The words “Stephen King” and “social commentary” don’t often come together. Several of King’s novels and movies adopt a rather sentimental worldview (The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile), while his few actual political statements suggest a typical Boomer Baby-child-of-the Sixties-New England liberal. He may be king of the bestseller lists, but as a pundit he hardly stands out. So it came as an unpleasant surprise to this reader when King’s latest book, Cell, began dwelling at length on the war on terror.
Granted, Cell is a book about zombies, and stories about the undead, especially movies, have long been vehicles for social commentary. In their book A Short History of the Movies, Gerald Mast and Bruce F. Kawin write, “For an officially despised genre, the low-budget horror film was (and still is) free to take outrageous creative chances and adopt controversial attitudes toward the issues of the day.” Take the work of George Romero, to whom Cell is dedicated along with Richard Matheson, the author of The Omega Man (more about that zombie tale later).
Romero is the cult hero writer-director of such lowbudget classics as Night of the Living Dead and Monkey Shines. In The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead, author Tony Williams observes: “Romero’s best work has always operated as a wakeup call to those dominated by a materialistic culture that promises life but actually delivers a living-dead philosophy.” While your average slasher flick (think Friday the 13th or Halloween) goes in for campy moralizing (As Wes Craven taught us in Scream, premarital sex is a surefire way to get your head cut off by a knifewielding maniac), movies about zombies offer up a liberal serving of slightly more nuanced commentary. Or maybe a slightly more nuanced serving of liberal commentary.
Romero’s Night of the Living Dead may not have been intended as an allegory, but it quickly came to be viewed as one. Duane Jones played a young man who, determined to survive the invasion, holes up in a house under siege by zombies. He does not make it. But the zombies aren’t the ones who kill him. He is shot (and his corpse burned) by a posse of redneck zombie-hunters. See, the lesson goes, we humans are our own worst enemies when we get all military and jingoistic in trying to defend ourselves.
Obviously, no one’s going to confuse Night of the Living Dead with high art: The budget was minuscule, the violence excessive (Jones is on screen for only a couple minutes before he bludgeons three zombies with a tire iron); missing frames in the film stock cause unintentional cuts and choppy editing; and the carcasses of two teenagers killed when a truck explodes are ripped limb from limb and have their intestines eaten by the ravenous “ghouls.” (Oddly enough, no character in the most influential zombie film of all time utters the word “zombie.”)
And yet somehow the movie has become an instrument of incredibly pretentious social commentary. In his analysis of Night of the Living Dead, Williams notes that “the final sequence of the film begins with a high-angle helicopter shot which visually suggests that there is no real difference between posse and zombies who are seen from above like ants. Both show no humanity when pursuing their victims.” Williams goes on to compare the final scene (in which the sheriff burns the corpse of our hero along with a bunch of zombies) to the scenes that came out of concentration camps after the liberation of Europe. “The camps reduced living human beings capable of culture and speech to basic material component elements of ash and dust. Similarly, the posse burns the bodies of once-living human beings at the climax of the film.”
Zombies, European Jews. Same difference? Well, yeah, according to Williams, and possibly Romero. The idea that the zombies represent innocent human victims also shows up in the first sequel to Night of the Living Dead, as well as in King’s novel and his digressions on the war on terror.
Dawn of the Dead, released a decade after Night of the Living Dead, is yet another zombie flick-slash-political statement with a damning critique of consumer culture and other can’t-miss targets. It is also, however, the best of Romero’s first three films, with acting and writing superior to both the original and the third installment, Day of the Dead.
Romero opens the second film by taking a shot at the media: Zombies have invaded, but a television station is unable to get its act together long enough to tell the public where the few remaining safe havens are. He then targets racist cops–a SWAT member refers to the people he is supposed to be saving as “lowlife Puerto Ricans and niggers.” The general selfishness of people also gets exposed: A man desperate for a cigarette asks the film’s four main characters for a smoke and all claim to be out. As soon as he leaves, they all light up. Romero even has a female character comment on the abortion debate (needless to say, she feels it’s her choice to keep or terminate the baby growing inside of her).
But the main target is mindless consumerism. Just as the zombies eat not for sustenance but to satisfy instinct, so do they flock to the shopping mall that the good guys inhabit. Zombies claw at department stores in wide-eyed wonder; female zombies pose in front of mirrors and child zombies wander toy stores looking at bikes they’ll never be coordinated enough to ride. The two survivors most enamored with the material possessions inside the mall become zombies themselves; as Williams says, “the change in status is neither abrupt nor arbitrary since the two men earlier exhibited signs of possessiveness and violence common to their zombie antagonists.”
Williams returns to the theory that wiping out the zombies is akin to genocide. After sealing off the building from the outside world, the “group then co-operate in ethnically cleansing their haven from zombies.”
I don’t dispute that Romero is making an argument here, but the comparison of zombies to innocent humans is an idiotic one. As anyone who’s seen these movies knows, it is not possible to live in peace with the zombies. The zombies do not have the mental skills necessary to reason. They wander the countryside, eating and killing, until they themselves are dead. Killing zombies is not genocide. It’s pest control.
The last of the original trilogy, Day of the Dead (1985), Williams complains, is unjustly neglected for “cultural and industrial reasons.” But here’s the real reason it’s neglected: Day of the Dead happens to be crap. As Roger Ebert said in his devastating critique:
In the earlier [Living Dead] films, we really identified with the small cadre of surviving humans. This time, the humans are mostly unpleasant, violent, insane, or so noble that we can predict with utter certainty that they will survive.
And this is from a critic who gave Dawn of the Dead four stars!
Intended to be a vicious broadside against the military-industrial complex built by Ronald Reagan during his presidency, Day of the Dead is itself a shoddy manufacture of worthless characters, awful acting, and “splatter”–so much, in fact, that it lacks even camp value. At one point, a still-living zombie has his organs removed by a mad scientist. He then breaks free of his restraints and rolls over onto the operating table, only to have his bloody guts splash onto the floor. The scientist then plants a drill into the beast’s forehead to stop him from getting away, causing yet more blood to spray everywhere.
Romero recently made his trilogy a quadrilogy with 2005’s release of Land of the Dead. This time the director takes aim at America’s class system; the wealthy live in a shining tower run by a Donald Trump-like businessman (played by Dennis Hopper, the biggest name by far to appear in any of these movies), while the poor are forced to fight for their lives in the slums below. There’s tons of gore–paid for by a budget much larger than those of the previous films–and it looks more realistic than ever. And the humans are at each other’s throats despite the ever-present threat of murderous zombies. In the end, the lower class of humans and the ultimate lower class of the zombies, which Romero intended to represent immigrants simply aiming for a better life, rise up together and slaughter the wealthy. Poor humans, and poorer zombies, now live together in peace. How progressive!
While George Romero may have been the first to put overtly political messages into his otherwise ridiculous films, he is not the only director to do so. The Omega Man (1971) starred Charlton Heston as the last man alive in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles that has been destroyed by a biological weapon. Heston’s character, Robert Neville, spends his days killing the vampire-zombies that inhabit the city and his nights in an apartment surrounded by the remnants of western culture he has collected (for their part, the zombies spend their evenings destroying what is left of the West and the technology it represents). The Omega Man is a cautionary tale against the escalating hostilities of the Cold War and a critique of the Luddite fantasy that doing away with the West and its technology will lead to peace.
A more recent zombie treatise on human affairs, 28 Days Later . . . (2002) features a virus named “Rage” that was created by scientists showing monkeys images of violence on TV. Or something like that. “Rage”–like the well-known affliction “road rage”–turns humans into raving, murderous madmen. Even worse, however, is the virus’s effect on the uninfected. A group of uninfected despairing soldiers become rapists after not seeing a woman in four weeks. (Who knows how they survived basic training?) The lesson here, of course, is that, just like in Day of the Dead, the military churns out barely controllable, misogynistic psychopaths. As society breaks down, the infected and uninfected become eerily similar in their savage behavior. Man in his natural state, the movie shows us, is little better than a raging beast. Without civilization–which has broken down in the wake of the rapidly spreading virus–people automatically revert to the Hobbesian state of nature and the war of all against all. Deep, right?
Even silly zombie pictures that don’t take themselves all that seriously, like Resident Evil (2002), are not devoid of commentary; the zombies in this video-game adaptation are also created by a virus, this one developed by an out-of-control corporation intent on producing biological weapons. When the virus gets into the air vents of the underground laboratory, the corporation kills everyone unlucky enough to be there. The employees are then reanimated by the virus to become zombies. Not only does the corporation see itself as being above petty restrictions on the use of biological weapons, it views its employees as little more than property to be disposed of at the slightest inconvenience. Greed is, like, so bad.
Which brings us to Stephen King’s new novel, Cell. In 2002, King had announced that upon completion of his epic Dark Tower series he would retire from writing novels (“Then that’s it,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “I’m done writing novels”). The retirement from novel-writing didn’t take. Since then, King has published two works of fiction: The Colorado Kid and his most recent work, Cell.
King is much more of a craftsman than he is usually given credit for, and his books are always entertaining. Cell is no exception. The action starts on page six and doesn’t let up until the final chapter. The premise is great, the characters are fun, and the story contains all the thrills one would expect from a good King novel. Cell goes off track, however, when the author pauses for political statement. Romero got tripped up when he went after a specific politician in Ronald Reagan, and King doesn’t help himself by attacking George W. Bush.
A brief summary: When a signal called “The Pulse” goes across every cell phone in the country, those who hear it are reduced to madness and violence; the book’s protagonist, Clayton Riddell, sees a woman get her throat torn out by a little girl and a dog’s ear chewed off by the dog’s owner. Soon enough the “phone-crazies,” as Clay calls them, begin engaging in odd behavior, forming a kind of society that exhibits strange telepathic abilities.
In these first few chapters, King makes a few offhand comments on society and politics. Riddell mentions that the woman who dies early on had, by talking on her cell phone while trying to order an ice cream cone, committed “an act which would once have been considered almost insufferably rude.” And boy does she pay for it. Clay also makes a number of snide observations about George W. Bush, including this one about a plan designed to kill the zombies gone awry: “It had seemed simple: fill the greenhouse sprayers with gasoline, load the sprayers into the back of a pickup truck, drive across Tonney Field . . . He thought to tell Ardai that George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure had probably looked equally simple.” In other words, the war on terror is an obvious failure. George W. Bush‘s obvious failure.
King’s objections to Bush and our conflict with Islamist terrorists continue to interfere as the book goes along. In the scene where the unaffected humans make a plan to take out the zombies, the parallel-making to the war on terror becomes downright groan-inducing. A character chimes in to say he’ll do whatever’s necessary to take down the zombies, and is almost admired by King’s stand-in, Clay. “He spoke as stoutly, Clay thought, as any Muslim teenager who ever strapped on a suicide belt stuffed with explosives.” King’s word choice here is sickening; by comparing our heroes to Middle Eastern “martyrs,” he makes heroes out of those who kill innocent civilians in Iraq, Israel, and elsewhere on a daily basis.
When the small group of survivors led by Clay kill a thousand of the “phone-crazies” in a sneak attack, the zombies respond by slaughtering a town full of men, women, and children. If you replace the stadium full of murderous zombies with the World Trade Center, I think you can see more clearly the point that King is driving at: Stung by the attack, the zombies strike out blindly at the first group of humans that they come across . . . just like the United States did after 9/11 (at least, in King’s eyes) to the people in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The head zombie claims that the act of genocide was perpetrated to get “justice” for the original attack by Clay’s group. In the hours after the attack on September 11, President Bush said that he was committed to bringing the terrorists to justice. “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” King’s comparison of our president to a crazy, murderous zombie is an annoying diversion from the plot, and shows that he has no regard for the importance of the war on terror, or the manner in which it must be conducted.
Just as Romero’s view of the military and scientific buildup and the behavior of Ronald Reagan during the Cold War is hilariously off base, King’s view of President Bush and the post-9/11 world in which we live is both uninformed and hopelessly naïve. While Romero is probably a lost cause, King can still turn back from the path on which he is embarking. Let’s hope he does.
Sonny Bunch is Assistant Editor of The Weekly Standard.