Distributing the Dead
Video Spectatorship in the Films of George A. Romero
Movies construct the video spectator differently than they do the cinematic spectator; that is the fundamental claim of this chapter, the thesis I set out to prove by examining how one filmmaker altered his presentation of the same subject for different popular distribution platforms. Critics have been quick to affirm that movies look different on video and that filmmakers reimagined many of their formal and narrative conventions during the home video era, but no one has provided the close readings that would identify what these shifts actually look like, how they alter the viewer's relationship to the motion picture and reimagine the spectator. Viewers may intuitively recognize that movies of the home video era address them differently than their cinematic predecessors do, but film theorists have not yet analyzed the nature of that change or how it happened. Therefore, this chapter systematically works through the construction of the spectator in one director's oeuvre over forty years to demonstrate how new motion picture apparatuses bring forth new spectators.
All spectatorship studies-from the 1970s apparatus theory through the 1980s and 1990s reception surveys and contemporary material culture criticism-rest on the abiding assumptions that movies try to elicit specific affects or responses in a viewer and that they do so by manipulating the apparatus through which they anticipate meeting her. Hence, Jean-Louis Baudry, Christian Metz, Laura Mulvey, and the other 1970s screen theorists all appeal to the basic architecture of the movie theater-the location of the projector, the darkness of the auditorium, the size of the screen-to explain how this space constructs its spectator. When subsequent scholars challenge the 1970s theorists' "master narratives" and argue that some audiences actively resist ideological indoctrination, they implicitly affirm the idea that motion pictures exploit their form and format to direct the spectatorial response. Platform studies and new media critics likewise focus on the unique methods digital image productions offer for exciting the viewer. This last approach inspires the methodology for this chapter, but rather than focusing on innovations in motion picture production, I examine how innovations in motion picture exhibition have changed the way filmmakers imagine and address the spectator. What one can show influences what one can say, so the effect of video platforms on filmmaking matters not only because they influence production (as Janet Wasko, Frederick Wasser, and David Bordwell have shown) but also because they shape the transmission of ideas. By examining how the movies' production design, cinematography, and editing anticipate video distribution, we begin to recognize new patterns in how they interpellate the spectator. Reading these formal innovations in conversation with the narratives they convey, we can see how filmmakers negotiate story, platform, and form to achieve a particular response in a viewer.
Such an account cannot limit itself to movies produced after the video revolution, however, at least not if it hopes to convey a sense of how the drive for "videoability" changed the spectator. To do that, its analysis needs to include movies made both before and after video profits eclipsed box-office receipts, while simultaneously controlling for as many other production variables as possible-such as director, subject, and genre. Hence my turn to George A. Romero and his zombie oeuvre. Romero made six zombie movies between 1968 and 2009, and this corpus collectively proves that each new apparatus constructs a new spectator. There are two specific reasons Romero's zombie oeuvre is ideal for this study of video spectatorship. First, the director's forty-year hexalogy follows the same subject in the same genre across no less than five dominant distribution platforms, which facilitates close readings attentive to formal changes. Second, each movie exploits the commonly perceived strengths of its contemporaneous platform to involve the spectator in critiques of the mass media, US military policy, racism, and classism. Although these polemics emerge most obviously in the movies' narratives, as David Bordwell observes, "style is not simply window-dressing draped over a script; it is the very flesh of the work." Romero's zombie movies politicize their spectators by reflecting reputed possibilities and limitations of the apparatus dominating motion picture distribution at the time of production. In 1985, for instance, Romero's Day of the Dead reinterpreted zombie attacks for VHS, a lower-resolution platform that was dominating horror distribution in the mid-1980s. By racking focus on its attacking ghouls, Day transforms the zombie from the lumbering pest of yore to a threat based on limited visibility to suit its new apparatus. They are slow, those zombies, but you have to see them coming, and on an analog video, a viewer might not.
Such practical attention to distribution markets and to changes in the motion picture apparatus marks Romero's entire zombie oeuvre. Because Romero undertook his first movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968), as an entrepreneurial project to transform himself from a televisual filmmaker (of commercials, primarily) into a feature-film director, Night was shot with the drive-in market and spectator in mind. It also interrogates celluloid as a platform, challenging its capacity to record and represent violence in order to reveal the political limitations of visual media and help the spectator question her insularity from recorded traumas. Romero maintains a similar attention to exhibition and the motion picture apparatus throughout his career as an independent filmmaker (albeit one occasionally hired by the studios for individual projects) and in the rest of his zombie movies: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009). Because of the temporal breaks between each of Romero's sequels, each had to be sold through a different exhibition platform; thus, each reflects a different motion picture apparatus and imagines a different spectator. Dawn went out to the multiplexes and midnight-movie circuit that characterized 1970s cinema going; Day premiered in independent movie theaters but found its funding and its audience through VHS; Land opened in theaters that were understood to be merely advance advertising for a DVD release; and Diary came out to a video marketplace increasingly influenced by new media convergence and user-generated content. So while Steven Shaviro notes that "Romero's zombies could almost be said to be quintessential media images," it might be equally instructive to observe they are media-contingent images whose relation to the spectator changes as their platforms of replication change. Over the course of this chapter I will address each of Romero's movies in turn, noting changes in his framing, cinematography, depth of field, editing, and color palette that reflect changes in contemporaneous exhibition practices and the kind of spectator a director might anticipate. By tracking the political life of key tropes-such as the blue hue of the zombies' skin or the suspense of a zombie attack-I demonstrate that Romero's zombie movies adapted to exploit the political potential of each new apparatus, not to mention the spectator herself.
But before proceeding, I want to reiterate that the goal of this chapter is to unpack the history of the video spectator, not the zombie. Had Romero made six werewolf films in forty years, this chapter might seem to be about werewolves; in either case the monster matters because of what it reveals about the way the movie imagines its spectator. Had Romero made this same hexalogy about witches or robots, they, too, might appear to possess a privileged relationship to motion picture spectatorship-as, indeed, the zombie does, but only because of the unique engagements with the motion picture apparatus Romero pursues in his monster movies. That said, it is also the case that I wrote this chapter in the midst of a zombie renaissance, an unprecedented multimedia surge of interest in the undead. I leave it to other scholars to catalog and contextualize all the zombie movies, literature, games, and ephemera that emerged during the first decade of the twenty-first century, but to the extent that the zombie resurrection includes a new twist in video spectatorship, I would be remiss to ignore it entirely. Therefore, this chapter concludes with a few notes concerning the effect of 1990s zombie video games on the zombie renaissance. Between 2002 and 2004 a new breed of zombie movies reimagined their narrative space, cinematography, and even the speed of their zombies to court the video game user as spectator. In so doing, they achieved what Romero's last zombie movie did not: the survival of the dead.
Slow and Scary: The Depth of Horror in Night of the Living Dead
It has become a convention of Romero criticism to recount how the same financial pressures that led his production company, Image Ten, to green-light a horror film for its first project also contributed to the stylistic decisions that make Night of the Living Dead a political and aesthetic achievement. However, critics have yet to address how Image Ten's distributive plans affected Night's style, content, and construction of its spectator. Image Ten made a horror movie because the company thought it would be an easy genre to sell: it knew both who its potential distributors might be (Columbia or American International Pictures) and where the distributor would rent the film (mostly drive-ins and grind houses). These expectations helped to determine the movie's horrific production design and to shape the antiracist polemic it impresses upon the youthful, politically skeptical spectator that characterized that era and those venues. For example, Night was shot in black and white both because Image Ten could only afford 35 mm black-and-white or 16 mm color film stock and because American International Pictures was still distributing black-and-white creature-features in the late 1960s. Consequently, the movie uses its gray scale thematically to give its production design a banal realism that Technicolor or Eastman Color could not produce. In that regard the black-and-white cinematography affirms the narrative's intertextual relationship with the television news reports that pepper the second half of the film, since in 1968 most television news reporting was still filmed in black and white. Shooting Night in black and white thus allowed the zombies to appear verisimilar to their spectator, no more or less real than the scientists, policemen, and military officers in the film's news reports and the actual televisual violence viewers saw at home every night. Furthermore, while the film uses contemporary televisual trends and aesthetics to interpellate its spectator, it also plays on the stillness inherent to the filmstrip's imitation of life and thereby prompts her to question both the mimetic power of the motion picture and media representations of US racism and violence.
Night of the Living Dead's microcosm of US violence thus reflects not only its filmmakers' budgetary constraints and aspirational distribution platform (film) but also the ideological investments they wish to pass on to the viewer. These influences emerge in the opening sequence and in depictions of the main characters, and they come to political fruition during the climactic murder of Ben (Duane Jones), the movie's African American hero. Close attention to the formal construction of the introductory sequence also reveals how the movie uses drive-in exhibition norms to introduce the spectator into its eventual critique of Americans' appetitive self-interest. The movie begins on an open road like the ones that led its viewers to their open-air theaters, but this shot also suggests a sly nod to the filmmakers' promise that, if necessary, they would distribute their movie by delivering it from drive-in to drive-in themselves. Night's abandoned dirt road snakes through Pennsylvania farmland, and its gray scale provides dire contrast for Romero's deep staging and grim-if banal-rural setting. As the camera lingers for thirty-seven seconds, a car almost imperceptibly crests the horizon and slowly winds its way across the landscape before passing the camera and transporting its occupants into zombie territory. The black-and-white stock gives this shot a startlingly bleak realism that cannot but recall the bland, gray Kansas of Victor Fleming's Wizard of Oz (1939). The monochrome also obscures the movement of the gray car along the gray road until it is almost upon the spectator. The shot thus initiates all three of the aesthetic techniques Romero will exploit during his drive-in zombie movie: banal production designs that underscore the horror lurking in the mundane American countryside, classical Hollywood deep focus that employs multilayered blocking to heighten the movie's suspense, and a static camera that frames movement and violence for a seemingly objective, documentary effect. These artistic choices allow Romero to present both his zombies and his living characters as American horrors; they encourage the spectator to recognize Romero's monsters as her family and neighbors at their most ignoble and most base.
Given the complicity of production design, cinematography, and framing in a movie's mise-en-scène, however, one can hardly isolate them or analyze them fruitfully out of context; indeed, it is their imbrication and cooperation that draw the spectator into Night of the Living Dead's horror and social critique. Together these techniques characterize Romero's nightmare as distinctly American in both style and setting, as iconic yet mundane locations and props belie the surreal horrors that Romero records along the "one-directional axis of 'deep-focus' cinema that emerged in the mid-to-late 1940s." As the movie's heroine, Barbara (Judith O'Dea), flees to a nearby farmhouse to escape the first zombie attack, the movie blends its deep focus with canted camera angles and incongruous framing devices and thereby increases the spectator's investment in Barbara's plight. These techniques emphasize the uncanny horror of Barbara's homecoming by implying that it will not turn out as planned-or that it was not preplanned, that it was captured live, like television. After she finds the front door locked, Barbara turns and runs downhill toward the camera, careening around the house to locate its kitchen door. Romero records this mad dash from a tilted low angle that increases the spectator's empathetic anxiety while also implying both avant-garde artistry and an inexperienced cameraman following events as they happen.
As Barbara approaches the camera, its slight left tilt positions the porch columns at an angle with the frame's edge, implying that the cinematographer had not had time to line up his shot before Barbara appeared. Indeed, it looks as if the cameraman just barely slid into place before Barbara ran toward him. This angle initiates a highly stylized cinematography that nonetheless conveys haphazard realism thanks to the film's frenetic pace and banal domestic setting. Yet despite this documentary illusion, Barbara's run has obviously been carefully choreographed for the camera; she runs right to it, trips directly in front of it, and then climbs uphill away from it so that it can record her alongside the imposing facade of the house that is her only hope. In short, it utilizes "the linear perspective employed in pre-widescreen films" that John Belton sees encouraging "the spectator's eyes, via depth cues, to explore the depth of the frame." In this case it also prompts the spectator to accept Barbara's plight as real, an important impression for the film's subsequent critique of indexical media.
Night of the Living Dead continues to influence the spectator with metaphoric framing and blocking strategies after it moves inside the farmhouse. There, deep blocking and deep focus exacerbate the claustrophobia and desperate attention to television that drive the interpersonal tensions, accelerate the narrative, and build the political allegory. After Barbara makes it into the abandoned farmhouse, she is joined by Ben, Harry and Helen Cooper (Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman), their daughter Karen (Kyra Schon), and the young lovers Tom and Judy (Keith Wayne and Judith Ridley). Tempers flare when both Harry and Ben try to become "boss" of the group, and the dangers within the house soon rival those outside. These hostilities come into focus through Romero's layered blocking and perspectival use of screen space. By packing as many people into a shot as possible, Romero communicates that the dangers of human society can be just as lethal as those of the undead (a point of irony that later becomes the movie's moral). Thus, when the adults gather to watch a television news report, Romero stacks his characters in three levels of action that precisely mimic the social hierarchy that Harry is at that moment describing and eventually leads to their undoing.
In the foreground Ben and Tom discuss their escape plan. As boss, Ben looms over Tom while granting Tom permission to drive his truck, but Tom occupies the center of the screen as he reveals the redemptive potential of his automotive skills. Frustrated by his distance from the central action, Harry paces through the midground; although his body is partially blocked by Tom's, his shadow nonetheless crawls up the wall toward Ben. Furthermore, Harry's head peaks out above and to the left of Tom's, so although Tom may be second in command for this mission, Harry's mutinous desire to rise to the top of their triangle remains visible. It is not clear whether Harry resents Tom's leadership because Harry is racist or merely egotistical, but Romero's depth of field vividly captures the danger of even such ambiguous antipathy. Finally, Barbara sits on the couch in the background and stares silently up at Harry while visibly leaning toward Ben. Barbara's seated position and passive slouch convey the inferior role allotted to women in this movie. Her role as a helpless observer also mirrors the spectator's; unlike Tom and Ben, who look only at each other, Barbara sees Harry's frustrated aggression but is too immobilized by shock and fear to intervene. She can only sit and watch as the tensions she witnesses hasten her group's downfall.
Such iconic blocking gains significance from its context in the film, specifically from Romero's efforts to balance it with more conventional single and double shots, although these, too, are thematically loaded to make the spectator aware of her distance from the violence she witnesses. For example, during the same scene, Romero records a static ninety-degree shot of Helen as she struggles with how best to communicate her daughter's illness to Ben without associating Karen with a recent, alarming news report about cannibalism. Helen's indecision occupies the middle of a screen divided between black and white; significantly, the black half of the screen is composed of a wooden door and the edge of a television set from which Helen apparently cannot look away. Furthermore, just as the TV is framed for Helen, the door and its jamb frame Helen and her fixation on the TV.
This shot of Helen almost exactly recreates an earlier shot of the newscaster himself (Charles Craig). The newscaster also appears on a stage divided into black-and-white halves, but whereas Helen is framed by a doorway, he is boxed in by a television frame. Because both the television set and Night of the Living Dead possess Academy aspect ratios (1.33:1) and because they are both black and white, the newscaster's reality appears as only a slightly diminished version of Helen's. This diminishment reminds the spectator that Helen's reality contains this newscast, a point Romero reinforces by providing the characters with an eyeline match. This formal cue reaffirms the liveness and relevancy of the news for Helen, and as a result, the film itself becomes more believable for the spectator. That is, the director uses his mise-en-scène and editing to assert that the TV news report is as real for the characters as their own experiences, which means that their experiences are also as real as the TV news report-or TV news reports in general. Any objection that zombies are not realistic monsters only strengthens Romero's political critique, moreover, because it echoes the distance that domestic viewers might insert between themselves and the almost surreal violence depicted in late 1960s TV news reports (the civil rights assaults, the Vietnam War). As a film that looks like the news, Night of the Living Dead prompts its spectator to critique "real" TV viewers-herself included-who dissociate themselves from the events they see on the news.
Night of the Living Dead extends its critique of viewer skepticism and isolationism by questioning the documentary potential of the filmic image, particularly its ability to record and report reality. After the farmhouse occupants die one by one during the night, Ben retreats alone to the basement to wait out the zombie invasion. In the morning he wakes to the sound of gunshots: the same vigilante army he and the others observed on TV is now approaching his hideout. As Ben stares transfixed at the approaching posse, one of its members-presumably mistaking our hero for a zombie-takes aim and shoots Ben between the eyes. In this moment Ben's race, which is never mentioned throughout the movie, codes his execution as a racist assassination. Lest this irony fail to solicit the spectator's antiracist outrage, a sudden shift in cinematography goes on to frame Ben's death as a lynching. As Ben falls backward and the mob's leader calls, "Ok, he's dead.... That's another one for the fire," Romero's clear deep focus gives way to a series of grainy still images, although the movie maintains an eerie illusion of motion by panning the camera over the photographs while snatches of diegetic dialogue provide narrative context.
These stills, which literally seem to arrest the motion of the picture at the moment of its protagonist's death, invoke two cinematic precedents that also use still images to arrest history. Night's interplay of stills and soundtrack evokes Chris Marker's La jetée (1962), which envisions life after a World War III apocalypse as a series of still frames, while the camera's movement over the still images recalls Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe (1964), another atomic disaster movie that renders its bomb explosion as a series of black-and-white photographs.Both of these apocalyptic precedents suggest that the motion of a motion picture is tied to the imitation of life, such that when life as we know it ends, motion also comes to a halt, even if the narrative continues. After Ben dies, the story advances (Ben is incinerated on a zombie bonfire) but without a protagonist, without a point of character identification to help the spectator invest in its futurity.
Furthermore, the stills change the texture of the film. Their composition is nearly two-dimensional, and their grain has been distorted through cheese-cloth printing until it resembles the dot-print haziness of newspaper photography. By interrupting the deep-focus perspective and clarity the spectator has enjoyed thus far, the closing stills disrupt the spectator's primary and secondary identification-with the look of the camera and the protagonist, respectively. At this-the most devastating moment in Night of the Living Dead's narrative-the stills wrench the spectator from her established place in the cinematic apparatus to awaken her to the movie's political allegory. In its stillness and graininess the movie's final shot of Ben resembles a lynching photo. There is bitter irony in this allusion, however, since the reference also reminds the spectator that like most acts of twentieth-century racist violence, Ben's death will not be recorded or reported. Instead, Ben's killers burn his body amid a pile of anonymous cadavers in a backyard bonfire that returns a few flickers of live action to the final frames of Night of the Living Dead.
This return to motion is the crux of Night of the Living Dead's political and spectatorial project, because it melds Romero's critique of US racism and media depiction of violence with an interest in its own format and the viewer's experience thereof. The transition out of and back into motion (over the course of a murder that will never be reported) exposes the material limitations of film, and by extension television news and newspaper photography, to capture and communicate real violence. In Death 24x a Second Laura Mulvey suggests that "within the aesthetics of cinema, the presence of stillness, particularly the stillness of the photograph, necessarily brings with it a threat to the credibility of the moving image itself." Mulvey focuses on how filmic stillness reveals the cinema's tenuous connection to live action; as her title suggests, she finds death to be the truth that Jean-Luc Godard claimed that cinema reveals twenty-four times a second. In contrast Romero's still images represent death to cast aspersions on the motion picture's capacity to convey truth. Romero's still frames call into question the credibility of his motion picture at the moment it visually imitates and stands in for other communications platforms. He questions his own medium, in other words, to cast doubt on the verisimilar potential and political investments of mass media. Notably, Romero does not repeat this technique in his subsequent zombie films, which are less focused on media critique. However, his repetition of internally iconic shots in Diary of the Dead recalls the still frame's challenge to filmic truth-claims and similarly empowers Romero's challenge to digital media cultures.
Finally, one can also read Night of the Living Dead's last scene as an abstract contemplation of film as the format of the living dead. As Mulvey notes, the movies manifest "in the act of halting the flow of film, then returning it to movement and vitality ... [a] long-standing fascination with the human body's mutation from animate to inanimate and vice versa." This observation helps explain how the zombie becomes an avatar of cinematic time for Romero. Like a zombie, film makes uncanny life out of what is known to be dead. Night turns this uncanniness into a fictional monstrosity, but it is because filmic motion is uncanny in its own right that Romero is able to make Ben's death the most traumatic in his zombie movie. Ben never becomes one of the living dead diegetically, and therefore when he becomes one formally-caught in the still frame of what ought to be (and, of course, still is) a motion picture-his undeath connotes the monstrosity of the medium, including its ability to preserve and exhibit violence (like a lynching photo).
Romero's stills thus use the form of filmic projection (i.e., a series of still images) to turn the zombie into a metonym for the horror of cinema, a commentary on the medium's illusion and unsettling promise of immortality. It allows the cinema's imitation of life to become profoundly uncanny for the spectator. As Mulvey observes, albeit of automata, "it is as though the movement of the mechanical figure suggested that of the other, the projector, which should have remained hidden." In Night of the Living Dead it is the zombie that reveals how the projector returned life to death; to borrow Raymond Bellour's description of the automata in Federico Fellini's Casanova (1976), "the figure's movements, slightly jerky and unfinished with a rigid posture, made its body one with the movement of the film, on which it left a kind of wound." Like the robot, the zombie lumbers through the movement of film, reminding the spectator of the latter's imperfect imitation of life. With Night of the Living Dead this reminder has a political purpose. It teaches the spectator to attend to the limits of mass media-including television and still photography-and question any claims that they convey the truth about US racism and violence.
Apocalypse Mall: Dawn of the Dead and Technicolor Consumerism
In 1978 Romero returned the United States to its zombie apocalypse, but this time he projected it into a shopping mall multiplex and used color, specifically a vivid Technicolor that thematizes the movie's condemnation of both consumer culture and American racism. Furthermore, Romero matches his Technicolor nod to 1970s exhibition spaces with new widescreen compositions, here in the service of outrageous special effects. These tableaux also take inspiration from and pay homage to the overt visual sarcasm of 1950s horror comics, specifically Entertainment Comics' Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, which use parody to associate gore with progressive social critique. As in Night of the Living Dead, however, Romero's satiric manipulations of his medium, his aggressively Technicolor palette and shallow widescreen framing, galvanize a politically complacent spectator with anticonsumerist energy. For when Romero moves his zombies from the black-and-white film stock, deep-focus photography, and Academy aspect ratio available to him in 1968 to the Technicolor, widescreen possibilities of 1978, their new platform enables them to affect the spectator in new ways. Romero uses his cartoonish Technicolor tableaux to produce a political reaction in the viewer, anger at contemporaneous racist police violence and scorn for the color-saturated, shallow consumerism of the new indoor malls popping up along the outskirts of US cities.
Dawn of the Dead opens on a field of rust red that establishes color's nightmarish function for the rest of the picture. Underneath the title card, Fran (Gaylen Ross) sleeps against a blood-colored shag carpet wall before she and the movie awaken to chaos. Her Philadelphia television studio is collapsing under the strain of a weeklong zombie siege, most of the city's former rescue stations are now inoperable, and the government has declared martial law. SWAT teams are being sent to roust out those still hiding in private residences or refusing to dispose properly of their dead. Before Dawn unveils this postapocalyptic police state, however, its first shot prompts the spectator to become attentive to its dramatic use of color and widescreen framing as these will presently change her perception of its zombies. Fran sleeps curled up in a corner, but the bright red carpet overshadows perspectival depth and foreshadows the ways in which color will replace deep blocking as a political tool in Romero's zombie sequel. Furthermore, the very width of this shot (1.85:1), when taken in conjunction with the collapse of perspective, indicates that Romero has a new compositional strategy for Dawn of the Dead. As John Belton suggests, widescreen exhibition changed directors' framing and blocking techniques from unidirectional to bidirectional (from depth to depth-and-width), and here Romero's field of red prefigures how expanses of color and gore will help shape spectators in his coming films.
As the movie progresses, Dawn of the Dead uses its Technicolor palette to encourage spectators to denounce the violence it portrays by highlighting the role skin color plays in US law enforcement. During the SWAT sequence a team of police officers breaks up an interracial tenement collective who are trying to hold on to their deceased, and the movie uses its intensity of color to critique institutionalized racism. As the SWAT attack begins, the collective's African American and Puerto Rican leaders emerge to face the police on their roof. The predominantly white SWAT teams immediately open fire and quickly transform their police action into a racist massacre. Two of the officers, Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott H. Reinger), are visibly disgusted by this farcical show of power, and their dereliction of duty provides the spectator with liberal avatars through which to observe the first zombie attack. Their interracial alliance-Peter is African American, Roger Caucasian-eventually propels them into Dawn's ensemble of shopping-mall refugees, but first they lead the spectator through an initial zombie bloodbath during which the zombies' blue-tinged skin emphasizes and parodies their racist persecution.
After Peter and Roger independently lose faith in their civic duties, they meet in the basement and find the locker where the living have been storing their dead. Through one of Romero's few handheld, point-of-view shots, Peter and the spectator take in the full-color carnage of a former community reduced to cannibalism. Peter's antiracist and antiauthoritarian perspective guides the spectator's look when she finally gets a chance to see Dawn of the Dead's zombies and to observe that they are not just colored blue, and a politically significant shade of blue at that. Their skin visually recalls the blue of the police who are persecuting them and other people of color. In short, the transparency of the blue makeup over the actors' brown skin invokes the history of racism in US police violence (not to mention US film). Dawn's special effects artist, Tom Savini, has always sworn that the zombies' makeup was gray, not blue, but every transfer of the movie's Technicolor master overemphasizes their color. In short, these are blue zombies for the spectator, regardless of the color intended by their makeup artist. Police violence and racism are literally painted onto the zombie state, as their color also stands in for the colors of all the racial minorities oppressed by US law and order.
Technicolor thus enables Dawn of the Dead to flesh out the racism and classism that Night's black-and-white cinematography suggests but does not articulate. In Night of the Living Dead none of the characters mentions Ben's race, and the color of his skin cannot be conveyed by the celluloid; he may appear darker, recognizable as African American, but he is not "colored." So while Night guides its spectator toward condemning US racist violence by championing a black protagonist and aligning his destruction with the immoral violence of southern lynch mobs, Dawn uses color to prompt similar critiques of US racism and racist police violence. In addition, the zombies' precise shade of blue recalls how the Philadelphia police also famously overemphasized race in their 1978 attack on the African American MOVE collective. Romero may not have intended this scene to parody actual Philadelphian racism, but for some viewers Dawn's painted zombies satirize the political whitewashing that refused to acknowledge the racism behind the attacks on MOVE and still refuses to acknowledge how white US culture continues to depict blackness as monstrosity.
This antiracist use of color also politicizes the zombies' relationship to Dawn of the Dead's other color-saturated fetish object: human gore. The vivid red of the movie's fake blood contrasts with the zombies' blue-tinged skin, which helps the spectator take in every abject drop. As Brian Price points out, "we perceive color relationally, such that the juxtaposition of two colors determines the colors we perceive." Thus the surreally red blood, emphasized through its contrast with the satirically blue skin, makes the very splatter of this splatter movie part of its political agenda; human flesh becomes another commodity in Dawn's consumer culture, just as black skin once connoted a commodity object in the US slave trade. So if, as John McCarty maintains, "splatter movies, offshoots of the horror film genre, aim not to scare their audiences, necessarily, nor to drive them to the edges of their seats in suspense, but to mortify them with scenes of explicit gore," then the contrast of the red blood with the politicized blue skin makes that mortification tendentious. That is, it reminds the spectator that the United States has a history of consuming people and suggests that contemporary appetites for commodities and gore are continuations of that immoral exploitation. Dawn's color symbolism is not often discussed in its criticism, however, possibly because it pushes beyond film studies' limited experience talking about color. A historically "chromophobic" discipline has difficulty discussing the ways in which celluloid color technologies imbricate the spectator in the history of US racism, which means that it also cannot discuss what happens when those technologies subsequently become unavailable or are replaced by digital color correction, as in Land of the Dead.
One needs to acknowledge the effects of color on the spectator in order to appreciate Dawn of the Dead's antiracist polemic, as well as its most renowned political parody, its send-up of 1970s mall culture. After Peter, Roger, Fran, and her boyfriend, Stephen (David Emge), escape Philadelphia in a helicopter, they find temporary refuge in a newly constructed indoor shopping mall just outside Pittsburgh. Their fortress is eventually breeched by looters, however, and reclaimed by the zombies, who are drawn to it for reasons the survivors are unable to explain (although Peter conjectures that perhaps they remember the mall as the most important place in their lives, when they had them). During the zombies' bloody return, the red of their victims' gore precisely matches prominent signs and sales displays around the mall. However, the red blood and red signs are only one example of the many ways in which the zombies' bloodstains, blue skin, and bright ensembles parody the mall's electric colors and ethos of consumption for the spectator. Although Robin Wood claims that "the zombies' significance in both films depends entirely on their relationship to the main characters," figuratively their primary relationship is with the mall. The zombies also appear more at home amid the mall's bright colors and artificial decor than do the living, at least until the living begin to succumb to consumerism. After Fran and company secure the mall and begin to experiment with its consumer utopia, they also begin to resemble zombies. When the refugees first move into their mall, the movie crosscuts between zombies and mannequins, the quintessential (and equally undead-looking) mall denizens. Fran adds herself to this equation when she makes herself up like a mannequin to mirror the death-in-life of her mall life. Taken together, these two sequences suggest that Fran is turning into another kind of zombie, a blunt metaphor for her experience of commodified femininity.
Dawn of the Dead subsequently reveals that the mall's influence on Peter is no less profound, and once again it exploits the spectator's identification with the protagonists to turn her against consumer culture. Once inside the mall, Peter seems to forget the black brotherhood he eulogized while flying out of Philadelphia and becomes a mouthpiece for superstitious (and thus stereotypical) theories of the zombie apocalypse: "You know Macumba? Vodoun. My granddad was a priest in Trinidad. He used to tell us, 'When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth.'" Peter delivers this line dressed in a gigantic fur coat that literally adds heft to his pronouncement and sinks it into racist caricature through its association with vodoun, pimp culture, and blaxploitation clichés. Later on, Peter descends further into stereotype by becoming a servant to Stephen and Fran's white futurity. After Roger dies from a zombie bite and the three survivors begin to wallow in mall ennui, Peter arranges a romantic dinner in the furniture store as an occasion for Stephen to propose to Fran. When Fran asks Peter where his plate is, he bows demurely and tells her this meal is just for them. Peter's complicity in his servitude seems intended to offend the spectator, and it signals a susceptibility to the mall's corrupting influence that Peter must overcome to survive. Buying into consumerism is the beginning of the end for all of Dawn's characters, and Stephen later dies because he cannot bear to share his mall with the looters. Thus Peter's complicity in these scenes does not signal an endorsement of the racist stereotypes they exhibit; rather, it dramatizes the insidious power of consumerism to engender stereotypes and stereotypical behavior in the most courageous and intelligent of people.
Finally, Dawn of the Dead amplifies its political argument by rejecting naturalism in favor of more metaphoric and satiric visual systems. In contrast with the desaturated Eastman Color of most 1970s films, Romero's Technicolor captures the giddy excess of consumer culture while also subtly (perhaps optimistically) marking its obsolescence. While Dawn's color palette does evoke the surreal saturation of 1930s Technicolor and contemporary consumer culture, it also recalls the three-color satiric excesses of 1950s horror comics. In ways both direct and allusive Romero's color, framing, and cut-on-action editing repeat shots and motifs from Entertainment (or EC) Comics, which also frequently featured zombies in stories about corruption, greed, and self-interest and give Dawn of the Dead the vocabulary it needs to articulate a new relationship to time and stillness. Comic books provide Romero with a visual language to contemplate his medium-specific widescreen tableaux and interpellate the viewer as both a spectator and a consumer, thus implicating her in the system it critiques while also inviting her to reject it.
The most explicit example of EC's influence on Dawn of the Dead appears in the film's iconic splatter effects, which are composed of nearly still shots of tightly framed subjects. The movie cuts rapidly between these images to keep its pace exhilarating and its fiction believable. The bloodiest sequences demonstrate a tendency to cut on action, like a comic book, which similarly implies movement through the gutters between panels. For example, in one scene in which a looter embeds a machete in a zombie's head, Romero cuts between images from each step in the looter's attack to present the final blow as a homage to the cover of a particularly controversial issue of The Vault of Horror. This machete scene is one of the most famous and revered moments in Dawn, and its notoriety makes it an ideal case study in how Romero adapts the temporal logic of comic books to filmic violence. The scene begins with a seven-second low-angle shot of Blades (Tom Savini) kicking an anonymous zombie to the floor and then unsheathing his machete as he advances on the now-prostrate ghoul. When Blades steps on its chest and readies his knife, the camera cuts to an almost frozen one-second point-of-view shot of the zombie under Blades's foot. A cut on the axis of action then shifts focalization to the zombie; this position offers the spectator a half-second, shallow-focus image of Blades's face and knife. Resuming Blades's perspective, the camera then takes a high-angle perspective on the zombie's still head and Blades's machete embedded halfway into its forehead. Finally, the camera adjusts for another close-up of Blades's reaction, this time from a defocalized low angle, before cutting to a three-second long shot of his retreat. Dawn thus composes the attack from a series of almost still compositions, each of which captures one step in an action sequence. Within each shot the camera remains stationary, and, at the height of the action, each passes by so quickly that any physical movement within the mise-en-scène becomes minimal. Instead, the narrative advances through the cuts, just as comics advance their plots through the gutters, and the spectator learns how to appreciate the art of splatter cinema as an extension of liberal comics conventions.
Furthermore, Romero's comic book editing also critiques consumer culture like a zombie-that is, in a jerky manner that reveals the movie and the consumer-spectator to be both dead and alive. Like Romero's symbolic color saturation, the EC-style editing forges a splatter spectator who never forgets that Dawn of the Dead is a commercial object. This technique makes consumerism not just the subject of the movie but a calculated component of the spectatorial experience as well. In short, Dawn encourages its viewer to identify with her look not only as spectator but also as consumer. Like a zombie or a mall walker, she devours the stimulation that passes before her. Dawn thereby reminds its spectator that she can learn to be critical of spectacle, too, if she can begin to recognize the limitations of its shallow, gaudy values.
Boxed In: Day of the Dead and the Beginning of Romero's Video Aesthetic
Dawn of the Dead's splatter cinema proved popular enough on the midnight-movie circuit that its distributor, United Film Distribution Company, offered Romero a three-picture contract on the condition that one of those films be a sequel to Dawn. That film, Day of the Dead, failed to achieve anything like Dawn's box-office success; it may have suffered from exhibitors' growing aversion to unrated movies, or monster movies may have become outmoded, replaced by the slasher flick, but for whatever reason, Day played in only 168 theaters in the United States and ultimately had to find viewers through the emerging home video market. Video rights were one of the most important sources of new film financing in the 1980s and were key to keeping independent producers like United Film in business. For that reason Day of the Dead's theatrical flop should not necessarily suggest it was unpopular or a failure; maybe it just was not a film. By 1985 independent film production was already deeply invested in video and video viewers, and that investment surfaces in Romero's new embrace of rack focus, over-the-shoulder shots, and a subdued, over-dyed color palette that does not bleed out on video. These techniques welcome the VCR spectator into the claustrophobia of Day's antimilitary dystopia about a shrinking society trapped underground on a scientific-military mission gone mad. They also facilitate Romero's first attempt to articulate his zombies as a class, the hoi polloi of horror films. This social critique displaces the antiracist polemic of Romero's previous zombie films, but it is made possible by a new address to the spectator, who hereafter finds herself first invited then impelled to identify with Romero's monsters.
After a brief foray into its protagonist's dream life, Day of the Dead opens on a world consumed by zombies, one in which the former hallmarks of US culture, such as paper money, no longer mean anything. To introduce the end of the world as we know it, Romero superimposes his own credit over a long shot of an abandoned theater, effectively predicting the imminent obsolescence of the theatrical box office (which would be overtaken by video returns approximately two years later). The theater is named after Thomas Edison, one of the fathers of commercial cinema. Given that Edison first envisioned his Kinetoscope as a home-entertainment device, one can read this homage both as a good-bye to cinema and an acknowledgment that film exhibition is returning to one of its origins. Day then cuts from the abandoned theater to the remains of a severely decayed corpse, further emphasizing the death of cinephilia (no one goes to the movies anymore), and the subsequent cut-from the corpse to a drift of one dollar bills blowing past a palm frond implies that the cinema did not die alone; the whole financial and social system that supported it has become outmoded. The increasing closeness of each shot also offers the spectator a figural metaphor for Romero's technological and aesthetic evolution. Because most of Day of the Dead takes place in a military bunker underneath the Florida Everglades, the deep focus long shots that characterize Night of the Living Dead and the panoramic tableaux that give Dawn's mall its satirical grandeur will now be all but impossible. Romero's long shot of the theater bids farewell to both an old venue and an old filmmaking practice-in short, an out-of-date apparatus. His medium shot of the skeleton and close-up on the useless money transition the cinematic spectator into the new, more intimate (soon to be claustrophobic) scale of Day, a scale allegedly more suited to video's limited resolution.
Once Day of the Dead begins, Romero accentuates its claustrophobia and encourages the video spectator to identify with his protagonists and revile his antagonists by using shallow and rack focus to collapse screen space. Day follows a team of civilian scientists and technicians, led by Sarah (Lori Cardille) and John (Terry Alexander), as they try to locate an explanation or cure for the zombie phenomenon while enduring the taunts and threats of their increasingly irrational army guard. These two groups hide from the zombies in a subterranean military storage facility, a setting that allows Romero to simplify his sets for better videoability. In comparison with Dawn of the Dead's kaleidoscope of commercial color saturation, Day's backgrounds seem monochromatic and empty. They generally appear out of focus, as if there were no longer anyone or anything left to look at back there. This shallow focus and similarly shallow blocking might seem designed to disguise the low resolution of the average 1980s television monitor, but in fact even interlaced cathode-ray monitors were capable of far greater resolution than Day requires. In short, Romero's empty sets represent not analog home video's actual limits but rather its popular perception. The movie exploits common gripes about television and video to include the video spectator in a new zombie politics.
As I mentioned earlier, Day of the Dead exploits the alleged shortcomings of televisuality to involve its spectator in its antimilitary polemic. The deep browns of the cave walls and bland grays of their offices employ color palettes and saturation levels similar to the characters' earth-tone wardrobes, a color scheme that facilitates a more accurate, less distorted video image. Analog videotapes have a smaller contrast ratio than celluloid-40:1 as compared to 130:1-and many critics complain that early film-to-video transfers look either "murky" or "washed out." Day anticipates this concern-and appeases its video spectator-through its production design. Its characters' fatigue-green military apparel can contrast with the cave walls by virtue of hue and backlighting, but their subdued colors do not "bleed out" or compromise the crispness of the image on video. This tonal uniformity helps draw Day's spectator into the claustrophobic underground bunker, where vision is limited and unreliable. In short, Day is murky by both distributive and ideological design. In the bunker, signs of authority-like military uniforms-now represent threats. Day thereby codes its soldiers as part of the zombie dystopia, suggesting that military colors and the end of civilization work well together, at least on video (or in the eyes of George Romero).
Day of the Dead also interpellates a video spectator by shortening its depth of focus; indeed, it is the first movie in which Romero shifts the planes of sharp and soft focus within a shot, a practice known as pulling or racking focus. Racking focus guides the spectator's look and tells her how to interpret the characters and the movie. In Day, specifically, it prompts the spectator to sympathize with certain characters, to recognize their shared human condition and identify with them over others-just as the planar hierarchies of power did in Night of the Living Dead. To that end, racking focus guides the spectator to identify with Romero's emerging zombie class even as it also discourages her from identifying with Day's African American protagonist, John. The character of John is never as well developed as either Ben or Peter, and scenes like the one in which Sarah goes into shock after amputating her boyfriend's arm push the spectator to consider John a secondary character. Although Day has already established Sarah as its protagonist, the scene begins with her outside the plane of focus, which directs the spectator's attention toward John as he tries to discern how traumatized-and how much of a liability-Sarah might be. During this evaluation, shallow focus all but commands the spectator to identify with John, but when John begins to talk Sarah back to her previous composure, the camera repositions itself behind John's shoulder, placing his body out of focus and reorganizing the mise-en-scène around Sarah. Sarah was always the emotional focus of the scene, of course, but rack focus increases the video spectator's investment in Sarah's mental health by ruling out all other concerns-including John's. Therefore, when Sarah steps forward to hug John and the plane of focus advances with her so that she and John finally share the screen, the spectator enjoys their newfound alliance because rack focus has taught her how to have faith in the movie's heroine.
In short, rack focus both directs affective focus and promotes a hierarchy of allegiances, a spectatorial politics that can be radical or hegemonic. It uses the spectator's primary identification with her own look to encourage her secondary identification first with John (as he and the spectator make up their minds about Sarah's mental health) and then with Sarah. Once Sarah begins to compose herself, the spectator's focus immediately returns to her, and a white narrative order is restored. Each shot in the sequence thus orients the spectator's attention around Sarah's pain and discourages her from considering how John feels about risking his life and alienating his military protection in order to save Sarah. By keeping the focus on Sarah and bringing John into definition only when he is thinking about or comforting her, Day of the Dead privileges the white woman's emotional reaction-which in this case is also her most feminine moment-over the black man's personal sacrifice, only allowing him to join her in focus when he can offer her a shoulder to cry on.
Even as rack focus prompts the spectator to dismiss John's subjectivity, however, it also marks the zombies as a new, politically meaningful site for secondary identification. Day of the Dead introduces most of its zombies as scientific subjects that Sarah and her colleague, the mad Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty), test for a cure or, barring that, domestication. Of these subjects, Bub (Howard Sherman) is by far the most advanced, the most subjectified. As Bub shows increasing signs of civilization and consciousness, Romero shoots him in increasingly shallow focus, making him increasingly available for spectatorial identification and investment. The spectator first spots Bub when he lumbers out of a dark corner of Dr. Logan's lab to attack Sarah; out of focus and eyes covered by shadow, he is only recognizable as a threat to the heroine. Later on, as Bub learns to imitate some of the hallmarks of US social etiquette, the camera begins to treat him like a character rather than just a monster. Bub starts to appear in focus in long and medium shots; eventually, he even gets three-point lighting although his eyes remain obscured in shadows beneath his hooded brow. Then when Bub becomes a subject-when he recognizes Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" on a tape deck-the movie signals his epiphany by making him formally available for spectatorial identification. This transition follows video rather than cinematic conventions, or rather popular suppositions about videoability. Specifically, Romero uses Bub's blue skin, which stands but does not bleed out against the murky gray laboratory walls behind him, to emphasize his rise to consciousness. In a close-up of Bub's astonished face, the shallow focus and general blue hue of the images draw the spectator's attention to Bub's eyes. His bright white sclera, pink lids, and the subjectivity they imply contrast with the relatively cool tone and subdued color saturation of the rest of the shot. The eyes are windows to the soul, it seems, and now that Bub has recovered the latter, Romero makes sure the viewer can see the former. Videoability thus provides the means for Day to involve the spectator in the evolution of zombie consciousness, in the first hint that zombies might be both "the great unwashed of horror cinema" and people, too.
In addition, the conventions of videoability catalyze a significant change in the way Day tries to scare the spectator during its zombie attacks. After John rushes into the nether regions of the cave to save Sarah and Billy (Jarlath Conroy) during their final escape from the military compound, he pauses to reload his gun and inadvertently becomes the target of a zombie attack. While the camera focuses on John, this zombie stays out of focus until the moment he gurgles and John notices him, at which point Day of the Dead cuts to a point-of-view close-up of the monster. This point-of-view shot is important, but the camera's initial shallow focus on John has already placed the spectator's sympathy with the character in unprecedented ways for Romero. Just as it did during John's emotional exchange with Sarah, shallow focus directs the spectator to empathy-in this case toward John's dangerous obliviousness. It prompts the spectator to worry for John because he does not yet know how worried he should be. Shallow focus thus changes the emotional tenor of the zombie attack. In both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead zombies pursue their victims in deep-focus long shots that allow the spectator to see the zombie and the potential victim equally clearly. These setups lead the spectator to sympathize with the imminent victims, as deep focus and its attendant possibility for vision code the victim's obliviousness as a failure. Together they suggest that the zombie should be as visible to the character as it is to the spectator, thereby encouraging the spectator to judge the victims (not to mention the society to which they belong). Day's shallow focus, on the other hand, creates a greater sense of collusion and collectivity by acknowledging that sometimes these ghouls are rather hard to spot.
Day of the Dead's attack scenes thus mark a radical departure from Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and what now appears to have been a uniquely cinematic convention in zombie cinematography. While it would be a mistake to resort to the intentional fallacy and ask why Romero chose to change the focus of his zombie attacks, we can observe that this new strategy encourages the spectator to feel afraid on the character's behalf, to empathize with him. The older shots meanwhile present the character as a dupe, so that the spectator's anxious pleasure must come from wondering whether Barbara et al. will notice their imminent demise in time. Romero's shift to shallow-focus attacks thus reinforces the affective significance of the technique generally and Bub's shallow focus in particular, for in drawing the spectator into an identification with the character, shallow focus also tells her what gets to count as human. In short, shallow focus replaces the zombie series' former interest in race with a smaller-scale investment in individual zombie consciousness, a move in keeping with contemporaneous understandings of small-screen exhibition.
Land of the Dead, Home of the DVD: Romero's Digital Politics
It took Romero twenty years to realize Bub's promise that zombies were going to look a little different from now on, but his subjective potential was eventually brought to fruition by Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), the African American zombie hero of Land of the Dead, who merges Romero's interest in zombies as a class with his earlier condemnations of US racism. Land marked Romero's dramatic reentry into mainstream filmmaking; his only other contribution to twenty-first-century movie culture was Bruiser (2000), a direct-to-video slasher about a man whose life becomes so alienating that he loses first his face (which is replaced by a white, featureless mask) and then his sanity. While Bruiser is neither aesthetically nor narratively exceptional, its existence points to a new approach to distribution for the director, perhaps even an acknowledgment that film is no longer the dominant medium of motion pictures. As early as the mid-1980s, Romero began to idealize video's distributive possibilities, for after he was forced to rewrite Day of the Dead for a smaller budget owing to MPAA censorship and theatrical competition, he became increasingly concerned about the disappearance of adventuresome theatrical distributors. The director openly acknowledged shooting Land of the Dead with an eye toward its DVD release; in fact, he admitted well before its premiere that his Land would never appear in theaters. Speaking to "crazed fanboy" Drew Reiber, Romero explained that because "there is no distribution company [today] that can actually get you screens" for an unrated movie, he would compromise on a theatrical version of Land in order to guarantee the DVD release of his director's cut. Hence, for US audiences the cinematic Land of the Dead represents an artistic concession made to ensure his movie would eventually find a DVD spectator. So whereas Day of the Dead reflects the growing prominence of VHS in 1980s independent filmmaking (not to mention the growing prominence of the military-industrial complex in Reagan's America), Land of the Dead underscores the artistic and financial irrelevance of theatrical exhibition. In short, the Land of the Dead one watches on DVD is in no way a "translation" of the theatrical film, to use Charles Tashiro's term. The film is an adaptation of the DVD and its spectator, the domestic viewer, whose cloistered withdrawal comes under attack in this movie.
Consequently, the changes Romero brings to his zombie series after the rise of DVD offer important clues to how video distribution changes filmmaking and the discursive construction of the video spectator. The shallow focus Romero toys with in Dawn of the Dead and exploits in Day of the Dead becomes the modus operandi of Land of the Dead, and he couples it with simplified mise-en-scènes consistently shot so out of focus that they not only collapse screen space but essentially nullify it. Land of the Dead also covers its world in a nearly ubiquitous blue tint that, taken together with its simplified mise-en-scène, night shots, and over-dyed costuming, reduces its color palette to a near monochrome that prevents color bleed on television monitors. Furthermore, Romero reengineers the spectator's relationship to the frame by centering his action within the shot and making liberal use of what Steve Neale calls the "over-the-disposable-shoulder shot." Finally, Land presents its story in an episodic, open-ended fashion that gives the narrative good "gameability," which invites the video spectator to become a video game player as well.
These formal strategies not only imagine and accommodate a digital video spectator; they also reflect the political tenor and project of Land of the Dead, specifically its critique of the very isolationist impulse the domestic spectator has been said to represent. Land depicts a society of survivors who have cloistered themselves in an anonymous walled city (ostensibly Pittsburgh) since the living dead overran the rest of the world approximately five years earlier. The richer residents hide from such problems in a gated community called Fiddler's Green and send mercenaries out into the suburbs to hunt for food, medicine, and alcohol. The mercenaries' job can be very dangerous, but it provides them with better means of subsistence than those available to the religious fanatics, prostitutes, drug dealers, and revolutionaries who coexist in the city's slums. Romero's Land thus resembles a microcosm of contemporary US socioeconomics, in which a series of walls keep those who have less away from those who have more and a middle class provides the have-mores with resources taken from the have-lesses. Ruling over this feudal dystopia is Kaufman, Dennis Hopper's caricature of a neoliberal plutocrat who looks like Donald Rumsfeld and insists, "I don't negotiate with terrorists." In short, Land of the Dead skewers the Bush-Cheney administration for protecting the interests of the rich at the expense of the disenfranchised and immigrant classes-who in this film are more than adequately represented by the zombies. For whereas Romero's previous zombie movies develop the undead from a metaphor to individuals and finally to subjects, Land of the Dead takes up their potential as a class. It also exploits the techniques of videoability to convince its spectator to empathize with the zombies as they tire of being massacred and decide to bring their grievances to the metropolis.
Land of the Dead begins constructing its spectator (and its zombie revolution) with a homage to Romero's previous zombie trilogy. That is, the credits roll over a series of expository sound bites taken from "some time ago" and a sequence of dusty black-and-white nearly still images that recall the final frames of Night of the Living Dead. Since some of the sound clips actually are from Night of the Living Dead, the combined effect is to place Romero's previous trilogy squarely in the past, in a celluloid prehistory from which his new film will distinguish itself. Perhaps for that reason the introductory sequence occasionally suffers flicker and vertical hold problems reminiscent of an old film projector; these cease when a title card announces "today" and the beginning of Land's narrative. "Today" features a digital blue filter that increases the color saturation of the image at the same time that it bestows an unhealthy tinge. The filter makes everything in the frame cold, dark, and ominous, but it also provides an important video service, namely reducing the luminance (or contrast ratio) of the image. For whereas film can accommodate a luminance ratio of 130:1, some televisions can only display 25:1 or 32:1 (and VHS can only record 40:1) before its brightest lights start to blow out or shadows disappear into maximum black. Land's digital blue filter thus transforms it into a digital video world and a zombie world, as the filter turns all of the zombies blue, like the Technicolor zombies of Dawn of the Dead. Now, however, they are part of a blue system rather than blue anomalies. Moreover, the spectator joins that blue system; invoked as a video subject by the filter, she becomes a part of the same apparatus that gives the zombies their unity and power.
Indeed, this pristine blue filter defines digital subjecthood at the same time that physical deterioration communicates subjective development among the denizens of the Land of the Dead. Big Daddy exemplifies the zombies' weather-beaten skin and decayed eyes and teeth, and although these quasi-monstrous makeup effects render him an intimidating figure, they do not cast him as Other within the film's visual economy. Instead, they align him with the movie's living characters (all of whom are also subject to the same digital blue filter). Both the movie's living hero, Riley (Simon Baker), and its sympathetic antihero, Cholo (John Leguizamo), display physical scars from their many years as mercenaries. However, Big Daddy's wrinkles are most thoroughly mirrored by his double, Kaufman. Only Kaufman possesses the same deep eye sockets and forehead lines as Big Daddy, making the latter's wrinkles a sign of subjectivity, not monstrosity. As physical manifestations of consciousness, Big Daddy's wrinkles also help the spectator to recognize his crusade as the return of his double's repressed underclasses. Within the Land of the Dead Big Daddy hunts Kaufman with a single-minded determination that belies his alleged desire to consume human flesh; this zombie wants justice, not a snack. To that end one must note that-in bold contradistinction to most monster movies-Land does not establish any antagonism or showdown between its hero and its alleged monster. Riley wants to liberate the residents of Pittsburgh and escape north to Canada, and Big Daddy wants to kill Kaufman, so their goals actually coincide nicely.
Land of the Dead involves the spectator in its political union of class warfare and horror plots by recording both the zombies' and the livings' faces in shallow focus, thereby exploiting the technical limitations of video to encourage the spectator's support for Big Daddy's quest. As I mentioned earlier, film critics disparage video as unable to retain the visual clarity of celluloid in deep focus or deep-composition shots and argue that it best communicates close-ups, shallow focus, and quick editing. Such generalizations are easily contradicted, but they nevertheless characterize Land of the Dead's formal approach to prompting spectatorial sympathy and its efforts to humanize the zombies' struggle. All of the movie's characters, including Big Daddy and the other "lead zombies," deliver their dialogue (or their emotive grunting) in tight frames whose shallow focus and simplified mise-en-scènes direct the spectator's emotional investment by eliminating background distractions. Thus when Riley and his sidekick, Charlie (Robert Joy), perform their "stand and deliver" exposition about the danger of mercenary missions, they do so amidst a screenful of out-of-focus pine trees that contribute to the ominous darkness of the scene but do not distract from Charlie's message. Moreover, characters' costumes so closely resemble the dark woods behind them that their faces still stand out as the only points of light in the image. Finally, all of their movements take place in the middle of the frame so that whether one watches a widescreen or full-screen version of the DVD, the central characters remain fully visible. Cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak accomplished this by masking his shot to preserve extra vertical footage for the full-screen edition-meaning, in essence, that he recorded two DVDs at once (one of which was also released as a widescreen film).
Despite such innovative multiframe solutions, Land of the Dead mostly uses video-friendly shot/countershot close-ups to communicate its dialogue, and when there is only one person in a shot, Romero's shallow focus becomes even more pronounced until the background becomes little more than an abstract color field. Interlacing and digital compression can hardly distort a background this vague, and one might even argue that the shallow focus helps the video viewer concentrate on the smaller image. Television and video scholars have pointed out for years that watching a TV set (as opposed to a cinema screen) demands that one filter out background stimuli like domestic decorations, ambient noise, meddling family members, and competing light sources. Like the aural cues employed by many television producers, Romero's aggressively shallow focus counters domestic distractions and assists the spectator by editing out all of the competing stimuli within the image. This technique literally facilitates the spectator's engagement with the movie (her primary and secondary identification) by isolating her point of entry into it.
In addition, the "over-the-disposable-shoulder" shot that Steve Neale and David Bordwell find aesthetically demoralizing suggests a profilmic acknowledgment of video spectatorship, in part because video translation does not dispose of such shoulders. "Disposable" shoulders appear in both the wide- and full-screen editions of Land of the Dead; in fact, they could not be cut from any of the de-masked full-screen shots without seeming to put those shots in violation of the 180-degree rule. Thus I argue (contra Neale and Bordwell) that the allegedly disposable shoulder represents not a concession to but a thematization of video exhibition, specifically of the other video viewers whose bodily presence remains irritatingly visible during televisual exhibition and so must be psychically repressed from one's movie experience. This need does not exist in the same way at the cinema, where silhouettes of heads tend to block the bottom of the screen instead. Hence Romero's "over-the-disposable-shoulder" shot-which was nowhere near as prevalent in Day of the Dead and nonexistent in Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead-must be recognized as a new video convention that reflects the current mode of consumption. Indeed, it could even be read as creating a spectatorial continuum between the video viewer and the diegetic look that further involves the spectator in the narrative.
For as Anne Friedberg demonstrates-or allows the user to demonstrate to herself-in The Virtual Window Interactive, where one sees a movie changes what one sees of one's fellow viewers. In a movie theater all a spectator sees of her fellow viewers is the outline of their heads in front of or beside her. They may block her view, but they do so as black obstructions to the image. Yet when she watches a video at home on a television set, if she keeps the lights on, she may well see the bodies of her fellow viewers in the same vivid color as her motion picture. Depending on the arrangement of figures and furniture, various heads, shoulders, arms, or legs may even appear between her and the image and make themselves a part of the spectatorial experience. The disposable-shoulder shot provides a diegetic alibi for these would-be distractions; by placing unnecessary bodies between the camera and its subject, this convention acknowledges that changes in the norms of consumption may intervene in the video spectator's look as well. It facilitates her primary identification by recognizing a change in its own apparatus; it responds to new norms of the platform in order to better integrate its spectator into its own vision of her.
Although there is more to say about Land of the Dead's framing, focus, and color palette, particularly in connection with its attempts to integrate computer-generated gore, I also want to attend to the ways in which Land bears the mark of another anticipated video platform, namely video games. On October 20, 2005 (two days after the movie's DVD debut), Brainbox Games released Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler's Green, which employs the popular first-person shooter genre to organize its zombie massacre. Road to Fiddler's Green moves its player through various deserted terrains, where the shooter survives by killing zombies in a seemingly futile attempt to save the world. (That is, there do not appear to be many survivors or much infrastructure left to save.) Although users play the game in the first-person, occasional cut scenes (video clips over which the player has little or no control) allow the player to glimpse her avatar, Jack, a white, middle-aged farmer in a trucker cap. As Jack, the player scours a variety of increasingly urban locations for zombies to kill; different levels advance the player from Jack's farmhouse to an abandoned movie theater and ultimately the titular condominium complex. The inherent haphazardness of this trajectory gives the game a certain verisimilitude (how does one know if one really killed every zombie?), but it also requires that the movie's plot be open-ended enough that the game can pick up its ambience, environment, and narrative arc without compromising or contradicting its story. Land of the Dead ends with Riley and friends abandoning Pittsburgh for Canada, so it leaves open the possibility that someone else could come through and take revenge on all the zombies Riley left behind. Thus, the movie addresses not only a DVD spectator but also a player-spectator who expects the diegetic world to cohere across platforms. Interestingly, Road to Fiddler's Green ends without a boss fight-a final battle with a superlative adversary-and none of the "lead zombies" who display class consciousness in Land appear in Road to Fiddler's Green. The player never gets to attack Big Daddy, for as the movie's final sequence makes clear, killing him would be tantamount to killing Riley.
The final sequence of Land of the Dead hands the city over to Big Daddy and establishes him as Riley's revolutionary double, a second unlikely hero leading his followers on a quest for peace. Here all of the video techniques Romero utilizes throughout his movie come together to recast Big Daddy's monstrous ancestry, confirm his activism, and demand spectatorial support for his cause. As Riley prepares to depart for Canada, he spies Big Daddy and his army of organized zombies marching across a highway overpass on their way downtown. Riley's armored tank has a clear shot at the undead, but he advises his group not to fire, because "they're just looking for someplace to go ... same as us." This insight appears to arise from an impossible shot/countershot exchange Riley shares with Big Daddy. In it, Riley peers through a pair of binoculars at Big Daddy, and Big Daddy somehow senses his look and gazes back.
Editing conventions imply that Big Daddy's close-up should come from Riley's perspective, yet there is no indication that Riley's binoculars could provide this level of magnification. If the movie's final look at its lead zombie cannot be focalized through its protagonist, however, then one must conclude that although Big Daddy might be looking at Riley, he is effectively gazing at the spectator. As he stares out at the spectator from his blue-black mise-en-scène, Big Daddy embodies-for both Riley and the spectator-Lacan's "gaze of the 'big Other,'" the one who knows "you can never see me from the point at which I gaze at you." This zombie gaze has a long history in Romero's movies: at the very beginning of Night of the Living Dead Ben warns Barbara, "Don't look at it," and now Big Daddy reminds the spectator that that warning still applies. In recognizing the gaze of the zombie, one perforce accepts its challenge to the meaning of subjectivity and mortality. As he gazes at Riley and the spectator, Big Daddy is not a monster: he is the leader of Uniontown (the suburb where he and the mercenaries first run into one another), a labor organizer protesting the massacre of his exploited brethren. When the spectator looks at Big Daddy and he looks back, she confronts a man who may have formerly wanted to eat her-a modification of the traditional racist trope attached to black male sexuality, especially in connection with white women-but who now seeks only "someplace to go" outside that system, namely a Land of the Dead. The spectator is not exempt from Big Daddy's critique, moreover, for his gaze fixes her in her complicity with the system. The spectator objectified him in assuming him to be just another zombie, a body without consciousness, but his gaze reminds her that such assumptions will lead to her undoing and her obsolescence. The shallow focus behind Big Daddy's gaze reminds the spectator that there is no world left for her in this Land unless she expands her definition of subjectivity, the human, and civil rights. With the joint arrival of Big Daddy and digital video there is a new system of signification in town.
Viral Revisions: Diary of the Dead and Social Network Narcissism
Whereas Land of the Dead constructs a new digital video spectator (the better to pin her on her own insulation), Romero's next zombie movie questions its own ability to get through to online spectators. Diary of the Dead uses video blog and viral video conventions to "reboot" the zombie Armageddon Romero first imagined in Night of the Living Dead. Robin Wood immediately greeted Diary of the Dead as "well beyond the expectations we bring to a genre movie," predicting that it would "probably be welcomed as an art-house movie." That prophecy turned out to be a contradiction in terms, because in exceeding the horror film genre, Diary of the Dead contributes to the obsolescence of the art house and the cinema more broadly. At the movie's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007, Romero publicly stated that he originally envisioned Diary as a serial narrative for cell phones and other portable media devices. The director did ultimately accept financing-and a cinematic distribution deal-from Artfire Films, but Diary's satiric representation of corporate media and intentionally flawed Do-It-Yourself aesthetic still position the movie as an ephemeral video blog and its viewer as an online user-spectator. Through its bricolage of ripped and recorded video clips, Diary reopens Night of the Living Dead's critique of viewer insularity and questions the ethics of social network spectatorship.
Diary of the Dead begins by reimagining the video spectator and revamping Night of the Living Dead's critique of the mass media through its narrative conceit, a "reboot" of Night of the Living Dead and the first night zombies attack humans. As a "reboot," Diary of the Dead is neither a sequel nor a prequel to Romero's extant narrative but a reconceptualization of previous events, often in the interest of inaugurating a new franchise. In the twenty-first century the reboot has become a horror subgenre of its own, bringing new (if politically anemic) relevance to 1970s horror movies by retelling such iconic stories as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974; reboot 2003), The Hills Have Eyes (1977; reboot 2006), Halloween (1978; reboot 2008), and The Amityville Horror (1979; reboot 2005). Unlike remakes, reboots rarely follow the narratives of their antecedents and typically create new mythologies for the old horrors, mythologies that can then produce a new line of sequels. In some cases such reinventions can lead to innovations in the horror genre-such as the attention to feminine class markers in the new Texas Chain Saw Massacre-but most reboots merely cash in on name recognition. Diary of the Dead eschews such conservative commercial aspirations by reimagining not only the whys and wherefores of the zombies' first emergence but also the composition of the feature film. Diary presents its reboot as a documentary pieced together from original and found footage (mostly culled from TV news reports and amateur video blogs). Whereas Night of the Living Dead incorporates television and radio bulletins to strengthen its allegorical critique of the political tensions undergirding the nascent American Rust Belt, Diary acknowledges Web 2.0 as the discursive site of US postindustrial anxiety. Night suggests that radio, television, and film are insulating the modern subject from political violence, but Diary argues violence also occurs in discourse, from the political spin given the zombies by the US military, talk-show pundits, and opportunists of all stripes. Furthermore, Diary uses its documentary conceit to interrogate the narcissism of user-generated content and social-media spectatorship, where videos always appear framed in the user's identity. By focusing on amateur media artists in a misguided quest to deliver the "truth" of the zombie apocalypse, the movie questions what change (if any) social media can produce. Diary suggests social media do not make content producers or spectators any more altruistic or socially conscious, but this focus does not lead the spectator to question her racism or individualism as she did for Romero's earlier movies. Indeed, its own scenes of spectatorship suggest that modern viewers may be online but beyond empathy. Diary prompts its spectator to pay more attention to its construction than the social construction of apathy and prejudice; thus, its very imagining of its spectator suggests that amateur video culture will not be the answer to political and social imbalances in the United States.
Romero begins building this critique of online video culture during Diary of the Dead's opening scene. After the standard distributor and producer logos Diary commences with a black screen and the sound of a police siren wailing; the first shot appears to be candid footage of a local television news team setting up to report on a tragic incident of domestic violence in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a mostly African American suburb of Pittsburgh. As the cameraman adjusts his focus, the microphone records the racist and xenophobic discourse of the emergency workers, one of whom notes: "Three dead; some guy ... fuckin' shoots his wife and kid, then eats the fucking licorice.... This guy has no ID, no fucking papers. Probably squirreled over the goddamn border." As the team's female reporter prepares to summarize the murder-suicide, an unidentified female narrator intones, "We downloaded this video off the net sometime over the last three days." The narrator explains that the episode was "secretly uploaded by the cameraman who shot it. It was his way of trying to tell the truth about what was happening." The narrator seems to assume that truth to be the zombies-the dead coming back to life to consume the flesh of the living-but this candid footage may create meaning very differently for the video spectator, who is well versed in the discourse of outtakes and bloopers. For her the truth of this scene is media production, specifically the prejudice and insensitivity of media creators. By opening with anonymous candid footage found on the Internet, Diary informs its spectator that it will debunk her idealistic assumptions about media production, both professional and amateur. While the spectator may already have become disillusioned with professional news media's claims to objectivity, Diary will reveal both corporate and grassroots media to be capable of bigotry in their pursuit of viewers.
Diary of the Dead emphasizes its didactic mission through its second narrative conceit, the autodocumentary. Within its diegesis Diary of the Dead is actually the student documentary The Death of Death, made by seven University of Pittsburgh students (and one alcoholic, disillusioned professor) who happened to be out in the woods with a lot of camera equipment when the zombie attack began. Diary of the Dead is coextensive with but different from The Death of Death, and although the former has no title card or opening credits of its own, the spectator's knowledge of its discursive frame distantiates her from The Death of Death and makes her skeptical of its quest for "truth." This ironic frame helps create a sardonic connection between the directors of these two films, George A. Romero and Jason Creed (Joshua Close). Before the dead rose, Jason was directing a mummy movie because, like Romero and Image Ten before him, he believed "there's always an audience for horror." While Jason and his crew debate the finer points of monster movie realism, a technician draws their attention to the first reports of "the dead returning to life." This announcement should sound very familiar to the reboot spectator, because it and subsequent lines were lifted directly from Night of the Living Dead. These textual references address the reboot spectator and prompt her to search for other similarities and differences between Night and Diary, such as their representation of contemporaneous media. Like Night, Diary tries to establish its zombies as real through its representation of the mass media. But by placing its director in the narrative (albeit behind the camera), the new movie draws its spectator's attention to the agenda driving media creation rather than those shaping media reception. As a result Romero's avatar also teaches the spectator not to trust the auteur.
Jason is not just Romero's avatar, however; he is also the spectator's. As the diegetic cameraman, Jason embodies the spectator's primary identification with her look and the camera. To be sure, The Death of Death also uses downloaded Internet clips and surveillance footage to tell its story, but most of its sequences come from Jason's Panasonic HDX 900, as he searches for answers and safety (in that order). His camera work becomes an extension of the values and interests of his character, specifically his neoauteurist faith in the value of his vision. Jason's hubris and idiosyncratic approach to cinema verité propels the spectator into a new relationship with her look; now she must balance her desire to see with her desire to survive, since her look is tied to an avatar who can-and eventually will-die. Yet Jason's death is by no means predetermined; had he made other choices, he might have survived alongside the movie's editor and narrator, his girlfriend Debra (Michelle Moynihan). It is the very human contingency of Jason's mortality that endows him and his camera with their power as avatars; it also gives the spectator a greater stake in the outcome of Jason's misadventures than she may experience in contemporaneous corporate faux footage horror movies (which typically begin by informing their spectator that all the protagonists will die). The faux footage horror movies all premise their distribution-and thus the existence of the spectator-on their filmmakers' deaths, which saddles their spectators with fatalistic dread (see chapter 5). Because Jason might live, however, Dairy of the Dead's spectator can invest his camera with hope, as well as trepidation. In other words to the extent that she-qua spectator-identifies with her look, she is saddled with Jason's assumption that video can see them through this. Thus, when Jason promises "to capture the truth.... There's going to be no fakeness. I am going to go after everything. Really raw, really real," his avowed faith in video and documentary gets passed onto the spectator through his imitation of verité conventions. No matter how cheesy she might find his faith in documentary or cinematic truth, the spectator's viewing pleasure is bound up in an identification with his ideology: he is the director of her look, and she cannot look but as he looks. That said, Diary ultimately exposes Jason's "raw" truth to be as much of a red herring as its raw meat. In Diary of the Dead all those who believe in and seek to represent "raw truth" end up dead. Thus one might even say that the pursuit of raw truth leads to raw meat.
Diary of the Dead further critiques the fantasy of political spectatorship by questioning Jason's investment in distribution and amplifying the disparities between the viral dissemination The Death of Death imagines and the corporate release Diary received. During one of Debra and Jason's many fights about his obsessive filmmaking, she discovers that he has delayed her trip home in order to post footage from his documentary on MySpace. "When you said you wanted to get online, I thought you wanted to get in touch with your dad or something," she complains, to which Jason scoffs: "No, I just wanted to upload our shit. Look: seventy-two thousand hits in eight minutes." Romero had hoped for as much for his movie: "The people that are financing it are reserving the right to put it out theatrically. I didn't ... I don't necessarily want that. I wanted all this emerging media stuff, like Internet and cell phones. I wanted to do it sort of episodically. You know, little snatches here and there and then glue them together and then put out a DVD or something. That's what I'm interested in." Romero might just be parroting the distribution dreams of his avatar, but either way, he voices a fantasy endemic to social media. By establishing viral video as Diary's foreclosed horizon of democratic distribution, Romero hails the twenty-first-century dream that because online media reach their spectator in new ways, they also reach her on a new level. So it seems that Diary of the Dead also reboots Romero's media critique, but it does so in order to aim that critique at itself.
Like The Death of Death, Diary of the Dead imitates the video blog genre, and through this imitation it interrogates how amateur production values and Internet distribution intersect to give their videos the illusion of realism that motion picture features lost. Both Jason's aesthetic and his platform-MySpace and, by extension, other video-equipped social networking sites-promote amateurism as the answer to the spectatorial "distrust" engendered by digital image production and manipulation. Jason's dilettante aesthetic does borrow from filmic realisms, such as cinema verité and the postmodern documentary, which foreground their production as evidence of the filmmaker's candor and trustworthiness. On digital video, however, signs of the filmmaker's labor become marks of personal indexicality, traces of the individual who witnessed these events and posted them to her user profile. When one watches a video on social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, and-to a lesser extent-YouTube, each video is formally presented to the spectator as an attribute of a profile, and each profile represents a peer in the network. While hoaxes and fiction videos also abound on these sites, videos and other user-generated content still circulate as evidence of the user's existence. Given this context, even fiction and experimental videos take on the status of evidence, evidence that this really happened, whether this is the video production of an external event or the external event itself. Jason takes this presupposition of new media mimesis and good-faith networking to an extreme when he promises his spectator that "there's going to be no fakeness." He seems to assume fakeness would be undesirable in Internet videos, that Internet video defines itself in opposition to cinematic and television aesthetics (that is, fakeness) and should for that reason be trusted.
Of course, Diary of the Dead actually is fictional, and many previous "mockumentaries" have embraced amateur filmmaking aesthetics in order to expose or parody the discursive conventions that structure documentary "truth." Unlike its predecessors, though, Romero's movie is less interested in mimicking nonfiction than in exposing the spectator to the fictionalization undergirding news production (both amateur and professional). Its bricolage editing thus introduces some shots multiple times to demonstrate how different news organizations reedit them to manipulate their viewers with different interpretations of the zombie attack. Indeed Diary's opening shot returns three times over the course of the movie through three different media frames: once in its "intact" form in The Death of Death, once on streaming video on a computer monitor, and once on a television news program. Diary also supplements its own "documentary" footage with shots from various scenes of "real" human suffering, including the Rwandan civil war and Hurricane Katrina. Diary of the Dead explicitly removes such clips from their historical contexts in order to make them evidence of a zombie massacre, but it also relies on their familiarity to undermine the spectator's faith in amateur recording (or at least its distributors). By borrowing previously posted footage and mixing it in with original zombie footage, Diary of the Dead asks its spectator what the proliferation of images has done to her understanding of mimesis and "fakeness." It challenges the spectator to accept the degree to which context controls her perception of images, and by repeating the same image across different contexts, it reminds her that all videos are equally unreliable.
Thus Romero's vision for Diary of the Dead both problematizes and confirms historian William Paul's claim that, "in effect, exhibition has become the tail that wags the dog as it inescapably makes demands for product that can most appropriately fit new modes of exhibition." Unlike Paul, Romero's zombie movies utilize new distribution platforms to circumvent cinematic censorship and challenge the formal conventions of fiction filmmaking, such as the ten-reel feature. However, they also substantiate Paul's contention that where a product will be seen affects what it can look like and what it can do. Filmmaker and critic thus affirm that different distribution regimes produce different movies-and film studies should do likewise. It does not weaken the discipline to observe that different exhibition platforms engender different formal conventions that filmmakers may manipulate to elicit different spectatorial responses. Romero's zombie oeuvre demonstrates that social critique in motion pictures relies on the formal constraints and advantages of anticipated platforms. The series uses the material characteristics of anticipated exhibition media to emphasize its social critiques and prompt politically engaged spectatorship. For this reason video cannot be dismissed as merely a "translation" or "degradation" of celluloid and the filmmaking conventions that sprung up in response to it. Movies of the home video era no longer assume a cinematic subject; rather, they prepare themselves for the proliferation of video apparatuses where their spectator might meet them. For Romero this has meant VCRs, DVD players, personal computers-and to a certain extent video games. Although this last platform has thus far had only a limited impact on Romero's spectator, it has nonetheless profoundly changed his genre and his monster, literally giving it new life in the twenty-first century.
Game On: Regarding the Zombie Renaissance
At the beginning of this chapter I asserted that my critical project would be to track how one director's notion of the spectator transformed along with his anticipated distribution platform. I set out to prove that movies imagine and solicit the subject differently when they no longer understand themselves as films and that the apparatus continues to condition the spectator even when that apparatus is no longer cinematic. But even when I say it's not about the zombies, these days, it's still about the zombies. In the first decade of the twenty-first century US consumers were inundated with movies, books, graphic novels, television series, and cultural phenomena related to those flesh-eating ghouls. As a result I have found it nearly impossible to convince readers that Romero just happens to have the right oeuvre for my argument about the multiplatform history of the motion picture spectator. In the midst of a zombie renaissance, one can hardly write about spectatorial dynamics of the most famous zombie series in the world and not expect to get a few questions about the ghouls' phenomenal multimedia resurrection. So in what follows I would like to offer a few observations about the zombie renaissance and one last video subject: the video game player.
By most accounts the zombies had a couple of quiet decades in the 1980s and 1990s: other than parodies like The Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Re-animator (1985), there were few movies made about Romero's pet monsters. Then in November 2002 a new mutation reactivated the undead; it began in Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil (2002), then infected Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (UK 2002; US 2003) and recurred in Uwe Boll's House of the Dead (2003) and Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). In these movies zombies are no longer shuffling corpses; they have become runners, in some cases blessed with almost superhuman agility. Between 2002 and 2011 the dead returned to life in greater frequency and greater numbers and with greater strength than ever before. Annual production of zombie movies skyrocketed, and much was made of the novel speed of these new zombies. Yet the source of their cultural momentum actually originates in a new emphasis on spatiality and problem solving, because the first US films of the zombie renaissance reflect a previous renaissance in zombie video games. Resident Evil (1996) and House of the Dead (1997) both offer their characters the possibility of survival if they learn the terrain and how to operate within it. Whereas Romero's zombie films emphasize aimless ennui (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead) and nonteleological movement for its own sake (Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead), the movies of the zombie renaissance champion survivalist agency. In short, characters who know how to "play the game" can outwit zombies, military operatives, computer programmers, and even supercomputers to maintain their humanity. As a result these twenty-first-century zombie movies reward a different kind of spectator; rather than assuming a cinematic subject entrenched in the history of horror movies, they imagine a video game player accustomed to navigating game maps, "survival horror" scenarios, and highly mobile, location-based fiends. As opposed to Land of the Dead, which leaves its narrative open for video game adaptation, Resident Evil, House of the Dead, and their ilk succeed by remapping the video spectatorship around the norms and customs of video gaming. They draw extensively on the game maps, character behaviors, and logic of 1990s zombie games to excite a spectator who is used to playing with zombies, not watching them.
While zombie-like enemies appear in Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993), the first video game to organize its narrative around the walking dead was Resident Evil. In this "survival horror" game the player selects an avatar from a special police force sent in to investigate a series of mysterious murders and must evade zombies, zombie dogs, and other flesh-eating ghouls while trying to figure out what caused them. If the player survives long enough, clues eventually implicate the nefarious Umbrella Corporation and its biological weapon, the T-virus. When victims of the T-virus die, they rise again to feed on the flesh of the living. During the game's opening cut-scene, the player's avatar and her team are attacked by a pack of zombie Dobermans, which run at the human characters at speeds previously unknown among the undead. After evading the evil mutts, the player enters a seemingly abandoned mansion and explores its passageways, outbuildings, and secret underground laboratory searching for weapons, clues, and survivors. Although the game has an obvious teleology-defeating the big boss and winning the game-the player may not be immediately certain how to accomplish that goal; as a result she must rely on levels and spatiality for a sense of progress. Indeed, one of the first items she finds may be a map, which tells the player how to understand her experience of this world: not sequentially but volumetrically. Such logic extends to the ghouls as well, which are fixed around corners or in front of desired objects or targets. In Resident Evil these formerly human monsters cannot run, but the layout of the lateral game space gives them an element of surprise and builds suspense.
In the movie Resident Evil such twists and turns may no longer be surprising, but they orient the spectator within the new architecture of the franchise and (it turns out) the zombie movie. Our guide on this adventure is Alice (Milla Jovovich), a new character for both experienced Resident Evil players and virgin viewers, but one who shapes our experience of Raccoon City much like a game avatar. Both Alice and the spectator begin the movie in medias res when Alice wakes up on her shower floor unable to remember who she is or how she is involved in the corporate crisis that quickly envelops her. As she explores the Umbrella Corporation's underground development complex (known as the Hive), the camera rarely leaves her side; as in the video game, the Resident Evil subject experiences temporal and spatial unfolding through a third-person avatar. In both media these avatars demonstrate increasing command over their territory as time passes. In the game the user starts to figure out the game's logic and becomes more adept at negotiating its interface (the controller or keyboard), and in the movie Alice gradually recalls the combat skills and marksmanship she possessed as an Umbrella operative. These talents facilitate Alice's descent into and escape from the Hive and thus the movie's narrative trajectory. For while other horror movies have exploited explorations of labyrinthine spaces to frighten their spectators-Aliens (1986) and Day of the Dead being two noteworthy examples-their narratives are not driven by it; they are about place but are not ruled by spatialized imperatives the way Resident Evil is.
Furthermore, spatial logic also shapes the movies' presentation of and the spectator's experience of monsters in zombie renaissance films. Resident Evil, House of the Dead, and the zombie movies that follow in their wake tie unique or especially formidable foes to specific locations with a consistency that belies the traditional "set piece" of horror or action films. For example, Resident Evil presents each new threat in a specific location (the kennel, the laboratory, the computer's control room) that it never leaves. Its boss-the mutant "Licker" Alice must defeat as the last obstacle before leaving the Hive-only occupies the Hive's antechamber, even though the movie's narrative gives it hours to hunt for victims. Alice's showdown with the Licker also evokes a different spectatorial response from the traditional horror climax because it foregrounds action over affect. Resident Evil employs none of the emotion hooks that movies like Aliens embed in their climaxes, even when they strongly resemble video games. At the end of Aliens Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) evokes the video game player by using a joystick-driven loading device to kill the alien queen, but her movie complicates their purely physical struggle by cutting away to Ripley's surrogate daughter, Newt (Carrie Henn). Moreover, the queen is a mobile threat in Aliens (as are most cinematic monsters). In contrast, Resident Evil regulates its spectator's anxiety spatially, like a game: each new room brings potential new enemies, but once Alice leaves a room, that enemy remains vanquished. This spatial anxiety even extends to the way the movie frames and edits its zombie attacks. Unlike the long-shot lumbering zombies of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead or the rack focus attacks of Day of the Dead, Resident Evil mimics the subjective vision of the video game by allowing its zombies to surprise the avatar and spectator by popping around corners or from behind doors and furniture. Rather than encouraging the spectator to identify with the all-seeing film camera, they prompt her to identify with her avatar's enworlded and thus limited vision.
House of the Dead invokes a player-spectator through another important adaptation of game logic, namely weaponry. Whereas the Resident Evil game foregrounds the cartographic challenges of survival horror, the House of the Dead series emphasizes firepower and shooting zombies. Designed for the Sega Light gun arcade console, House of the Dead is a "rail shooter" game, meaning it limits its player to firing at oncoming assailants as she progresses along a predetermined game track (as if "on rails"). The goal of the game is not to figure out what caused the zombie apocalypse but to kill as many zombies as possible. House of the Dead's filmic adaptation feels similarly limited-it moves typecast actors and stereotypical characters through a predictable plotline that allows them to shoot massive numbers of zombies-but despite its shortcomings, it changes the spectatorial investment in the zombie. Specifically, it inaugurates an emphasis on arsenal-building in zombie films that builds on its game logic and predicts the gleeful emphasis on weaponry that characterizes twenty-first-century zombie films. After its band of survivors realize they must take shelter in the titular house to escape the undead hordes chasing them around outside, House of the Dead treats its viewer to a sixty-second montage of each survivor selecting from an extraordinary arms cache assembled by a coast guard deputy and gun smuggler. This sequence halts narrative progress and delays the actual zombie battle in order to fetishize weaponry, much as horror and action video games encourage players to collect and fetishize different kinds of rifles, guns, and knives. This montage (and the extended bloodbath that follows) create a new kind of horror spectator, for whereas pre-video game zombie movies delight in showing the spectator all the interesting ways zombies might kill her, post-video game zombie movies set out all the interesting ways she might kill them. To wit: Shaun, in Shaun of the Dead, and his best friend, Ed, go after the undead with shovels, cricket bats, and even vinyl records; the living protagonists of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead run zombies over with armored vans; the heroes of Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland (2009) beat them with banjos and amusement park props; and Diary of the Dead even allows one character to electrocute a zombie with crash cart paddles. Examples are too numerous to list here, but the impetus for all these set pieces comes from the horror video game. They appease a player-spectator who has been taught to relish zombies as targets rather than fear them as physical threats or social allegories.
While there is much more work to be done on the zombie renaissance across its many platforms, I hope this chapter suggests one way in which its movies represent that cross-pollination. Horror seems to be a particularly felicitous affect for transmitting platform changes to the spectator, possibly because it engages the viewer so viscerally in the motion picture apparatus. In my next two chapters I will demonstrate how representations of the apparatus itself enable expressions of industrial anxiety, for it is not only the spectator who has been newly terrified by the video revolution. Home video platforms represented frightening incursions into national film cultures and copyright laws; as a result the VCR itself became a kind of horror movie monster, as uncanny and relentless as a zombie.