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Wetmore on Romero Zombies as Markers of Their Times

Zombies are more than the monsters of the moment. While their popularity is at an all time high in popular culture, they have been with us decades, and their meaning changes as our cultural fears evolve. In the following interview, Kevin Wetmore discusses his exploration of the shifting meanings related to Romero’s zombies that he describes in his book Back From the Dead: Remakes of the Romero Zombie Films as Markers of Their Times (McFarland & Co., 2011). Wetmore is an actor, director, editor and author, whose previous books have covered topics ranging from Star Wars to Renaissance faires. He is associate professor of theater at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

TheoFantastique: Kevin, thank you for helping me secure a copy of your book, and for your willingness to be interviewed to discuss it. Given your background in theater, how did you come to develop both a personal and academic interest in zombies?

Kevin Wetmore: Actually, the interest in horror was probably there first. I am an actor and director and academic by training and inclination, but have been a horror fan since I can remember. I had always loved Romero’s films – I remember seeing the commercials for Dawn of the Dead on TV back in 1978, when I was 9 and being both frightened by the images and drawn to them. I asked my parents to take me, but wisely they did not. I eventually saw it as a teenager and have seen all the films since perhaps hundreds of times. I moved to Pittsburgh to attend the University of Pittsburgh for a Ph.D. in Theatre, and Pittsburgh is America’s zombie capital. I talk in the book about moving there the same weekend as the 25th anniversary of Night convention and going to that instead of unpacking. I am also part of a generation of fanboy academics. We would be reading theory and critical analysis in grad school and then go home and watch movies or TV and see the same cultural patterns. While I was doing research on African and Japanese theatre, my present to myself was to write a book about Star Wars (The Empire Triumphant) that took a postcolonial approach to the depictions of religion and race in those films. I have also been fortunate enough as an actor living in Los Angeles to appear in several horror b-movies, so I have been a zombie myself and eaten by zombies (and a werewolf, and a serial killer). So all parts of my life: academic, artist, horror fan have kind of blended together.

TheoFantastique: In your book you look at Romero’s zombie films, and various remakes or films influenced by his zombie narratives, and you approach them from the perspective of cultural sociophobics. Can you define that, and explain why this perspective helps us understand important dimension of these films and the times in which they were produced?

Kevin Wetmore: Films don’t mean – they generate meaning. You watch, not as some personality-less, history-less witness, but as someone who brings your own stuff to the story. Sociophobics looks at the fears not of the individual but of society as a whole – what scares us collectively? What are we as a nation or even as a species worried about. So you have a number of films in the late Sixties and early Seventies, such as NOTLD that on the surface are simple drive-in horror films but which contain subtext about the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement. And it doesn’t matter what the filmmakers intended, because we are shaped by our culture and times whether we are aware of it or not. So, for example, at a time of economic crisis and concern about the consumer culture, Romero gave us the original Dawn. Seven years later, under Reagan, Day showed an out of control military exploiting amoral scientists. But the 2004 Dawn reflects the realities of a post-9/11 culture: one in which people do not really connect with one another and in which we fear that our neighbors or even friends and family may turn out to be a monster trying to convert us to their way of life.

TheoFantastique: How have sociophobocs changed from 1968 with the original Night of the Living Dead, to our postmodern and post-9/11 period?

Kevin Wetmore: As the nation, society and culture change, so too does what frightens us. We can still watch the originals and they have something of the power to frighten, but they no longer speak with immediacy to our culture. To give but one example of difference. Both versions of Dawn feature humans trapped in a mall confronted by zombies. The original features slow zombies. The remake featured fast, running zombies. We can see this as a marker of the change in fear. 9/11 was fast, took us by surprise, and the threat was immediate. Films reflect the times and the people that made them. It is no coincidence that the Saw and Hostel films were made at a time when our nation was debating torture. It is no coincidence that films like Cloverfield and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which show monsters attacking buildings in New York came to prominence after 9/11. All horror, even crappy 2-AM-on-theSyFy-channel horror, reflects the fears of the culture that made it. The best horror films, in my humble opinion, function both as horror and as sociophobic marker. They stand the test of time because they scare us on a visceral level, not by yelling “boo” or showing gore but by filling us with dread. They allow us to view the things we fear from a distance and somehow contain the fear.

TheoFantastique: One of the interesting facets of this discussion comes up in light of your mention of audiences now being “active participants” in regards to these films. Now with participatory culture fans are involved in participation with the zombie and its sociophobics through websites, blogs, horror conventions, fan film creations, Zombie Walks and other things. How has this participatory aspect of fans helped shape the development of the “zombie canon” of films?

Kevin Wetmore: It’s interesting how the age of the zombie has arrived. I suspect we are seeing a few different phenomena here. First is that the zombie is a monster for all milieu. You can put it anywhere and you can have it while anything is going on. Vampires and werewolves tend to dominate their narratives and must be fought. Zombies are just there and you can do anything with them. This flexibility also means that we can use the zombie to express any fear: of the masses, of foreigners, of change, of religious people, of the young, of the old, and, of course, of the dead. The zombie is also a safe way to think about your own demise. Except for the goths, the truly morbid, and those who like to frighten their parents, few of us think about our own bodies after we die. The zombie gives us a way to live on, so to speak. The horror in zombie films is that once bitten or when one dies, one becomes a zombie, but is that really the worst thing ever? It becomes a form of wish fulfillment: do what you want, when you want, and the only way to cease existing is if you suffer a head injury. There is a freedom in being a zombie. You can disappear into the mob and you have no individual responsibility. There is also a power. Zombies are terrifying. If you are a zombie, others fear you and fear what you can do. Participatory zombie culture is also wish fulfillment on the other end. Last year for Halloween, I went to a “Zombie hunt” wherein one was given a gun that shot soft pellets and had to negotiate a maze set up in a warehouse and emerge on the other side without being caught by the zombies. The zombies wore goggles over their makeup and you could shoot them on sight, but only a head shot would cause the actor playing the zombie to lie down and let you pass. In other words, my friends and I paid for the privilege of running through a warehouse shooting “zombies” in the head without consequences. So all aspects of zombie participatory culture represent freedom and power: I can kill without consequence if I am living or if I am zombie. The participatory culture allows one to act out a part of these fantasies safely, and we see that then echoed in the films, it becomes a kind of loop. At the same time we see what Henry Jenkins calls “textual poaching” – fans take the zombie stories and make them their own, sometimes writing their own and sometimes living their own. It’s the exact same thing as a Star Trek convention. In the case of the zombies, the guy with the dull 9 to 5 job gets to be a monster or a monster slayer, in the case of Trek the same guy gets to be Commander Vertrox of the starship Verillion.

TheoFantastique: What has been the result of the shift of horror from an adult genre to youth culture in the depiction of zombies and their sociophobics?

Kevin Wetmore: Hmmm…I do not know if I agree entirely that there has been a shift. Horror in one sense has always been a part of youth culture since youth culture developed in the post-war years. The Fifties aimed horror at teens with cars and disposable income. Whereas Dracula and Frankenstein was aimed at adults or at least the whole family, I Was a Teenage Werewolf wears its target demographic on its titular sleeve. Likewise, Eighties slasher films were clearly aimed at the 14 to 30 demographic as well. The original Dawn was released unrated, so on those over 18 were technically allowed to see it, but the development of the home video market in the Eighties also rendered the MPAA ratings kind of moot. I would see twelve-year-olds renting The Exorcist and I Spit on Your Grave. Carol Clover (among others) pointed out that most horror films were, in fact, cautionary tales aimed at the young: if you smoke, drink, disobey authority and have sex, the monsters will kill you. So I actually see a shift back towards more adult or serious horror since 9/11. What we see happen now is a kind of bleak nihilism and a sense of helpless despair. I am thinking here of films like The Mist or The Strangers, but even the remake of Dawn ends with the implied deaths of all characters. In a sense, the original Night, with its bleak, ironic ending, paved the way for the current crop of films which end with the deaths of all the characters, often for stupid, avoidable reasons. That might also explain the current popularity of zombie culture: not that it has caught up with our culture but that our culture has finally caught up with it.

TheoFantastique: You refer to Romero’s zombie films as “apocalyptic and millennial.” What do you mean by this? And how did 9/11 and fears of religious fundamentalism impact this element of zombie films?

Kevin Wetmore: Yes, I think 9/11 certainly brought religion to the forefront in a number of ways, both the religious faith and culture of the terrorists and our own nation’s response to it. President Bush responded to 9/11 and framed the two wars in its wake in religious language, most obviously casting terrorists as “evil” and America as a force of goodness and Godliness in the world. So we fear religion and we fear those who give themselves wholly over to it, as there is no reasoning with someone who believes God himself wants them to kill you. There are two streams of horror that result from this. The first are films that present evil as real: the devil exists and he is out to get us. The second are films that show fundamentalists as being dangerous. The behind every deeply believing person is a sinister reality: witness The Last Exorcism, End of the Line, The Rite, and The Reaping. Either the devil is real and out to get us, or it does not matter as fundamentalists will actually do his work for him.

But there is also something of the apocalyptic in both the biblical sense and the popular sense both in American culture in general and in zombie films in particular. In the biblical sense, “apocalyptic” means “hidden things revealed,” but in the popular sense it is conflated with eschatological things: the end of the world. Zombies represent the end of the world. Romero shows the dead rising, outnumbering the living, and then eventually owning the world, transforming it in their image. The living have two choices: die in a way that one does not “come back” or become a zombie and perhaps kill those you love. Similarly to President Bush, Romero also frames his stories in religious language. There is a reason that the most famous line from the original Dawn, repeated by the same actor in a cameo in the remake is, “When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.” The language of Revelation is also very zombie-friendly. It speaks of the dead returning and rising and battles between good and evil. There is not that much difference between, say 28 Days Later and Left Behind. And there are even some apocalyptic Christian zombie stories out there, most notably Mark Roger’s The Dead. I also find it fascinating that the phrase “the Zombie apocalypse” has come into common usage. It conflates popular zombie narratives with the Christian idea of the end of the world and a battle between good and evil. It is a secular apocalypse, to be sure, but still, religion frames the idea of zombies.

TheoFantastique: In your discussion of Dawn of the Dead (2004) you conclude by stating, “The ending is emblematic of post-9/11 horror. It is bleak, nihilistic and offers little to no hope of survival.” You have a forthcoming book titled Post-911 Horror in American Cinema (Continuum). How do you see the current wave of zombie films, and with The Walking Dead perhaps television too, reflecting various aspects of post-9/11 horror?

Kevin Wetmore: There are several tropes, if you will, that have risen to prominence in the wake of 9/11 in horror cinema, many of which were present in zombie cinema before but which are now almost central. The first is the bleak ending. Let us compare Dawns. In the first, Fran and Peter get in the helicopter and escape. She is pregnant. They have nowhere to go, but some sense of hope or a future is implied. Four people reach the boat at the end of the remake, but if one continues to watch through the credits, we see the boat run out of fuel, we see them find a living head in a cooler and then we see them land on an island and get attacked by a horde of zombies. The camera then falls and a zombie falls in front of it. The implication being that hope is impossible. We see the tropes as well in Romero’s post-9/11 films. The pseudo-documentary has become a central subgenre in horror: Paranormal Activity, Apollo 18, Devil Inside, and Cloverfield, for example. Romero gives us Diary of the Dead, a pseudo-documentary that still contains his social commentary (the film students are more concerned about how many YouTube hits their footage gets than their friend who just died), but also reflects the mediated-yet-immediate experience of 9/11. For most of us, 9/11 was immediate but not experienced directly. We watched it happen on television in real time, and then repeated over and over and over again. This is what pseudo-documentaries do – give us the echo of the experience of 9/11.

Another trope that the zombie film has had all along, but which we have finally caught up with is the idea of a hostile world. As with ghosts in Pulse and vampires in Stakeland or 30 Days of Night, zombies have taken over “our” world and it is theirs now. If we are to remain safe, we must change how we live our lives and even curtail some of our freedoms and desires in order to remain alive, safe and ourselves. As I noted above when we discussed participatory culture, there is also an element of freedom from restraint that is reflected in post-9/11 horror. Zombies do not deserve mercy, the opportunity to surrender or the protection of the Geneva convention. “They” attacked “us” and cannot be reasoned with, therefore anything we do in response is not only justified but necessary. Fighting zombies allows us to justify the worst kinds of behavior. I am not suggesting it was necessary to read Osama bin Laden his rights, just that zombie cinema reflects a world in which we are fighting to win, but the old rules no longer apply.

Most of all, however, post-9/11 horror is bleak, nihilistic and hopeless. In slasher films, one dies because of what one has done: ignored one’s responsibilities or authority figures, engaged in immoral behavior such as premarital sex, or ignored the dangers of camping where a massacre occurred 25 years ago tonight. In post-9/11 horror, one dies not because of what one did but because of where one is. Perhaps the best example of this comes from The Strangers, in which Kristin asks, “Why are you doing this?” and one of the masked killers answers “Because you were home.” One dies not because of action but because of proximity. The terror attacks of 9/11 showed random, anonymous death killing thousands for no reason other than they were on the hijacked plane or they were in the targeted building. Shows like The Walking Dead demonstrate the same random, anonymous death. People die and/or become zombies for no real reason or justification. And that reflects the world we live in now, or at least the way it is perceived.

It’s their world now.

TheoFantastique: Kevin, again, thank you for your discussion of the book. I hope you can come back in the near future to discuss Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema.

Kevin Wetmore: I would be delighted to. Thanks again for the opportunity to discuss this book.

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