Thursday, March 22, 2007

Culture Shock 03.22.07: Commie zombies haunt the world

When Karl Marx told the workers of the world to unite because they had nothing to lose but their chains, I don't think he had zombies in mind.

But given the fall of the Soviet Union and the fact that the world's only practicing Marxists run Venezuela, Cuba and the workers' paradise of North Korea, it's clear that prediction wasn't Marx's strength.

To get back to the issue at hand, however, what do zombies have to do with the man who co-authored "The Communist Manifesto"?

Answer: everything.

Marxist class analysis, in one form or another, has been part of zombie movies since there was such a thing as zombie movies. It's evident as early as the low-budget 1932 shocker "White Zombie," starring Bela Lugosi as one of the most memorably named characters in cinema, "Murder" Legendre, who uses zombies as workers in his mill.

According to Marx, class struggle is history's defining characteristic.

In the 1800s, with capitalism on the rise, Marx saw the upper class, the bourgeoisie (owners of capital and businesses), as being in conflict with the wage-earning masses, or proletariat. Eventually, as Marxist dogma would have it, the proletariat would rise up to overthrow the bourgeoisie.

Marx died in 1883, and 124 years later, the only communist revolutions that have occurred have taken place in poor countries with little or no capitalist class at all. But that Marx has been proven wrong doesn't mean his ideas have died. Like zombies, they keep shambling along.

Which again brings us back to zombie movies.

In zombie movies, we are the bourgeoisie and the zombies, which have nothing but numbers on their side, are the proletariat.

When people think of zombie movies, they usually think of George Romero's black-and-white classic "Night of the Living Dead," released in 1968. But before Romero began his franchise, Hammer Films, the British studio behind the Christopher Lee "Dracula" series, unleashed "The Plague of the Zombies."

"Plague" takes the political undercurrent of "White Zombie" a step further while dispensing with the Lugosi film's damsel-in-distress plot. In "Plague" British mine workers, a symbol of labor if ever there was one, turn into zombies and create havoc for the upper classes.

By the time Romero got around to his fourth "Dead" film, "Land of the Dead," in 2005, the political message had graduated from subtext to the whole point of the exercise. Dennis Hopper plays the upper-class ruler of an upscale residential development where the idle rich live in relative splendor amid the ruins of zombie-infested America. It all comes crashing down when the zombies break in and eat the rich.

Other zombie films are variations on the theme. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" takes place in a shopping mall and casts the zombies as mindless consumers. His subsequent "Day of the Dead" and director Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later" pit zombies against the military, standing in for the military-industrial complex.

Of course, none of these films paints a flattering picture of the proletariat, which is portrayed as mindless zombies. But in "Land of the Dead," Romero tried to make his zombies smarter and more sympathetic, with mixed results.

The irony of most zombie films is that their political slant favors subhuman monsters that feed on the brains of the living. Filmmakers compensate by making most of their living characters so nasty or stupid they deserve to be eaten.

If Ayn Rand had written zombie movies instead of 1,000-page novels, she would have had an easier time of it — heroic capitalists vs. mindless zombie hordes hungering for the brains of the creative class.

That script writes itself: Capitalists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your brains.

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