“What’s your zombie apocalypse survival plan?”
The question invites the liveliest discussions of the semester. I teach a course on social movements in fiction and film at West Virginia University, where I also conduct research on race and gender politics in the United States.
George Romero’s first film, “Night of the Living Dead,” is on the syllabus. The film was groundbreaking in its use of horror as political critique. Half a century later, Romero’s films are still in conversation with racial politics in the United States, and Romero’s recent death calls for reflection on his legacy as a filmmaker.
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, an English professor and monster theorist at George Washington University, notes that “Like all monsters, zombies are metaphors for that which disquiets their generative times.”
Romero shot “Night of the Living Dead” in 1967, when Americans’ attention was focused on powerful televised images of race riots in cities like Newark and Detroit, and on the Vietnam War, the likes of which were new to broadcast news. Romero reimagined scores of bleeding faces, twisted in rage or vacant from trauma, as the zombie hoard. He filtered public anger and anxieties through the hoard, reflecting what many viewed as liberals’ rage and disappointment over a lack of real social change and others saw as conservatives’ fear over disruptions in race relations and traditional family structures. This is the utility of the zombie as a political metaphor – it’s flexible; there is room enough for all our fears.
In “Night of the Living Dead,” an unlikely cross-section of people are cornered in a farmhouse by a zombie hoard. They struggle with each other and against the zombies to survive the night. At the end of the film, black protagonist Ben Huss is the sole survivor. He emerges from the basement at daybreak, only to be mistaken for a zombie and shot by an all-white militia. The militiamen congratulate each other and remark that Huss is “another one for the fire.” They never realize their terrible error. Perhaps they are inclined to see Huss as a threat to begin with, because he is black.
At the start of Romero’s next film, “Dawn of the Dead,” in which another unlikely bunch faces off against zombies in a shopping mall, police surround a public housing building. One officer remarks on the unfairness of putting blacks and Hispanics in these “big-ass fancy hotels” and proceeds to shoot residents indiscriminately, not distinguishing between the living and the undead.
The officers are shooting to restore the “natural order” in which the dead stay dead. But their actions also restore the prevailing social order and the institutions that create and reinforce racial inequality.
In my class, I connect these scenes of dehumanization to contemporary racial politics, using them as a springboard for conversations about racially motivated police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. These discussions focus on the zombie as a dehumanized creature.
In returning from the dead, zombies lose their human essence – their agency, critical reasoning capacities, empathy and language. As Cohen writes, “Zombies are a collective, a swarm. They do not own individualizing stories. They do not have personalities. They eat. They kill. They shamble. They suffer and they cause suffering. They are dirty, stinking, and poorly dressed. They are indifferent to their own decay.” Zombies retain a human form, but lose their individuality and are dehumanized in their reanimation.
Minority victims of police shootings are often portrayed in the media as dangerous, animalistic and even monstrous – meaning they too are stripped of their basic humanity. Social psychologists argue that perceptions of humanity are a critical part of social cognition – the way we process or think about other people and social settings. When we see people or groups as less than human, predictable consequences arise. Romero’s films tune us in to our own potential for dehumanization.
Dehumanization relaxes our moral restrictions on doing harm to others and ultimately facilitates violence against them. When people see members of a group as an undifferentiated “hoard,” they’re susceptible to the same error as the militiamen in “Night of the Living Dead.” When they couple dehumanization with hatred, resentment or fear, they become like the resentful police officer in “Dawn of the Dead.” Dehumanization of black Americans underpins the violence perpetrated against them in Romero’s films and in America today.
Dehumanization isn’t confined to police violence. New research shows that dehumanization of Muslims and Hispanics underlies support for restrictive immigration policies and a border wall. It also undercuts support for aid to refugees.
In my own research, I show that political candidates are often dehumanized in political discourse and campaign imagery. This work suggests that monsters plague our elections and governance processes more broadly.
Romero will be best remembered for giving the zombie a place in mainstream American culture, but he also gave us a warning about human psychology and critical insights into racial politics in the U.S. For this reason, his work will continue to have a revered place on my syllabus.
Late April is always a busy time for me. This is because I, along with all other historians who study Nazi Germany, am often called upon to reflect upon the significance of two dates – April 20, 1889 and April 30, 1945 – those that mark the arrival and departure of Adolf Hitler from the world historical stage. This year, things are amped up a bit as it’s the 70th anniversary of the Nazi dictator’s suicide in his Berlin bunker.
Unless, that is, Hitler faked his own death and escaped via submarine to Argentina. Or eluded the grasp of the Allies by hiding out in the sewers of Berlin. Or fled planet Earth altogether by hitching a ride on a flying saucer to a secret Nazi refuge on the dark side of the moon. These and other conspiracy theories pertaining to Hitler’s alleged survival after World War II are outlandish, but they reveal that western culture has a had a difficult time accepting the prosaic reality of Hitler’s death.
Why do we continue to imagine Hitler being alive after 1945? For much of the post-war period, fictional portrayals of Hitler’s survival indulged the fantasy of holding Hitler accountable for his crimes. Some, such as Philippe van Rjndt’s novel The Trial of Adolf Hitler (1978), formally put him in the dock and convicted him of his misdeeds before levying the ultimate penalty of capital punishment.
Other works indulged the lust for vengeance by imposing sadistic punishments upon him, such as the cult film, Flesh Feast (1970), starring Veronica Lake as a plastic surgeon who alters Hitler’s appearance with flesh eating maggots. Or there’s Joseph Heywood’s 1987 novel The Berkut, which depicts the Soviets capturing Hitler and confining him in a cage for the amusement of Joseph Stalin.
This revenge impulse has not entirely disappeared (witness the finale of Quentin Tarantino’s 2011 film, Inglourious Basterds, where Hitler dies in hail of bullets from Jewish assassins).
Hitler the talk-show host
These days, however, we’re more likely to allow Hitler to live. In the last two decades, novels such as Steve Erickson’s Tours of the Black Clock (1989), films such as Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Conversation with the Beast (1996), and comic books, such as Walter Moers’s Adolf – die Nazi-Sau (1998) have portrayed Hitler living into the present and evading justice. Why?
Take a look at the best recent example, Timur Vermes’s 2012 bestselling novel Look Who’s Back, which features Hitler coming back to life in present-day Berlin and becoming a successful television talk-show host. It’s clear that we partly imagine Hitler’s survival in order to hold a mirror up to our own contemporary world. By showing how Hitler struggles to makes sense of today’s social, cultural and technological realities and by showing how our own world responds to his rants about them (spoiler alert: we cheer him on) Vermes’s novel gets us to think more self-critically about the present. It allows us to regard Hitler’s survival as a metaphor for the persistence of evil in our midst.
But other fictional fantasies have challenged our willingness to accept this disturbing truth. Western culture continues to produce narratives in which Hitler is eliminated from history entirely and the 20th century is spared its tragic fate. In his novel Making History (1996), Stephen Fry prevents Hitler’s birth in 1889. Or in Elleander Morning (1984) Jerry Yulsman has him being murdered while still an obscure Viennese artist in 1913. Other narratives imagine Hitler dying in a car accident in 1930, while still others have him assassinated in Operation Valkyrie on July 20, 1944.
Emblematic of the enduring interest in this premise is the newly released German film, Elser, which portrays its eponymous title character (the journeyman artisan, Georg Elser) failing by all of 15 minutes to kill Hitler with a bomb planted next to his speaker’s podium at the Munich Bürgerbräukeller on November 8, 1939 (the Führer left early to travel back to Berlin).
So would history have turned out better if Hitler had somehow been eliminated from history? One might think the answer an unambiguous yes – he is the 20th century’s most notorious villain, after all – but timing and differences of national perspective complicate things. The earlier he’s done away with, the better the odds that Europe avoids disaster. By the summer of 1944 it was too late to avert most of the war’s destruction; earlier opportunities would have been far better.
National perspectives also matter. Anglo-American narratives tend to be sceptical that removing Hitler would have really improved history’s course, as even without the dictator, structural constants – say, inter-war German nationalism – might have produced comparable (or even more dangerous) right-wing demagogues. German accounts, by contrast, tend to optimistically imagine Hitler’s absence allowing the German people to steer their nation away from the brink and improve history’s path.
Not surprisingly, these competing visions of a world without Hitler respectively serve accusatory and self-exculpatory functions and reflect competing memories of the Nazi past among the former enemies of World War II. Indeed, they confirm that counter-factual narratives always tell us more about the present than the past.
In the end, it is the present that probably best explains why we keep treating Hitler like a zombie, as a figure who – though dead in reality – we bring back to life in our imagination. We need him as a moral yardstick to measure ourselves against and see how, if at all, we are learning the lessons of history and applying them to our own imperfect world.