Friday, 23 February 2024 10:40

Zombies and capitalism: George A. Romero's anti-capitalist critique, and his democratic, collaborative film-making

Published in Films

Interview Transcript

BG: Victor Halperin's movie ‘White Zombie’ from 1932, Jacques Tourneur’s ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ from 1943, Gordon Douglas' ‘Zombies on Broadway’ from 1945 … all early warning signs which were ignored by the great and the good alike until …

[‘Night of the Living Dead’ audio clip]

TF: Hi Brett, my name is Tom Fallows. I work for the American Film Institute and I'm the author of ‘George A. Romero’s Independent Cinema: Horror, Industry, Economics’ published by Edinburgh University Press.

BG: Welcome, Tom. So, born in the Bronx in New York in 1940, who was George A. Romero?

TF: George Romero is an American independent filmmaker best known for his series of zombie films which spanned from 1968 to 2009. Beginning with ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Romero and his collaborators essentially invented the modern idea of the zombie.

BG: What do you mean by ‘the modern idea of the zombie’?

TF: Traditionally, zombies had their roots in Haitian folklore, where they were basically dead bodies bought back to life as slaves through magic. Romero removed this magical component and reimagined the zombie as a mindless ghoul hungry for human flesh. In the process he also transformed them into something more immediate. He embedded his creation into the heart of America, where for US audiences they were no longer some kind of existential other: they were deceased friends, neighbours and family members.

BG: Romero's ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in 1968 was much more than a horror film, wasn't it?

TF: ‘Night …’ was famous for being one of the first US films to have an African-American hero where his race is never mentioned. Romero insists that lead actor Dwayne Jones was only cast because he was the best actor among his friends, but race is crucial to the film. Jones's hero ‘Ben’ is fiercely intelligent and capable and ends up hiding from the zombie hordes in a farmhouse where he's trapped with a white patriarchal father who undercuts Ben's agency at every turn, and the film ends in kind of the starkest way possible with Ben surviving the zombies but killed by a white posse that had supposedly come to the rescue.

G Night of the Living Dead 1968

[‘Night of the Living Dead’ audio clip]

TF: As other critics have pointed out, the images in this black and white horror film were evocative of a harrowing real world violence at the time where bloody attacks and assassinations on civil rights leaders and protesters frequently played out in the streets and on the evening news. In that sense there are moments in ‘Night …’ with its gritty low-budget aesthetic that feel almost like a documentary, and demonstrated Romero, whether he admitted it then or not, as a socially conscious counterculture filmmaker with his finger on the pulse of what was going on in America.

BG: So how would you describe Romero's view on people, on humanity?

TF: A main theme of his film is really communities, and how people interact with each other. When its dystopic, such as in his zombie films, it's about the impossibility for humans to function collaboratively, and how this failure often results in our destruction. The human survivors of the zombie apocalypse can never work together, and this failure ultimately leads to catastrophe. This is a thread that I think is very, very current in 2024.

BG: People not helping one another during difficult times, motivated only by self-interest? I'm … I'm … shocked! So what role does Romero's use of explicit imagery play in all this? You know – the violence, the gore, the consumption of self-centred human beings?

TF: The key aesthetic in Romero's films is obviously the violence. It's the gore: his films often revel in scenes of carnage and zombies devouring human flesh in extreme close-up. While the violence in these films has been controversial, often resulting in X ratings or getting the films banned, it never feels gratuitous, it's never violence for violence’s sake. To me the gore is crucial to Romero's politics: it gives an edge to the satire, it presents his rhetoric as something fierce and exceptionally angry and urgent. In that way these films are almost like the best punk music in that they are confrontational, anarchic and disdainful of the status quo.

BG: You mentioned ‘these films’. Tell us a little about his follow-up feature ‘Dawn of the Dead’.

TF: So after ‘Night’s …’ critique of race and racism, the sequel ‘Dawn of the Dead’ in 1978 turned to issues of consumerism in a very pointed manner. It's set in a shopping mall where it's almost impossible to see the difference between the zombies and contemporary American shoppers. ‘They are us!’ is a key line in the film and a key line in Romero's zombie cinema. The survivors in ‘Dawn …’ meanwhile use the mall as a refuge and the comfort they get from its wares allows them to ignore what's happening in the outside world. Again, this is an overt plainly-stated satire on the direction Romero felt America was headed in the 1970s. Ultimately, the film's not about consumerist greed as some critics have stated, but it's about ignoring the problems we collectively face as a society.

G Dawn of the Dead 1978

[‘Dawn of the Dead’ audio clip]

BG: Now, what I find very interesting is that not only were ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ both shot in Pittsburgh, Romero's production company, Laurel Entertainment, was also situated in Pittsburgh, rather than, say, Hollywood.

TF: Pittsburgh was crucial. As an independent filmmaker it gave him the freedom to tell the stories that he wanted to tell, largely without the interference of Hollywood or corporate decision-making. To begin with he was working with low budgets and drawing upon the local business community for financing which really allowed him to fly under the radar and produce the kinds of bold, politically radical films that we've been talking about. It also gave him space to experiment with alternative working practices and, at the start of his career, his films were much more collaborative or egalitarian than traditional modes of filmmaking allow. Romero and collaborators, such as John Russo and Russ Streiner, were really striving for a democratic process of filmmaking. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ particularly was made in this uniquely collaborative style where, although Romero was credited as the director, all the key decision-making was done collectively by a core team – from editing to shot selection to production design to core aspects of the screenplay.

BG: It sounds like a socialist, cinematic utopia. What could have possibly gone wrong?

TF: Although it started as a grassroots organisation, the international success of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ – which earned over $55 million at the box office – really changed the shape of their operations. After ‘Dawn of the Dead’ the firm went public and it became beholden to shareholders and committee meetings, just the kind of bureaucracy that Romero tried to avoid and that ultimately pushed him away from the company in the mid-1980s.

BG: Capitalism crushes creative collaboration – Stop the Press! This said however, Romero, Laurel Entertainment and their horde of zombies actually did bring some genuine prosperity to Pittsburgh in more ways than one, didn't they?

TF: Although this experiment in egalitarian film production didn't last, Romero always valued the creative input of collaborators, and his company nurtured a base of film workers that ultimately helped transform Pittsburgh more widely. This base of trained professionals fed into Pittsburgh and transformed it into a leading film centre. It remains a leading film centre to this day with Hollywood productions such as ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ using that talent base in Pittsburgh to create these big-budget films.

BG: And, of course, Romero's cinematic influence spread much farther than Pennsylvania.

TF: In terms of Romero's impact on independent cinema more widely, this can be seen most evidently in horror. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ awakened filmmakers such as Toby Hooper with ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and Wes Craven with ‘Last House on the Left’ to not only the socio-political potential of the genre but also its affordability, demonstrating filmmaking as something that could be achieved outside of Hollywood, and even outside of New York, without compromising on their artistic vision or political ideology. ‘Halloween’ director, John Carpenter, famously once said if any independent filmmaker tells you that they weren't influenced by Romero and ‘Night of the Living Dead’, they're lying.

BG: And what about the young pretenders who have followed in his wake? Sprightly socialist transgressives, or lethargic capitalist copycats?

TF: Romero’s idea of the zombie has become dominant and it’s something we now see in everything from the AMC TV show, ‘The Walking Dead’, to Zac Snyder’s recent Netflix film, ‘Army of the Dead’. But what these recent films and TV shows tends to leave out is, as you say, the transgressive political address that has defined Romero's critical reputation.

BG: Finally, George A. Romero died in 2017. How will you remember him, Tom?

TF: Romero ended his career in Toronto, once again producing low-budget zombie films that were at once fiercely critical of American capitalism and deeply humanist in their approach to characters. I think the best thing that you can say about Romero is that he was always true to his countercultural roots and never stopped believing in the prospect of something better for America.

BG: Great to have had you on the show, man. Many thanks for your time and your insights.

TF: Thanks, Brett, it's been a pleasure to talk to you.

BG: This has been the UK Desk for Arts Express with Dr. Tom Fallows, author of ‘George A. Romero’s Independent Cinema: Horror, Industry, Economics’ which is available now via the Edinburgh University Press website. Cheers!

G George A. Romero Horror Economics Industry 2023

Queer Horror, Marxism and Hollywood
Friday, 23 February 2024 10:40

Queer Horror, Marxism and Hollywood

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Darren Elliott-Smith, Senior Lecturer in Film & Gender Studies at the University of Stirling (UK), for Arts Express

Brett Gregory: Hi, this is the UK desk for Arts Express, and my name's Brett Gregory. Over recent weeks, we've been exploring cinema, not only as a playground for entertainment, escapism, and egos but also as an economic, political, and ideological battleground for social class, gender, ethnicity, technology, and, as we're going to discover in this evening's episode, sexuality.

Darren Elliott-Smith: Hi, my name is Darren Elliott-Smith. I'm a senior lecturer in film and gender, and I teach at the University of Stirling in Scotland in the UK. My research specialisms are in the representation of LGBTQ people in the horror genre, and I'm arguing that it's more recently that this has moved out from the shadowy realms of implicit and symbolic representation of yesteryear.

BG: So how are we to understand queer theory as a critical approach to cinema and its relationship to, say, Marxism?

DES: I suppose it depends on your understanding of queer as a theory and how the term and the ideology have altered in recent years. For me, it's often kind of obvious that there are at least two strands to queer theory. One being around identity politics and attempting to offer what Harry Benchoff describes as an oxymoronic community of difference. So this is a kind of paradox, I suppose, in itself that captures the problematic existence within queer culture and queer theory. But queer, as a word and as an ideology, in my understanding, also still disturbs some people, depending on your social persuasion, or your generation or background, in lots of different ways. And in terms of where this fits with Marxism, queer activism all drew upon socialist rhetoric that called for change, a change whereby the queer collective were being marginalised, crushed, and effectively killed by capitalist, imperialist, middle-class, white CIS hetero patriarchy. And Pride, though far removed from the activist origins of Pride marches in the 1970s, 1980s, still retains some of that need for change to look after the collective and therefore the individual as they exist within the mass, free from the oppression of that ruling elite.

BG: And how does this inform a queer understanding of the horror genre in particular?

DES: Interestingly, many of the works of early horror film theorists in the 1970s, particularly the definitive work of queer film scholar Robin Wood, utilised both a lesbian and gay approach with a socialist and Marxist approach as well. So he argued that, using a little bit of psychoanalysis merged with Marxism, that those ideals and energies that don't fit the bourgeois capitalist, imperialist, and white patriarchal culture of production and reproduction are cast out as other across this imaginary border, which then sets up the binary of us versus them. The problem is that actually within horror and within a lot of Gothic narratives, the ‘them’ or ‘they’ sometimes come back. The fact that they always come back, repression and oppression eventually is shown to fail in the horror narrative, causing this monster, creature, killer, or infection, whatever it is, to come back and threaten that pure individual that's meant to represent the US.

BG: Can you give us a specific film example where the ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary becomes blurred?

DES: in kind of focusing on this theory. He collapsed the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary, and we see this most critically skewered in films like George Romero'sNight of the Living Dead,’ whereby the undead, the zombie, the returned, kind of reanimated corpse who once was human, once was us, become a ‘them’ figure, and then they return to assimilate everybody else into this undead horde, where children eat parents, and the sole survivor, which in this case is Ben, black male, is gunned down by white vigilantes at the end of the film, who stake him for one of them, even though he's not zombified; he's actually still human and very much alive. And Romero's point is that the gun-toting white male doesn't see any difference; actually, all exist in an othered state.

Duane Jones as Ben in Night of the Living Dead 1968

BG: So what is the scope of horror films and television shows which is under consideration here?

DES: Queer horror, although I'd argue that all horror is queer in that it seems to represent the odd, the strange, the non-normative, and as a genre, it seeks to distress, to upset and to challenge, and to scare. It's for me a set of films and TV shows that are made, normally by LGBTQ creatives, that foreground queerness as an element of representation in some way, but this subgenre also includes historical considerations as influences upon these newer out contemporary horror films and shows. So, in order to do that, we have to look at what a lot of academics and myself call closeted texts like, Interview with a Vampire, The Hunger, Psycho, Bride of Frankenstein, all these films that kind of clearly have LGBTQ themes running through them but never really explicitly kind of outwardly state that they are. So they involve some kind of symbolic interpretation or reading.

BG: From a historical perspective. The Hays Code, which was introduced in the 1930s, clearly had a resounding effect on cinema's representations, narratives, and themes. Could you tell us a little bit more about this? 

DES: So, the Hays Code was set up after a series of scandals rocked Hollywood, and people were worried about the deplored world of filmmaking as one that might infect supposedly decent heteronormative family life. One particular case that's often cited is the star Fatty Arbuckle being accused of raping a young starlet in the early 1920s. So, Will Hays set up a production code that would monitor the content of all film productions and those that were released in US cinemas, preventing certain elements and themes and narratives that they deemed would seek to poison US ideology. It's Vito Russo's documentary and book ‘The Celluloid Closet’ outlines this really well in terms of the impact on LGBTQ+ folks. The rule that existed within the Hays Code strictly prohibited any depiction of what was called "sex perversion," impacting any explicit representation of any non-normative sexuality or romance. So, Some films had to get around this by using symbolism, inference, suggestion so as to ensure that their true audience were being represented in and seen in films. Some directors, queer-affiliated directors, were kind of doing this deliberately, coding their films in a way.

The Bride of Frankenstein 1935

BG: For example?

DES: The Universal franchise of horror films from the '30s and the '40s were actually playing with the limitations of the code as well. It's been kind of recently introduced so the suggestion here becomes quite pointed at times, and there's a practice of rebellion in a small way, and this was more pushed, I suppose, by the makers of these films. So if we can kind of go to certain auteurs, film directors like Todd Browning, whose sexuality was often kind of questioned but never fully defined, he made the pre-code film ‘Freaks,’ which is problematic but also really interesting kind of queer film in its representation of non-normative body types. There's also James Whale, who is a gay British director who ramped up the suggestion in his version of ‘Frankenstein,’ that he directed and even more so in the kind of more comedic and kind of almost parodic ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ where we have this homoerotic triangle literally exploding off the screen between Frankenstein the creature and Dr Pretorius as well.

BG: And once again social class is at play in such horror films as well isn’t it?

DES: Class definitely comes into it again, drawing on those early Marxist readings from Franco Moretti on the nature of the capitalist blood-sucking vampire configured more recently as a corporate CEO or landed gentry or an aristocrat versus the underclass or working class, the proletariat of the zombie or a mindless slave. And we see a kind of a literal version of this in the depiction of Haitian voodoo in early RKO texts like ‘I Walked with a Zombie.’ But the queerness present in the upper classes, something I suppose that's reflected on as a consideration of effete queer men, idiosyncratic in their taste, often overindulged with an emphasis on the pursuit of overwhelmed senses, and that kind of stereotypical depiction of upper-class queerness is existent in early Gothic texts like ‘Jekyll and Hyde' and ‘Dorian Gray,’ where the upper classes are seen to wallow in debauchery that's propped up by generations of wealth, them having the time, the money, the power to indulge in seemingly perverse desires.

I Walked with a Zombie 1943

BG: And queer horror is still disrupting and destabilising popular conservative sensibility today as well, isn't it?

DES: Well, the recent remake of Hellraiser wasn't received so well by so-called purist horror fans. Um, they took against this more explicit queer content and they rejected in particular the idea of trans actor Jamie Clayton as the new Pinhead. I mean, not realizing that this film was written by a gay male author, directed by the same man, Clive Barker, and inspired by his experiences of BDSM queer practices that he saw in Berlin nightclubs. And it's quite clear that it's queer from the get-go.

BG: And your academic work presents is exploring the relationship between queer horror, trauma, and mental health, is that correct?

DES: So my recent work looks at the impact of neoconservative, neoliberal ideologies upon LGBTQ individuals' mental health and how horror and Gothic are often the go-to genre for the representation of this. So recently, we've seen a few films that foreground this, utilising horror tropes. ‘Hypochondriac’ from 2022 focuses on this young man who fears that he's inherited his mother's mental illness but sees himself split into two versions of himself: one is a wolf man, the other is this kind of non-normative, seemingly kind of normal queer individual. Other films like ‘Thelma’ from 2018, which is a Swedish supernatural film about a girl with Carrie-like powers who comes to terms with her own lesbianism that has been repressed by her staunch religious parents. And even the recent series of ‘American Horror Story: NYC’ tends to come to terms with personal and cultural trauma that's affected the queer community and also across the world, but particularly in New York. Via various, albeit from my perspective, they're quite clunky allegories and explicit narratives around the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

BG: And we must never forget that with the current rise in right-wing attitudes in both the US and the UK, there are real lives at stake here.

DES: So it seems that in the past few years, things have become even more obvious that being different, being LGBTQ in today's world can be scary. Our rights are being taken away one by one, these hard-won equalities that have been rolled back, and our existence as legally equal is increasingly becoming very precarious. So it's a really interesting time, I think, for theorists and for filmmakers to think about the ways in which we can start to kind of think about how cultural theory that once oppressed and stigmatised queer people is now being re-interpreted, re-expressed, and re-presented to allow queer filmmakers and theorists to take up that mode of address that can offer critiques of the establishment and of also our own subcultures and of those that still oppress us.

BG: Fantastic Darren, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on the show. Your cinematic observations have been both illuminating and important.