Titanic and Pearl Harbor, though apocalyptic in tone, tended to be hopeful, romantic, and grandiose. Okay, so US was attacked by the ‘Japs’ and thousands died. Never mind the grisly details and just get your kicks out of all those special effects; besides, we know US won WWII anyway. As for Titanic, the jaw-dropping special effects overwhelmed the fact that people were getting killed in the disaster; besides, Celine Dion’s song and the love story made it all so meaningful and sweeping. Also, it too is set in the past, and we know the world survived WWI, WWII, and the Cold War since the Titanic disaster; as such, it was an exercise in nostalgia as well as a celebration of the latest movie techno-gizmo in cinema.
Films such as these were specifically made to be crowd-pleasers. When buildings blow up in “Independence Day”, we are not expected to visualize or think of actual people dying inside them. We were meant to look upon them as ‘cool effects’.
But, I doubt if anyone was laughing or cheering when NY is struck by calamity in “Cloverfield”. When we see a building fall in the distance, it reminds us of what happened on 9/11. And, the home video style keeps us close to and on the vulnerable level of the characters; we have no superiority-of-safety over them–other than the fact that we are not actually there.
The weakest part of the movie is the monster itself, awesome though it is. Somehow the realism of the home video is undercut by the existence of something so far-out and grotesque.(It’s as though a Noah Baumbach film got invaded by Godzilla). But, the style carries the movie through, especially since the focus of the film is about survival and cooperation than monsters wreaking havoc. We remain close to the characters, almost as if we are being-john-malkoviched through each of them.
In a movie like “Independence Day” or the far superior “War of the Worlds”(Spielberg), the spectacular style diminishes the human dimensions. We become impressed with the pop-wagnerian spectacle and, as a result, happy to sacrifice our sympathy with ant-like humans. This was the moral argument against Star Wars and LOR film from certain quarters. Not that Lucas or Jackson personally endorses the destruction of millions, but the vastness of their narrative canvas reduces the destruction of entire worlds into mere afterthoughts. We don’t have such luxury in “Cloverfield” and “Diary of the Dead”. We cannot marvel at the awesomeness of something blowing up or crashing down in “Cloverfield” without it affecting our characters–rather badly. There is no safe vantage point to which we can cut in and out of.
When 9/11 happened, many people said it looked like a movie–where violence looks real but no one gets hurt. Secure in our knowledge that no one actually dies, it’s easy to be seduced by the nihilism of movie violence; the style takes precedence over the moral substance of a violent act(after all, it’s all fake, right?) We’d long felt a disassociation between the imagery of destruction and its physical outcome. Being mostly familiar with movie disasters, we’ve come to regard calamities as something created in a magic factory. But, people were confronted with the fact that on 9/11, real people were getting burned, falling out of buildings, getting buried under the rubble, etc. 9/11 forced many Americans to rethink violence, tragedies, and even heroism. We’d all grown accustomed to movie heroes of superhuman power always coming out on top. Oliver Stone’s film WTC showed us that even the toughest and bravest Americans–firemen, policemen, etc–are only human, and that true heroism is quiet and resilient. (Sadly, it was a flop, and again, we have movies like “Dark Knight” making gazillions from morons hooked on Hollywood fantasies–and plunking down their hard-earned cash only to make Liberal Jews who run that empire richer and richer). Perhaps, people in other nations who’ve experienced greater calamities first hand have a different view of reality and history–on the other hand, the popularity of mindless Hollywood movies all over the world indicates that all peoples have short memories and trouble with the truth. (Most disturbing of all is the flippant and nihilistic treatment of nuclear disasters and earthquakes in Japanese anime.)
The core conceit of “Cloverfield” negates the luxury of perceptual detachment in favor of spectacle over characters. We are forced to accept that it is a home video of people navigating through a frightening urban landscape; it’s kinda like “Metropolitan” crossed with “The Warriors”(or perhaps “Open City”)–with a bit of “Saving Private Ryan” thrown in for good measure.
As such, everything we see is fixed at the human level. There can be no montage to a non- or supra-human angle for the purposes of aestheticism or a ‘cool’ view.
Of course, the whole thing was conceived and executed for effect, mainly for a fresher kind of chills and thrills for young moviegoers bored with most conventions. No one’s looking for anything natural or truthful in “Cloverfield”. It could even be argued it is less honest than your average Hollywood movie which comes with no pretensions except to entertain and rake in the money.
Still, the ground rules set by “Cloverfield” makes greater interest than on average.
For starters, the visuals, always attuned to the characters’ will to survive and help one another, don’t carry the implicit baggage of nihilism contained in the third person perspective; there are no ‘interruptions’ of unfolding events with fancy editing, slow-motion, and other tricks which accentuate style over content. Because our access to reality is only through our characters, we share their vulnerability every step of the way. It is this sense of being trapped in time and space with an handful of characters that increases the level of apocalyptic anxiety. There is a sense of a calamity too big for the human senses and mind to process. We feel like human insects–quite different than looking down on people as insects; looking down on people-as-ants, we smugly share god’s perspective.
In reality, a cut in space or time from one perspective to another is simply not possible; everyone is trapped in his own reality. Most movies are constructed of many perspectives, both subjective and ‘objective’. As such, the viewer almost gains the perceptive power of a god or, at least, an angel.
To be sure, access to multiple perspectives can make the viewer feel even more helpless and terrified as in the famous scene in “Alien”, which cuts back and forth between a group of people tracking the whereabouts of the monster and a man unawares in a tunnel. But, the conventional movie with third person perspective can always cut to a safe haven no matter what; it is based on the notion of the invincible, or at least, the innumerable camera. In “Cloverfield”, there is only one camera, which underlines the fact that everyone has only one life. As with “Blair Witch Project”, there is and can be no reality outside or beyond the camera. The camera in “Blair Witch Project” or “Cloverfield” is mortal and vulnerable. It breathes, runs, lives, and dies along with its handler.
If Blair Witch Project was a cheapie indie film, “Cloverfield”, despite its ‘simple’ conceit, is surely an expensive film. It is all the more remarkable for this fact for it has seamlessly interwoven the expensively outlandish with the ‘cheaply’ realistic. Because of the dogged consistency of its style–and the dedication and talent of its actors–, genuine anxiety and horror are maintained throughout. Some may condemn it as a case of Hollywood appropriating indie techniques for no other purpose than to make a buck, but it isn’t the first nor will it be the last.
Something about “Cloverfield” both annoyed and inspired me. Its cast of characters are in their late teens or early 20s. They are the children of yuppies of the late 80s and early 90s. They are privilege born of privilege; they register as zeroes. They are realistic enough, which is the very problem; our society has a lot of well-educated and overly privileged drones. They talk a lot but have nothing to say. They are post-everything. Post-conservative, post-liberal, post-ideological, post-post-modern, etc, etc. We know that many kids of yuppies go to fancy schools, learn from privileged radical professors, and even put on radical airs themselves, but they are, foremost, children of privilege satiated and bored with privilege–and even bored with being bored with privilege.. The kids in “Cloverfield” are the shallowest and most rootless bunch of people; they’re too hip to be snobby but they’re also too hip to be hip. They are ‘nice’ and ‘tolerant’ and into ‘diversity’. They’re mildly ‘correct’ in a privileged world where certain disaffected attitudes are the price of admission. They are also the most self-absorbed bunch of insipid fools I’d ever seen. The guys are mostly like clones of Ethan Hawke, who mastered this type of post-everything personality on film. The girls are mostly insipid twits who chit-chat airhead crap.
The first 1/4 of the film takes place at a yuppie-junior party, and it’s convincing enough as social document. Indeed, had the monster never materialized, the entire film might have made a decent enough flick about the lives of today’s privileged youths–an annoying but truthful enough film.
But, when the monster comes and terrorizes the city, the kids are forced to muster their courage and stamina, and the transformation is convincing enough to win some of our respect. It goes to show that inside every dork and twit, there is something nobler than the habit of checking the cell phone every 10 minutes. (Nobility, like monstrosity, lies dormant within us, and depressingly, only tragedy can awaken and bring it to life. We have to look at the devil in the eye to realize the angel within us.)
As the city crumbles all around them, they are forced to put aside their boutique-zen disaffectedness and awaken as feeling/thinking adults.
When the film began, the kids acted like they were too cool even to be cool, too beat even to be beat, etc–as though they were beyond both passion and dispassion. They didn’t even have the hippie’s dedication to being laid-back or the snob’s delight in greater wealth or higher status. The core of their privilege is being oh-so-nonchalant about their privileged status. The 60s youth had idealism, even if stupid. The 70s were about enjoying the new freedoms and lifestyles won in the 60s. The 80s were thrilled with lower taxes, booming economy, and the new patriotism. Everything began to get tiresome in the 90s. Hip-hop was lively but mindless and polarizing. Grunge and other forms of rock music were world-weary deadends. Clinton’s consensus style of politics was satisfactory but not satisfying. The nation was at peace and good times were at hand, but there was no longer any central theme. The theme of the 60s was liberation and rebellion. The theme of the 70s was finishing what began in the 60s and/or working toward a national renewal. The theme of the 80s was saving the economy and defeating the Evil Empire. The 90s were a good decade but a theme-less decade. Sure, Clinton reduced crime by throwing many more negroes in jail than any previous president and enacted welfare reform, but those things failed to engage the ‘spiritual’ passions of the people. As for Bush, no one could really take him seriously, and his comparison of himself with Churchill and Truman seemed funny as hell.
And now, even as the world faces great new challenges, many of our privileged lived in the Francis-Fukuyama-ist -End of History–not the apocalyptic kind but the anti-climactic triumphal kind where liberal democracy is supposed to have won the battle of history and ideas. So, there is utter dispassion among the privileged kids we see in “Cloverfield”. Even though or precisely because the world is more connected than ever, today’s urban young are cocooned in their cool fanciful world with all sorts of gadgets and goodies. Even as the working class and lower-middle class Americans have faced stagnant wages, the urban professional class has seen tremendous rise in their wealth and privileges. “Cloverfield” is about the children of the professional liberal yuppie class. These are the people who voted for Obama because he fit their ideal of the privileged-mandarin-celebrity-narcissistic-yuppie-professional-who’s-supposed-to-be-post-everything. It’s post-radical chic.
They have this ‘been there, done that attitude’. And, this sensibility is partly, I believe, the product of our increasingly connected and electronic age. With cell phones, global internet access, a zillion images and sounds downloadable from all over the world, with endless sources of news, there is a sense that everything has been seen, heard, shared, experienced, and felt. Nothing is fresh or exciting to these kids hooked via their ipods to the global village all day and night. Every corner of the world has been explored and mapped out; Google Earth allows any dork or twit to fly all around the world. With advances in psychology and tell-all/share-all talk shows, there is also a sense that we’ve heard of every hang-up, every break-up, every possible social or emotional neurosis. And, having avoided a truly grave economic downturn for so many decades, there’s a sense that everything will turn out alright in the end. Also, with the rise of shamelessness–Jerry Springer, declaring bankruptcy, mainstreaming of porn, etc,–there’s nothing to culturally shock us anymore. And, with things like myspace and what have you, everyone has his 15 gigabytes of celebrity. Even celebrity culture has become a parody in the age of Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith–and when just about anyone can effectively ape those idiots via youtube or the internet. But, even parody has become tiresome and lame.
And, in a world where kids of all background get along–at least within certain socio-economic circles–, there is little urgency about social progress. So, that’s the kind of reality we see in the first part of “Cloverfield”. A bunch of nice kids who are annoying as hell because they are not committed to anything. Not that it’s their fault; it’s just the nature of the age they’ve grown up in.
Anyway, the kids are shaken out of their doldrums by this monster that wreaks havoc on NY. The monster is less important that what it forces out of the characters–reach deep within to find unknown reservoirs of strength. Of course, the whole movie can be seen as just another exercise in youth narcissism. As if being privileged weren’t enough, young people today have to be flattered as closet-heroes who would stand up to any challenge! So, the film begins with a bunch of comfortably privileged and numb kids, but we come to see them act with toughness, resilience, determination, and camaraderie.
When the monster first attacks, it reminds us of 9/11. But, the prolonged assault on the city and the mounting difficulties remind us of the Iraq War. And, as the kids huddle under a collapsing bridge in the final scene, they might as well be Iraqi civilians hiding from US bombing. Perhaps, the film is saying that US was struck by monstrousness on 9/11, but we then morphed into a monster of our own making. In our anger, we unleashed ‘shock and awe’ assault on Iraq; we too released a monster on another city.
Anyway, for all its conceit and bogus nature, “Cloverfield” is a gripping film. And, its amateur home video style restrained the visual and audio gratuitousness so routine across the blockbuster movie landscape. Big movies are saturation-bombed with an excess of visual trickery and auditory madness. Every sound roars like thunder or rumbles like an avalanche. A pin drop sounds like an hammer hitting the anvill. A whistle sounds like a supersonic jet. And, digitally tweaked slo-mo, the fancy acrobatic editing, CGI trickery, ludicrous action choreography, and so on, while technically dazzling and impressive, are more often than not mind-numbing sensory overloads. “Cloverfield” is pretty mindless as material but interesting as execution. It has the immediacy of real events and is reasonably compelling as a human story. Of course, if this becomes the new staple in Hollywood, it’ll be just as dreary as what we generally have now.
Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with any filmic approach. Personally, I think Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” is magnificent for what it is. But, who can deny that most movies use technology to serve a formula than a vision? If I’m not mistaken, “Cloverfield” was, at the very least, made by someone with fresh ideas. And, it’s not disgraceful.
For some viewers, George Romero’s “Diary of the Dead” may be the most interesting film. Romero has a reputation as an intellectual in some circles, and critics have regarded his zombie films as satire on one thing or the other. Personally, I think Romero has made one great film–”Night of the Living Dead”–, one highly interesting film–”Martin”–, and then mostly garbage. “Diary of the Dead” is a return to form of sorts though Romero is treading much the same ground. Like Stallone with Rocky and Lucas with Star Wars, Romero seems incapable of box office success outside his original formula.
Many horror flick fans will, of course, defend “Dawn of the Dead” as a great movie, and it has a special place in my memory–I first saw it as an highly impressionable kid. But, I’ve revisited that film, and every re-viewing has diminished its worth. With zombies pretty much ruling the world, the story has nowhere to go. “Dawn” is somewhat interesting as a survival game of logistics and strategy, but it’s essentially “Night” expanded into a franchise; fittingly, it’s set in a shopping mall . As for “Day of the Dead” and “Land of the Dead”, they were not even fun as trash. .
There are obvious problems with the zombie scenario. Just how can zombies take over the world when they are slow-moving and easy to spot? What with Americans owning 100s of millions of guns, you’d think every zombie would be shot within seconds of coming into view. This is why “Night of the Living Dead” is plausible within the logic of zombie universe. Zombies may take over an isolated community. But, they are bound to lose to lots of men with guns, and that’s how the movie fitfully ends. But, we are asked to suspend more than disbelief when zombies quickly take over the world in Dawn. With “Day” and “Land”, it seems 99.9% of the planet is ruled by zombies. How?
It is for this reason that Romero has finally done it right with “Diary of the Dead”. No, it was not worth doing, but if had to be done again, this was the ONLY way. To be sure, zombies seem to gradually gain the advantage, but the shock and uncertainty make for ‘spiritual’ malaise as well as physical horror. A movie where zombies rule over everything just isn’t interesting–just like a bodysnatcher movie with everyone as a pod person. The problem with Dawn, Dead, and Land is the zombies have won already; with only a few humans left, all that’s possible is internal bickering or a shooting gallery of horrors. (Of course, one could argue that Romero’s larger point is humans defeat themselves than are defeated by the zombies. If people all unite and work together, zombies ought to be no problem. But, humans fall prey to greed, desperation, cowardice, egocentrism, pride, envy, etc, and as such are incapable of working together. So, it’s not so much zombies beating humans so much as humans freaking out and defeating themselves, whereupon zombies take over from humans’ self-destruction. Recall that in “Dawn”, humans fought humans in the mall, and in the end, the zombies unwittingly took the whole prize. Perhaps, one could drawn an analogy with the Roman Empire where the more advanced Romans couldn’t hold back the Germanic tide because of internal divisions. And, perhaps the same could be said of Europe and US today. Though richer and more powerful than the rest of the world, the internal divisions–liberal vs conservative, men vs women, atheist vs religious, etc–make it nearly impossible for the people of either Europe or US to come together to confront the threats of illegal immigration, cultural rot(such as zombie movies), and the like. Of course, Romero is politically on the left, but one can understand why his movies are so popular with right-wing nuts.)
In ‘Night of the Living Dead” and “Diary of the Dead”, the process of the world becoming zombified is a novelty worthy of shock, horror, debate, and anxiety. In “Day of the Dead”, in contrast, there is only the prospect of physical horror. In “Night of the Living Dead” and “Diary of the Dead”, we ask the question, ‘why is this happening?’ By “Dawn” and “Day” came around, ‘it’ had happened already, and there wasn’t anything else to do but shoot zombies by the bushel.
Still, zombie films shouldn’t raise too many questions, and “Diary” suffers as a result. I said young people in “Cloverfield” talk a lot but have almost nothing to say. It’s worse in “Diary” where every word is nonsensical, ludicrous, precious, moronic, pretentious, pregnant, and annoying. The worst offender is the leading female character who’s supposed to be the model of ‘the strong intelligent female.’ Ideals are always less interesting than Reals. Then, there is the film professor, an Englishman, who seems have an inkling–philosophical, spiritual, intellectual, social, and political–as to why the dead are walking again but cannot be bothered to share his wisdom; he talks in riddles as though he can’t be bothered with anything resembling simple truth. The girl is supposed to represent feminist/American toughness and individualism, the professor is supposed to embody old world experience, patience, and irony. They put on superior airs all throughout the movie, like they know or sense something others–and we–don’t. And, Romero sympathizes with them most. But, I wonder… what is the value of their supposed intellect or insight when confronted with something monstrously raw and savage? The only option is to survive, and ideas seem trivial. (Of course, Romero fans can argue that the professor and the feminist girl have superior qualities. The girl is both tough and adaptable, intelligent and intuitive. And, the professor is smart enough to understand that a lot of things are unknowable, and therefore, one’s intellect should try to find ways around things than try to access their inner truth–which is like opening pandora’s box. The professor’s attitude seems to be that people, being what they are, will always open pandora’s boxes everywhere–political, scientific, social, economic, religious, etc–, and dire problems will ALWAYS plague our world. So, the thing to do is to keep one’s cool, maintain’s one’s sanity amidst insanity–by accepting insanity as the natural order among humans–, not be surprised or shocked by anything, and try to find the best way possible to maintain one’s small oasis of safety and peace.)
Romero always put on pompous airs. So, he had a one-legged black guy in the beginning of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ say, ‘when the dead walk, we must stop the killing’. What does that mean within the context of zombies coming back to life to eat people?
Preachy spiritual or philosophical meaning is impossible in such context. If a tiger wants to eat you and your friends, what sense does it make for you guys to debate the meaning of life or the cosmic injustices of the world? Just get away. This is why “Night of the Living Dead” made moral sense. The characters don’t debate about some larger meaning; they register shock and horror at what’s happening and then get down to the messy art of survival.
But, already by “Dawn of the Dead”, Romero was acting all pompous, as if his gore fest was onto some deeper meaning. So, he had the black guy say stuff like, “my grandfather told me… when there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” Oh really? Actually, Romero’s bullshit began even with “Night of the Living Dead”. The lone surviving black guy is ACCIDENTALLY shot dead by white townsmen, yet the grim final still images invoke the Jewish holocaust and lynching. But, the killing was accidental. The white gunman thought the black dude was a zombie. Romero unconvincingly tried to add a layer of social meaning to his movie, as though “Night” had something to teach us about racial oppression, genocide, and perhaps Vietnam. This was utterly unnecessary.
All the commentary about the nature of man was there in the story itself. The irony of “Night” is that zombies, though ravenous and mindless, get along fine with one another whereas humans fight and kill one another for power and egomania. At the very least, there is a kind of zen-like unity among zombies. They may attack the living but merely out of a need to eat, not to commit acts of evil. Humans, on the other hand, kill for reasons other than food. And, in both “Night of the Living Dead” and “Diary of the Dead”, conflicting egos try to mask their power hunger with moral or philosophical justification. Worst by far, according to Romero, are the people who take a special pleasure in killing or using violence. Both “Night” and “Diary” end with grim images of rednecks who enjoy the killing of zombies. For such folks, killing zombies is not a necessity but a sport. Zombies, for all their grisly habits, don’t enjoy what they do; they are rather like alligators who eat cuz they have to eat. Humans, on the other hand, can take special delight in using violence to maim and kill. (I hope Romero is being somewhat self-critical because his zombie films are exercises in gory excess as pleasure.)
But, there’s something simple-minded and bigoted about Romero’s view of people. Notice that almost all the repulsive characters in his movies are white rednecks or biker types(or white militarist goons).
In contrast, blacks and females are generally positive forces. For a white guy to be decent, he must be passive or nearly ascetic–and abandon all ‘imperialist’ or ‘patriarchal’ claims upon the world. (There are almost no hispanics in Romero’s films by the way). You’d think blacks are incapable of acting insane, brutal, or sadistic. Romero still sees racial reality through the sixties of radical revolution. So, we have a sympathetic portrait of the black looter-survivalists in “Diary of the Dead”. The black guy takes pride in the mini-empire he’s built up since the social panic. He justifies his empire of loot as won through opportunity that had been lacking under normal circumstances. There are several problems with this. Why would the zombie crisis affect blacks any less? Why wouldn’t they panic and scatter too, instead of building up an impressive warehouse fortress? Just compare New Orleans after Katrina and Iowa after the massive floods. Looks likes white folks handled the crisis much better. And, look at the fate of Africa. Blacks ended up with LESS after the whites were forced to flee amidst the political crises. The idea that blacks will only have an opportunity to own things for themselves upon the demise of the ‘white order’ is a stupid myth. Blacks in America are the richest in the world because they participate in the socio-economic order created by white-and-Jewish folks. There are tons of great athletes in Africa, but most of them are poor because Africa doesn’t have whites and Jews to build up and manage sports enterprises. Just look at the fate of inner city communities. They always turned worse when non-blacks fled and left it all up to blacks. Blacks can take and rob things, but they generally have been unable to build, maintain, and produce things.
If “Diary” had been set in 19th century or even the first half of the 20th century, there may some validity to the notion of ‘radical’ solutions for the advancement of blacks. But, this is 2008. Blacks have taken over entire communities and have run them to the ground. They riot and loot almost at will. Most big cities are at least 50% controlled by blacks; some are even 80-90% black. And, we need only to listen to rappers and black thugs to know there’s no shortage of blacks who take pleasure in rape, murder, mayhem, cruelty, sadism, dog-fighting, and insanity. So, why does Romero keep pretending that the biggest louts in America today are small town rednecks? It shows that Romero is a tiresome 60s radical still living in the past or a politically correct coward who’s afraid to deal with today’s reality as it is.
On some level, Romero must know that his zombie concept is pretty stupid and limited. But, he’s never been content to be just another horror movie maker. He has delusions of being a thinker, a philosopher, a satirist, and intellectual. Worse, there are enough dupes and idiots in the film community–and elsewhere–who agree. “Night of the Living Dead” is worth thinking about because Romero dwells on the action and lets the view to think on his own. But since “Night”, Romero has been thinking for us. Since zombies pretty much won the battle starting with “Dawn of the Dead”, only two options were left for Romero: mounting gore or idle philosophizing.
The setting of “Dawn” have led many people to see it as a satire on consumerism. But how? Do zombies represent the mad consumer in us? So, do the surviving humans represent resistance against consumerism? But, they seem rather content in the shopping mall. And, the mall comes under attack by a goon of bikers who seem to care only about consuming too. The more you think about it, the less sense it makes. If humans and zombies are both into consuming, what’s the point?
The problem with zombie-as-metaphor is it can be applied to just about anything. So, zombies can stand for herd-like consumers, herd-like religious fanatics, herd-like revolutionaries(as in “Land of the Dead”), and so on. A metaphor so alleable is worthless. I suspect Romero is saying the world is filled with two kinds of people–the mindless mob who just follow the instinct of the herd(zombies) and the cunning predators with cruel appetite for power and cruelty(people who cling to or seek power in the new chaos). In between these two types are the chosen few who are capable of being free. In this sense, Romero’s philosophy has shades of libertarianism. In “Dawn”, “Day”, and “Land”, both the zombies with their mindless appetite for human flesh and the humans with cunning lust for power are presented as pretty negative. The only good people are a few individuals who seek their little sanctuary of peace and freedom. They aren’t saints but they don’t want nor need anything beyond what they need to survive; they are not after power or control. Also, they only kill zombies in order to survive, not to take cruel or sadistic pleasure in the massacre–as the biker gang in “Dawn” and rednecks in “Night” and “Diary” do. So, I suppose the black guy in “Dawn” is supposed to be the superior sort of guy because he does whatever is necessary to survive, but he doesn’t get worked up in egomania–like the white guy who takes risks and gets bitten–and the copter pilot who becomes so attached to the mall as his precious property that he starts a war with the bikers. Perhaps, it is this libertarian streak which has attracted both members of the right and left to Romero’s zombie films. Though Romero is clearly on the leftist side of the political spectrum, his films can be appreciated as a survivalist tract for rightists and a guerilla tract for leftists. Both Che/Mao worshipping guerilla romantics and gun-loving militia movement types can identify with the band of freedom-seekers in the zombie films.
The zombie metaphor is comprehensive enough to be applied to the rise of the internet. In “Diary of the Dead”, it’s implied that the development of digital technology and the internet has led to a kind of zombie-ization of information. Prior to the internet age, information was controlled by the major networks and newspapers. But, digital technology and online information sites have expanded like crazy–like the population of zombies. And, internet zombies have been devouring the old institutions of information and truth; just look at the decline and fall of newspapers, publishing companies, music industry, and even the film industry. Romero sees both healthy democratization and mindless lobotomization(in a zombie-like fashion). Notice that zombies defeat death and come back to life–a miracle of miracles–only to be animal-like in their appetite. Similarly, it could be said that we’ve finally arrived at a ‘utopian’ democratic community of information gathering and creative access… only to indulge in our worst appetites; consider the prevalence of porn, idiot blogs, nutty posts, false rumors, subcultural trash, celebrity wanna-be narcissism, etc on the web. More ‘people power’ hasn’t necessarily translated to greater truth or higher beauty. In many ways, it has led to more vulgarity, mindlessness, and lunacy. We blame politicians for social problems, but if we came to rule society ourselves, would we be better off? Not if society ends up like the online world.
“Diary of the Dead” is not a necessary movie, but finally Romero re-captured some of the old magic. I felt the same way about “Rocky Balboa” which, though unnecessary, is the only Rocky sequel that made any sense(except when Rocky gets in the ring with Tarver). The first Rocky movie was special not for the fight but for the affecting life story of a palooka in Philadelphia. And, “Rocky Balboa” restores that intimacy and warm quality–so lacking in parts III, IV, and V.
Like “Rocky Balboa”, “Diary” is a return to roots, which is all the more welcome since “Night” derived its power from its stark simplicity. This material is best served by docu-horror or home-video approach. The idea of flesh-eating zombies isn’t much in terms of visual possibility; the zombie either eats you or you bash its head in. The effectiveness of the idea relies on the incredible nature of the fact itself–which is why the story is only compelling in its early stages when the shock factor is still there–and the fear of zombies appearing out of nowhere. (Once zombies take over the whole planet, they are always popping out of somewhere than nowhere.) The home video style is perfectly suited for this material. It’s too bad that Romero went ‘epic’ with sequels such as “Dawn”, “Day”, and “Land”. A Big Splashy movie about zombies roaming about and eating people or getting their heads blown off is pointless. This material has to be on the level of the B-movie or home-video. Also, the diary-aspect of the movie keeps it on the personal level instead of getting lost in logistics or overloaded on satirics. The unfortunate satirical and philosophical aspects of “Diary” are thankfully sidestepped–mostly anyway–by the mood of mounting horror. Also, the mostly rural setting makes for powerful contrasts between peaceful lull and horrific violence. Romero is most effective is when he situates us in an idyllic setting where the air is crisp, trees are green, meadows are pretty, and then… we see the living dead lumbering out of the woods or from behind the barn. The contrast of heaven and hell which is unnerving. In a movie like “Day” or “Land” where every inch of Earth is hell, no amount of gore or ugliness disturbs us–though it certainly upset us–or our stomachs. “Diary”, like “Night”, really gets under our skin. It really looks like something that shouldn’t be happening is actually happening.
The digital hand-held camera style of filmmaking has really caught on. But why? Why didn’t the Arriflex camera have as great an impact. Except for the early films of French New Wave, 60s Cassavettes, cinema verite–which fell out of style in documentary filmmaking–, and few others, the hand held Arriflex style was not favored among filmmakers–and the shaky imagery was rejected by most filmgoers who found it dizzying and headache-inducing.
The New Wave directors all settled for steady camera positions and smooth camera movements as they matured, Cassavettes’s fimmaking grew more static, and most indie films prior to the digi-cam era employed traditional camera techniques and set-ups. But, things have changed dramatically since the rise of digi-cam. One possible reason is that digi-cam is so much cheaper than film. Due to the high cost of film stock and development, handheld camera style was surely more prone to produce bad, unusable shots. As such, all filmmakers–Hollywood and independent–probably preferred the safer camera techniques placed on tripods or dollies. But, with the cheap cost of shooting with digi-cam, filmmakers have been able to experiment far more freely and arrive at a shaky style that actually works.
Another reason for the acceptance of shaky style may be MTV and other media forms which popularized the ‘alternative’ visuals for the new generation.
Finally, its acceptance may have something to do with the fact that so many people now own digicams. Everybody has made home movies with shaky styles, and it has become part of how we see reality. In a way, Romero has come full circle. He had once been the odd-man-out, the student filmmaker who made a legendary film with the barest of means. But, he soon turned his idea into the Burger King–if not MacDonalds–of horror. He not only made “Dawn”, “Day”, and “Land”,but franchised both “Night” and “Dawn” to be remade by others. Finally, he’s come back down to ground. Using the simplest of cinematic means, he has re-imagined the story from scratch. And, in its silly but crazy way, it is pretty effective for what it is.