Friday, July 30, 2010

ANOTHER ONE FOR THE FIRE: RACE AND THE AMERICAN ZOMBIE FILM PT. 3

During the time that passed between White Zombie and the age of Romero zombies, the mindset of the American people went through a drastic shift.  World War II and Vietnam made people less willing to accept the fantasies provided by Hollywood, and social responsibility became more mainstream.  It was at this time that African Americans migrated in droves from the southern states up to the northern, changing the landscape of many big cities and forcing mainstream America's heightened awareness of racial issues.  The Vietnam War in particular jaded the people, and the Civil Rights movement made it far more difficult for white America to get away with the kind of lazy racial stereotyping so common in the past.

George A. Romero ushered in the modern zombie movie as the world accepts it today in a post Civil Rights Movement, post Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. society. It was now deemed unacceptable for filmmakers to write characters, African Americans in particular, in the same light in which they were previously exploited. It must be noted however, that the more enlightened thinkers such as George A. Romero wouldn't want to stereotype African Americans anyway. Instead of portraying them as useless, or even worse, actively evil, this time around he created African American characters as the voice of reason. The closest thing to a hero in Night of the Living Dead, Ben, was a black male character. He is the protector, the leader, and even the one person to order around a white woman. Unlike White Zombie, in which the entire basis is the subjugation of the blacks and the untouchable nature of white women, it is accepted that Ben had the liberty to speak as he pleased, not because he was black, but because he was a fellow man. Romero even went as far as to add depth by making the character flawed, just like every other human being. Ben loses his temper, and not all of his decisions are correct. He's not perfect by any means, but he's a real person rather than a caricature. 


Romero's 1978 masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead, was the final nail in the coffin in Romero's quest to showcase African Americans in a brighter light.  Genre observers directly cite Dawn of the Dead as responsible for the modern zombie as we know it.  Like Night of the Living Dead, Dawn exposes a zombie outbreak formed without reasoning and without discrimination.  The main protagonist is an African American SWAT team member, Peter, who is represented as a "Christ Figure" throughout the film.  A Christ figure is a character that often times can draw allusions to the biblical Jesus Christ.  For example, Peter is seen as the “go-to guy”, the voice of reason, the watchful protector, and the one willing to give up his life in order to protect the lives of others.  While often noted for its "dangers of consumerism" undertones (Dawn of the Dead chronicles a zombie outbreak in a shopping mall), it cannot be ignored that the racial undertones are equally as present. In contrast, not all critics agree that the evolution of the zombie film has been a positive one. For example, the Libertarian Alliance has gone on record to state “For myself, I cannot conceive how any reasonable person could sit through Dawn of the Dead and not come away struck by its advocacy of racial segregation where not supremacy.” (Free Life, 2000).  While there are those who believe Romero’s portrayal of African Americans is borderline reverse racism, I firmly believe it is his way of apologizing for the blatant disregard for equality in the zombie films of the 1930’s.  One of the most memorable lines of Dawn of the Dead is when Peter acknowledges that his grandfather was a voodoo priest in Trinidad and how he was raised to believe “when there is no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.” (Romero 1978).  By including this nod to the voodoo zombies of yesteryear, it not only shows his acknowledgement of the zombie predecessors, but also his awareness of the social impact it resonated within the African American community.

In contrast to how powerful Peter is, and what a positive character he is, we are reminded still of how grave a problem race is in society.  The racial differences still play a factor even in a Romero post-zombie world. They are treated as second-class citizens, and made to live in horrible, dangerous conditions. Zombies are corralled like animals, which in essence, really was not all that different from before the zombies were there.  Cops use it as an excuse to perpetrate random violence against minorities, as the more vulnerable citizens were affected by the outbreak more rapidly due to their social exposure. Zombism becomes the problem of the minorities worse than anyone else, like so many other social ills.  For the 1970’s, this would unfortunately be targeting the minority cultures as they were as a majority, the lower classes at this time.  Romero found a way to blatantly put in our faces, without any disguise of “magic” how we as a society treated other cultures and social classes.  Dawn of the Dead may be the quintessential film in the progression of the zombie as a character, but its reflections of the progression of African Americans in society is equally as impacting. 

3 comment(s):

Spike Ghost said...

Wow, i really had no idea about all this. It's really Interesting to learn.
Though it must be weird watching White Zombie when you have our mindset of: every man is born equal, no matter his religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc.But i'm really curious about seeing it. Just to be a witness of this past and really see what White People thought of Black People.

For Romero, i have never watched any of his movies, mostly because zombies have never been my fave thing. But now i need to see his movies. It seems to be a must see thing for being so groundbreaking in that way.

Ghost said...

Awesome read

Anonymous said...

Indeed a good article though I will touch on what 'Spike' said "Just to be a witness of this past and really see what White People thought of Black People."

The film in and of itself does not represent prejudice or what whites thought of blacks, it only pointed to the conditions of society at that time, irregardless of black, white, latino or whatever and certainly did not express the views of caucasions collectively as a whole, be it then or now.

That said, I agree to disagree with Peter' being represented as a "Christ Figure", he was wrote in as the hero. That whole 'Help us mister black man' needs to be put to rest if were all to get along equally.

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