Monday, August 22, 2005

"They're Coming to Get You, Barbara"--and Billy and Janey and Tommy, Too

I know someone, a young man in his early twenties, who thinks about George Romero's zombies all the time. Whenever he enters a room, a little careful part of his brain has him scope out all entrances and exits. He doesn't like to be alone, and facing the door or ground-level window only makes it marginally better. Outdoors isn't so bad, but there needs to be a lot of open space; even then, he keeps in mind that Romero's first victims were in a big cemetery, and could see Doom coming a long way off. When he confessed this fear to me, no doubt during one of my ecstatic outpourings on movies, I probably wasn't even talking about Romero, but something in my wide-eyed rush of words provided him an opening to tell me of his fear. One madman to another.

At first, I almost congratulated him. After all, here we are in a time when we've slopped around in every evil, twice, and come up grinning, like those pretty young people I saw triumphantly clenching dead rats in their teeth on TV's Fear Factor; a time too Gonzo for Dr. Thompson--who stared down the slavering jaws of the Were-Nixon--too twisted for Bruno Bettelheim --who survived Buchenwald and Dachau and knew what the wolf dreamed of while waiting for Little Red Riding Hood to show up--and simply too much for Karel Capek, the Czechoslovakian writer who gave us the word "robot," who was perhaps the first casualty, wasting away, his heart broken, when it was clear no one was going to stop Hitler in time. You'd assume that after all those affronts, nothing could faze anybody under thirty anymore. I thought it was good to see a little atavistic fear still tinkling the ivories of the spine. Of course, though, the more that young zombie-phobe talked, the worse I felt for him. This fear dogged him, silent in the underbrush of his life, always out of sight but never out of mind.

I have nothing new to say here, except to acknowledge how thoroughly George Romero understands the nature of the terror of evil, at least when he's making zombie movies. Some day I will write about something a friend once said, long ago and far away in 1980--in an offhand yet "that's-that" way--that The Shining was about the banality of evil. (Note to self: I owe Hannah Arendt a posting.) For now, though, Romero: He knows dread, and how it is linked to the rooms we sit in and the scenery we move through, and how dread comes at us, its shambling, E.C. horror comics/Karloff as The Mummy gait laughably slow--but so darn inexorable, like plate tectonics, so that you cannot escape the object of dread: consumption. In Romero's Dead movies, evil may be silly or slimy, but it is always as close as the dinner table or the shopping center, the personal and social feeding grounds. So when that young man admitted he was always thinking of zombies, he was just seeing Romero's version of the Post-Everything Age. In Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood--by the way, made into a 1979 movie that needs to be on DVD--Hazel Motes founds the "Church of Christ Without Christ," where "the blind don't see, the lame can't walk, and the dead stay that way." I wish someone would tell that to Romero; in the meantime, we'll keep our eye on the door.


Matt said...

Some very good points here - especially the way the real fear in his movies lies in the familiar, the domestic, the everyday. Interesting that Dawn of the Dead probably seems scarier today than it did in 1977 as we're all a lot more used to shopping centres (no-one nowadays would ask "What's that?" when they see one). Romero is "hero of the month" over on our blog, so I've been thinking about this stuff quite a lot lately!

Paul J. Marasa said...

Matt, thanks for visiting; it gets lonely out here without a "www" in front of your name. I glanced at your blog--a class act all the way. I've bookmarked and shall be a constant guest.

I'm torn as to whether you're right about "Dawn" being scarier today. I can remember the revulsion of audiences back then; Romero seemed to be going where few wanted to follow. Today, though, it's a hoot; the remake indicates the need for speed to turn it all into an amusement park ride. Case in point: the re-release of The Exorcist a few years ago was famous for the giggles instead of gags it evoked in younger audience members. Still, I agree with you that the mall is at the center of modern life, and to violate it the way Romero did continues to make all us shiny, happy consumers a little uneasy.

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