July 17, 2005

Zombie World

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If the hysterical body is the star on reality programming, where the pretense of theatrical tradition is still cultivated in regular old-fashioned drama top billing these days goes, quite ironically, to the corpse. In crime scene dramas the decomposing dead body is the outright star. For the role of cadaver, the competition for young Hollywood actors is, at the risk of a bad pun, very stiff. What, if anything, is behind the rise of the human carcass in mass programming is not entirely clear. Is it a response to our Age of Perpetual War? Who knows? As a general rule death and its archetypes are of universal interest. All else failing, death is always a sure bet to captivate the public imagination. Where the significance of the corpse in cop dramas is somewhat enigmatic, the exact opposite is true for the meaning of the equally popular zombie. The zombie has rarely ever been more fashionable. In quick succession in the last few years there has been 28 Days Later and the Resident Evil franchise (smarter faster zombies), Shawn of the Dead (zombie comedy), the Dawn of the Dead remake, etc. In these movies, and in George Romero’s Land of the Dead just out, the living corps provides a clear metaphor for life in the world as we humans have made it for ourselves. Granted it is not always the same in each. In Romero’s landmark film on the subject, Night of the Living Dead (1968), the zombie was likened to the cold war “other”, the threat to our value system that was to test those assumptions and would ultimately expose them as shallow, bigoted and corrupt. Unlike filmmakers like the Italian Lucio Fulci, in which the zombie is usually very literally a voodoo fiend or an escapee from Hell, Romero’s living dead theme was always allegorical. Ten years after Night of the Living Dead, in his Dawn of the Dead, arguably the best zombie flick ever, the walking dead clearly represent our mindless consumer culture. In fact, with Romero, the theme has continued to evolve over time, and in a remarkably linear way at that. In the chaos and bedlam of the first film the zombie epidemic was just beginning. In the second movie the zombies are mindlessly going through the motions of life, in particular, flocking to the mall. With the 1985 Day of the Dead, granted not the greatest movie ever made, a zombified world is becoming normal. Zombies have become the fodder for sport and entertainment. The scientist is hard at work in his underground laboratory trying to socialize the undead, trying to teach them basic people skills, in order, one would suppose, to put them to work doing menial jobs for their living masters. In the ensuing twenty years, Romero’s zombie has begun to cope with life after death. The epidemic of the dead rising has long since past in Land of the Dead. By this time the undead are, quite frankly, tired of all the abuse. Not only do the living have to learn to deal with their miserable reality, but the zombies – Romero calls them “stenches” – are also evolving. The living dead must themselves finally learn how to live. To say of the movie that both living and dead are on equal footing is not entirely accurate. Romero reveals his sympathies. He has left more than enough room in this movie for the idea that the “stenches” might actually be more humane than the totally corrupt living. Oddly, in all these years, Romero is really only catching up to the premise of Donald Barthelme’s 1981 “The Zombies” (for the whole story click here). Barthelme, with his signature deadpan sense of humor, foresaw the banality of a world ruled by the living dead. In his story the male zombies regularly come to the town of the living in search of human brides. The tragicomedy that ensues could very well predict Romero’s next zombie movie.

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July 13, 2005

Rove The Ripper

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Dennis Rader is described as the “perfect” serial killer. The distinction is primarily based on the fact that Rader, the self-named BTK killer (the initials stand for bind, torture, kill), went undetected by his Wichita, Kansas, neighbors for 31 years. It is one of the main curiosities that draws the morbid imagination to the serial killer that they can remain invisible in plain sight. A common mistake is the idea that the reason these folks blend in so well is because they are perfectly normal. It is probably more accurate to say that they are often actually extraordinary, that is excessively ordinary. What deflects attention from them is rarely their blandness. Rather, the cover that most often cloaks their outward appearance is provided by the extremes of our culture, those neuroses we have for one reason or another come to accept despite the fact that we find these character types odious. It has become a commonplace when describing the mindset of the serial killer, for example, to point out, as the Los Angeles Times did in describing Rader, that the serial killer and the CEO share the same psychological profile. The CEO’s aggression is simply deemed socially acceptable. In other words, if it were not for the grace of god, most of our world leaders, and otherwise big shots would be the murderous variety of psychopath. That is what Kathryn Bigelow’s 1990 Blue Steel was about. Ron Silver, in a role tailor-made for his brand of smarmy creepiness, plays Eugene Hunt, a big shot stock broker with high up connections. Hunt isn’t exactly a victim of society. Bigelow was more interested in the particular insanity of the power hungry type-A personality. Hunt, who is above the law, terrorizes rookie cop Jamie Lee Curtis with impunity until he finally “suicides by police.” Curtis just about levels Manhattan before eventually gunning down the serial killer. As the present administration begins to unravel, the cruel and greedy excesses of practically every member of the rogues gallery seems supported only by the worst imaginable extremes of our culture. One of the most pointed criticisms of our self-destructive tendencies is quoted from The Process Church of the Final Judgment’s periodical. The quote was reprinted in the gatefold of the 1971 Funkadelic album Maggot Brain. The Process Church has an odd and often mysterious place in occult history, mostly for mistaken or sensationalized associations. Charles Manson did write a piece for the church’s publication, but it is not clear by any means if he was ever an actual member. The church also came up in the Son of Sam case, but any connection was later dismissed. The only thing that is certain is that founder Robert DeGrimston did increasingly dabble in Satanism and the church did end up on Scientology’s black list known as Suppressive Persons and Suppressive Groups. The quote is reprinted here as it appears in the Funkadelic record jacket:

“Fear is at the root of man’s destruction of himself. Without Fear there is no blame. Without blame there is no conflict. Without blame there is no destruction. But there IS Fear; deep within the core of every human being it lurks like a monster; dark and intangible. Its outward effects are unmistakable. Its source is hidden.

“It can be seen on one level in furtive embarrassment, argumentative protest, social veneer and miserable isolation. It can be seen on another level in the mammoth build up of war machines in every corner of the world. It can be seen in the fantasy world of escapism known as entertainment. It can be seen in the squalor of ghettos and the pretentious elegance of ‘civilized’ society. It can be seen in the desperate rat race of commerce and industry, the sensational slanderings of the press, the constant back-biting of the political arena and the lost world of the helpless junkie who has passed beyond the point of no return.

“The tight-lipped suppression of the rigid moralist reflects it, as does the violent protest of the anarchist. But more starkly and tragically than anywhere else, it manifests in the pale grey shadow of the ordinary person, whose fear clamps down on all his instincts and traps him in the narrow confines of the socially accepted norm. Afraid either to step down into the darkness of his lower self or to rise up into the light of his higher self, he hangs suspended in between, stultified into the alien pattern of nothingness.

“But to a greater or lesser degree, and manifesting one way or another, all human beings are afraid. And some of us are so afraid that we dare not show our fear. Sometimes we dare not even know our fear. For Fear itself is a terrifying concept to behold.

“We may confess to being afraid of violence and pain and even ghosts; and with such obvious terrors, pigeon-hole our fear to our own satisfaction. But fear of people, fear of ourselves, fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of our closest friends, fear of isolation, fear of contact, fear of loneliness, fear of involvement, fear of rejection, fear of commitment, fear of sickness, fear of deprivation, fear of inadequacy, fear of emotion, fear of GOD, fear of knowledge, fear of death, fear of responsibility, fear of sin, fear of virtue, fear of guilt, fear of punishment, fear of damnation, fear of the consequences of our actions, and fear of our own fear? How many of us recognize the presence of ourselves in these?

“And if some of us recognize some of them, are we prepared to see the full extent of them? Do we know just how afraid we are? And do we know the effect that our fear has on our lives? Do we know how completely we are governed by fear?

“And do we know that the world is governed by the sum total of every human being’s fear, and ours is not excluded?

“Do we know the extent to which we are at odds with one another – despite some promising apparencies simply through our fear of one another? Do we know the extent to which we are at war with one another on every level from personal to world wide – because we are afraid?

“And do we know that wars and rumors of wars mount up in an ascending spiral of violence and potential violence, as the fear in the hearts of men intensifies? Do we know that strife of every kind increase as hatred, resentment, jealously and prejudice increase, and that all these stem from one thing only: Fear?

“And do we know that one thing only ensures the escalation of the spiral of violence and destruction; our own unwillingness to recognize the full extent of our fear and its effects – our fear of Fear?

“For each and every one of us, as long as he is afraid, and unwilling to see with full clarity his fear for what it is, contributes to the crippling conflict that has become the hallmark of this world of ours. And as long as there IS fear, together with unwillingness to see it clearly and completely, as long as human beings are afraid and also fail to recognize the fact in their need to isolate themselves, in their outbursts of anger and irritation, in their embarrassment, in their sense of failure, in their feelings of resentment and frustration, in their desire for revenge, in their guilt, in their confusion, in their uncertainty, in their disappointment, in their anxiety about the future and their wish to forget the past, in their need to blame others and justify themselves, in their sense of helplessness and despair, in their revulsion and disgust, in their need to be vicious and spiteful, in their lack of confidence, in their tendency to boast and protest their superiority, in their futility, in their misery and in their scorn; as long as human beings fail to see THEIR fear reflected in these and a hundred other manifestations of Fear, then they will fail to see their part in the relentless tide of hatred and violence, destruction and devastation, that sweeps the earth. And the tide will not ebb until all is destroyed.”

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