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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: George Romero

World War Z poster

According to World War Z, two things can trigger a zombie apocalypse: 1) stay-at-home dads, and 2) kindness to Muslims. It is nice, however, to see an American blockbuster starring Brad Pitt as that most un-American of creatures, a U.N. Investigator.

My book club recently spun off a zombie club of college professors, two in Economics and one in English,  me (a Philosopher may be joining us soon too). I presented a conference paper on The Walking Dead last winter, but my knowledge base is dwarfed by the guy who makes guac on movie nights. So far we’ve only watched The Night of the Living Dead. We’d schedule Dawn of the Dead (the remake for some reason), but postponed when a wife (also an Economics professor) got called to Abu Dhabi on a family emergency.

George Romero, director zero in the genre contagion, gave his ghouls a clear cause: radiation from a returning Venus space probe. Brad spends most of WWZ’s 116 minutes and $190 million dollars searching for clues. Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman doesn’t care. But in terms of theme and discourse, the answer is always scene one.

Every zombie story (and, arguably, every story of every genre) begins with something rotten in the state of Denmark. It takes less than ten minutes (including the insufferably slow credits sequence) for that creepy old man to lurch at Barbra in the cemetery, but Night of the Living Dead has already provided a horde of apocalypse-triggering conflicts spawning across issues of religion, nation, capitalism, and family:

Johnnie’s stopped going to church and jokes about being damned. Romero shoots the American flag flapping backwards from a veteran’s grave. Is the exploitive funeral industry stealing the wreath off the grave and selling it back to them every year? The family unit is shattered in multiple directions: parents vs. children, brother vs. sister, grandparent vs. grandson. The kids discuss digging up the only vaguely remembered dad so they don’t have to drive hours out of town on their mother’s orders.  Time itself is upturned. The first line of the film is a complaint about daylight savings.

World War Z is simpler. The pre-zombie preamble is an ode to the domesticated male. Brad Pitt is the perfect stay-at-home dad. His blissfully happy daughters joke that all he does since quitting his job is make breakfast, but his pancakes are better than Michael Keaton’s in Mr. Mom. Brad doesn’t mind scolding everyone to put their dishes in the sink, but in thematic terms, this is an apocalyptic inversion of stability. His bread-winning wife doesn’t even help with the plates.

When things heat up during the morning commute (Brad is chauffeuring everyone to school and work), his wife takes the wheel while he assumes the traditionally maternal duty of comforting the asthmatically panicked daughter. If you were hoping for a 21st century vision of shared gender roles, the formal plot doesn’t start till the wife is safely tucked away with the children. Her only job now is being a mom. Dad, meanwhile, reveals the secret depth of his professional prowess, including the power to call rescue helicopters down from the sky. In fact, he may be the only man left with a shot at saving the world. Sure, he only takes the job to safeguard his family, but at that moment the world has already been righted. Zombie plague restores domestic order.

Kirkman plays a similar game in Walking Dead. The comic book is a paean to traditional gender—though kudos to the TV team for trying to shake that up a bit. The zombie ur-heroine Barbra is significantly worse, a knock-off of Hitchcock’s Melanie in The Birds. When the going gets tough, the gals collapse into semi-catatonic dementia. Fortunately, Barbra retreats to a farmhouse first, which Ben (he wasn’t black until Duane Jones showed up for the casting call) boards up. This is where economic theory comes in. How do external threats alter group behavior? Which is the more profitable strategy: staying mobile or hunkering down?

World War Z is explicit about both. Director Marc Forster literally spells it out in subtitles: “Movement is life.” Not that those very nice but ultimately very stupid Spanish parents listen to Brad. And look who gets eaten in the next scene. Meanwhile, Israel boards up their whole country. But they also let in Muslim refugees, figuring a grateful live Muslim is better than an angry dead Muslim. Cooperation skyrockets as Israeli soldiers nod and smile and even hand over the PA system for group singing. I’ve never seen an airport customs line half as chummy.

But as every zombie fan knows, hunkering never works for long. Images of Middle East peace last two, maybe three minutes. Romero boarded up the Monroeville Mall (about two miles from my childhood home) for his first sequel, Dawn of the Dead, but its collapse is nothing to the geysers of Palestinian zombies flooding into the last nation on Earth. CGI turns Romero’s lurching latex-painted extras into blood cells gushing through urban arteries. Israel dies from its own kindness—a political allegory a lot of right wingers can probably live with.

That’s where Romero would have left things, with Brad ascending from the Tel Aviv airport into the ambiguous but not particularly hopeful unknown. WWZ is a 1950s scifi. When Don Siegel tried to end Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a chillingly open-ended “They’re coming!”Hollywood sent him back to the editing booth to tack on their contractual, world-is-saved last scene. Forster uses the same one. It turns out zombies dissolve in water! Or something like that. Which is also why at its surprisingly non-gory heart, WWZ isn’t a zombie movie.

Yes, these zombies are sprinters. And, no, they don’t eat the flesh off our bones—just a nibble and it’s welcome to the team. But their real genre faux paus is their willingness to bow to the deus ex machina of the human spirit. That’s the formula and American self-image Romero so thoroughly gutted in 1968. In Night of the Living Dead, the center doesn’t hold. Daughter eats mother, brother eats sister, and a posse of deputized rednecks gun down the last rugged individual. In fact, there never was a center. Government, family, God, those are just boards we nail around ourselves while waiting for oblivion to splinter through.

Not true of WWZ. Sure, the American experiment fails (our cops are just more lawless looters), but the world government holds. Instead of retreating to upstate Maine to wait out the vampire plague of I Am Legend (Romero’s literary influence), Brad’s patriarchal family reunites in Nova Scotia. Yeah, that’s right. Canada and the U.N. save humanity. Talk about a horror story!

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POP QUIZ: What do zombies and superheroes have in common?

A. Zack Snyder

B. Shaun of the Dead

C. Marvel Zombies

D. Mutating radiation

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If you said A, then you must be pretty excited about the new Superman movie Man of Steel coming out next June. You must also know that director Zack Snyder shot the 2004 remake Dawn of the Dead. I’ve not seen it, but I still lose sleep over his disappointing Watchmen adaptation, so it’s probably just as well. (Don’t even get me started on 300.)

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If you said B, then you’re even more excited about director Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man movie (sadly not slated till November 2015). Since you loved his zombie parody, Shaun of the Dead, you can’t wait to see what he does with the superhero genre. Also, you’re probably aware that Wright’s go-to actor Simon Pegg is the model for Wee Hughie in Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s anti-superhero diatribe The Boys. (Don’t get me started on that either.)

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C is a no brainer, so to speak. ‘Nuff said.

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But my favorite answer is D. With great radiation comes great mutation. That’s the Cold War talking. And both Stan Lee and George Romero were listening. They took their sorry little genres, bombarded them with radiation, and watched them mutate into things far far better.

“Lee and Kirby,” a New York Times reviewer recently wrote, “pulled off the comics equivalent of the literary shift from Victorian melodrama to Chekhovian realism.” If that sounds a bit overblown, Romero’s earned similar hyperboles. “Night of the Living Dead,” wrote one commentator, “is to modern horror what Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is to the modern theatre.”

So how’d they do it?

The Fantastic Four were on their way to Mars when Stan clobbered them with radiation back in 1961. The result? “You’ve turned into monsters!!” shouts Johnny as he bursts into flames, “It’s those rays! Those terrible cosmic rays!”

Romero’s zombies (he called them “ghouls”) hail from outer space too. As survivors battle the living dead, experts debate on the radio: “the space vehicle which orbited Venus and then was purposely destroyed by NASA, when scientists discovered it was carrying a mysterious, high-level radiation . . . is enough to cause these mutations?”

In other words, superheroes are from Mars, zombies are from Venus.

But the radiation is the same. And though in one case it bestows freakish superpowers and the other it animates flesh-devouring corpses, the revolutionary mutation for both the superhero and horror genres was the same:

With great radiation comes great in-fighting.

As Lee explained in a 1968 interview:  “I think we were the first outfit to break the cliché of all the superheroes being goody-goody and friendly with each other. We had our Fantastic Four argue amongst themselves. They didn’t always get along well.”

Romero’s radiation has the same effect on his cast. The 1968 Night of the Living Dead isn’t the first horror film with characters not playing goody-goody with each other, but no film had pushed it quite so horrifically far. Almost every scene features at least one pair of survivors battling not the dead but each other. And it ends with its hero shot in the head by a passing police patrol.

Which brings up another similarity. A high dose of radiation requires a main character to be named Ben. I’m not sure if the Thing’s orange skin classifies him as a racial minority, but Romero’s Ben was also African American. Or at least actor Duane Jones was. The Ben of the original script didn’t mutate skin colors until the casting call.

Actress Judith O’Dea’s Barbra also bears on unfortunate resemblance to Sue Storm. Both heroines spend their plots as incompetently distressed damsels getting chased, captured, and, in the case of Barbra, eaten. When Romero revised the role for the 1990 remake, he mutated Barbra into a fatigue-wearing Ms. Rambo.  John Byrne did Sue a similar favor in his 80s run of Fantastic Four, rechristening her Invisible Woman and remaking her into the team’s mightiest member.

Sue deserves a comic of her own. Which is also the title of the University of Florida’s Graduate Comics Organization’s 10th annual conference last weekend, “A Comic of Her Own.” My thanks for inviting me there to talk about some zombies and superheroes. It turns out Cold War radiation is still inflecting Tony Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Despite the long way Sue and Barbra have come, the 1950s throwback Lori reboots it all.

But more on that later.

A Comic of Her Own, UF conference program cover

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