Today’s guest column is written by fellow graduate assistant, Derrick King. Derrick is a quiet and unassuming chap, but his writing is absolutely phenomenal. This paper is relatively long, and this is part three, so be sure to check out part one from two weeks ago and part two from last week. If you love monster movies, prepare to rethink them – again.
Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the remake of Dawn of the Dead features multiple sites of conservatism, most significantly in the depiction of the zombies and the deletion of Romero’s use of the mall location as a social critique. The basic action of the film remains the same: a group of people are attacked, flee towards a nearby mall where they barricade themselves until they leave (they are forced to flee in the original, they choose to in the remake). There are significantly more characters in the remake; Romero’s version only has four. Since the zombie film genre’s depiction of the fall of society seems to be an inherently radical notion, the reorienting of the film’s politics is accomplished through the deletion of the original film’s subtext: the film distances the monstrous (the zombies) from normality (humankind) and categorically refuses to understand the mall as the apex of capital consumption–a consumption that the are zombies metaphorically engaged in.
While the original film forces us to understand that the zombies are explicitly connected to humankind, the remake disregards this completely. Romero’s film contains several sequences that show the zombies stumbling around the mall, still wearing their human clothing (including one dressed as a Hare-Krishna and one as a Catholic Nun). The zombies are “us” without any cognition, operating from pure instinct, and anyone who dies in the film will rise again as a zombie (two of the main characters do). The monstrous in the film should then be understood as normality itself: the zombies are hyperbolically operating under the rules of capitalism through their consumption. This is further radicalized by Romero’s use of the mall location: a site of uncontrolled consumption is the perfect location for the reenactment of the basest level of human relations under capitalism. Indeed, Romero’s script makes this clear: while standing on the mall’s rooftop and looking down at the mass of zombies in the parking lot, one character theorizes that the zombies are massing around the mall because “this was an important place in their lives” (Dawn 1978). This remark is later expanded upon by another character: “they’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just remember, remember that they want to be in here…they’re us, that’s all.” (Dawn 1978). Thus Romero’s metaphor for consumerism is revealed to be the hordes of zombies themselves, stumbling around the mall in a macabre imitation of their former lives. Not only does this function as a potent satire on consumerism, but it also irrevocably connects the zombies to humankind.
The 2004 remake distances itself from both the consumerist satire and the progressive monstrous/normality connection through its depiction of the zombies as inhuman and its abandonment of the mall as political metaphor. The zombies themselves are both faster and stronger, not only than Romero’s zombies, but the humans in the film. They are shown sprinting through the streets, mouths open, ready to attack. Crucially, they are never shown in the film other than when they are attacking the survivors; gone are Romero’s wonderful shots of the zombies endlessly shuffling around the mall. The scenes involving the zombies are also shot differently, typically consisting of quick cuts (using the handheld “shaky cam”) that alternate between the attacking zombies, the people being attacked, and close ups of the survivor’s weapon of choice. These scenes are never shot in long takes and are typically shot very close to the action, denying the audience the spatial perspective to observe the attack as a whole. This is interesting especially because the scenes not involving zombies frequently feature long takes and tracking shots at a considerable distance. This has the effect of distancing the audience’s identification with the zombies; they are monsters that only function as threats to the survivors that have complete audience identification. Since Romero shoots scenes with just zombies, we are invited to compare them to people milling around a mall on a Saturday afternoon. Any such identification is lost in Snyder’s shot composition, which severs the connection between normality and monstrous.
Snyder also removes the connection between the mall and capitalist consumption by refusing to acknowledge the importance of the mall as location. The mall only functions on the surface narrative of the film as a convenient place for survivors to stay (plenty of room and supplies); it is not used satirically as well. When the survivors reach the mall, there are no masses of zombies milling about, and when they get into the mall, it is only to be destroyed by the survivors. This refusal to understand the mall’s implications is even explicitly demonstrated in a scene that mimics an above mentioned Romero scene in which the characters question the zombies’ motivation for returning to the mall. Instead of being “after the place,” the characters in this film ominously suggest that “maybe they’re coming for us” (Dawn 2004). This sequence is interesting because it is an explicit renunciation of Romero’s progressive subtext: Snyder recreates Romero’s scene, only to discard its essential meaning. The zombies in this film are not “us,” then; they are an “other” outside of normality that threatens it. Indeed, where Romero made no mention of why the dead are suddenly returning to life, the 2004 film suggests that the zombies are actually victims of a virus. The film underscores this by only allowing those who have been bitten by a zombie return to life; those who die of natural causes remain dead. While the film does not explore the possibility, a virus could theoretically be cured or isolated, allowing for the hypothetical restoration of normality. Since Romero’s apocalypse does not have any theorized cause, it should be seen as functioning metaphorically and thus refusing any possible restoration of normality.
Like the remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead, the 2008 version of It’s Alive turns a progressive text into a reactionary one, although this version goes much further, replacing a progressive critique of the nuclear family with a fascist anti-abortion parable. Both films depict a couple giving birth to a monstrous baby that goes on a killing spree, but the 2008 version dramatically reconfigures the signifiers for the couple and introduces a cause for the monstrous child: its mother attempted to abort it by taking pills from the internet that were supposed to give her a natural miscarriage. Finally, the end of the remake signifies the restoration of normality while Cohen’s original film refuses its reestablishment.
The original film connects normality and the monstrous through its depiction of the couple that give birth to the child. They are almost satirically bourgeois: they are in their early forties, she is a housewife, he works in public relations, they live in a nice two-story house in the suburbs with two Cadillacs, a cat, and one son (with another child on the way). As paragons of normality, the fact that the monstrous in the film emanates from them suggests that the film connects the two. The film even depicts the brutality of capitalism when Frank (the child’s father) is fired after his wife gives birth to the monstrous child: his boss tells him that “we are running a PR business here. Our job is creating an image. Right now, you’re a little controversial. Our clients want their PR man to be anonymous” (It’s Alive 1978). This cutthroat mentality is again echoed in a scene depicting a representative from a birth control company concerned that their pills may have been what caused the monstrous baby. He bribes a police lieutenant with a spot on their companies’ research and development board if they baby is totally destroyed so that no tests can be preformed to determine the cause of the monstrosity. Despite depicting this companies’ concern, the film does not suggest that this is why the baby is a monster; indeed, it offers no explanation. This ambiguity suggests that it is the bourgeois couple themselves, and thus the entire system that they represent, that are responsible for the monstrous. Robin Wood points out that this is also related to Frank’s job in public relations: “if [the baby] is the product of the contemporary nuclear family, it is also the product of a whole civilization characterized by various forms of greed and irresponsibility, a civilization for which Frank (as public relations man) is apologist and advertiser” (90).
The remake both reconfigures the couple, taking away the implication that the monstrous is a product of the bourgeois nuclear family and gives us a reason for the monstrous baby: the mother’s attempted abortion of it. The couple in this film are far younger, have no other children, and are not living together until she has the child (she drops out of grad school to care for it). While the child’s father works for a construction company in a management capacity, the family is decidedly not bourgeois. By reconfiguring the family as such, this film disallows the easy normality/monstrous connection of the original. Much more important than this, of course, is the film’s revelation that the monstrous baby was caused by its mother’s attempted abortion of it early in her pregnancy. After they have had the child, she tells her husband that she took some pills she bought online that were supposed to give her a “natural miscarriage,” immediately regretted it, and “asked God to please let my baby live” (It’s Alive 2008). The implication is that this is what caused the child to be monstrous; to underscore the point, the film crosscuts a flashback of her getting sick after taking the pills and the sequence from earlier in the film depicting the baby’s slaughter of the doctors and nurses in the delivery room.
By explicitly relating her attempted abortion and the monstrous baby, the film reveals its right-wing pro-life agenda. In a particularly nasty sequence at the end of the film, the mother remains in their house with the baby as it burns to the ground, suggesting that she is being punished for her choice as well as symbolically invoking hell. The monstrous is thus conceived in this film as a “threat” to patriarchal normality: women having the right to decide what to do with their own bodies. By destroying the monstrous child and its mother, a particularly reactionary brand of normalcy is restored. In contrast, the original film ends with the revelation that another monstrous child has been born, confirming that the system as a whole is at fault and that this is not an isolated incident. The restoration of normality is refused because normality itself is confirmed to be the site of the monstrous.
While It’s Alive goes so far as to argue for an explicitly right-wing agenda, all three films are performing political action by their systematic deletion of the progressivism of the original films. Film remakes in general advocate a consumerist “newer is better” mentality, but the message of these particular remakes seems to be that progressivism is an outdated relic of the past. Of course, the shift from independent producers to multinational conglomerates for the funding of these films suggests another goal: the reaffirmation of the status-quo and the elimination of critical resistance. This suggests the need for us to adopt a critical stance toward the concept of the “remake,” particularly remakes of films that are resisting hegemony.
Becker, Matt. “A Point of Little Hope: Hippie Horror Films and the Politics of Ambivalence.” Velvet Light Trap 57 (2006): 42-59. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 27 Sept. 2010.
Clover, Carol J. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry K. Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. 66-113. Print.
Ryan, Michael and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politca: The Politics and Ideology of the Contemporary Horror Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Print.
Wood, Robin. Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.