BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Here's a riddle for you. What's the difference between Kevin Costner and a zombie movie? Answer? Nothing. They're both death at the box office. [LAUGHS] But in the case of zombie flicks, tales of the walking dead have been filling theater seats for decades.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Peter Jackson, who directed Lord of the Rings, and Sam Rami, director of Spiderman (*), both did particularly gore-soaked zombie features earlier in their careers, and Trainspotting director Danny Boyle went on to do last summer's zombie hit, 28 Days Later. But the dean of the flesh-eating resurrected is George Romero, whose Night of the Living Dead is a cinema classic and whose sequel, Dawn of the Dead, marks its 25th anniversary this year. That red letter date prompted OTM Senior Producer Arun Rath to probe the broader significance of the zombie genre.
ARUN RATH: It's hard to miss the social commentary in Dawn of the Dead. In the most celebrated scene, hundreds of zombies stumble blank-eyed through a suburban shopping mall. [MUZAK WITH ZOMBIES GROANING] Mindless consumerism had the country eating itself...
WOMAN: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
MAN: It's a kind of instinct. Memory. What they used to do.... This was an important place in their lives.
ARUN RATH: But zombie movies have had a rich subtext from the very first. [MUSIC FROM WHITE ZOMBIE] White Zombie, released in 1932.
PETER DENDLE: At this time, we were engaged in the occupation of the island of Haiti, which had been a former slave colony of France. Zombies originally are a folkloric creature imported from West Africa.
ARUN RATH: Peter Dendle is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University specializing in folklore and medieval studies -- and he's the author of the Zombie Movie Encyclopedia.
PETER DENDLE: I think it's with some irony, then, that the American entertainment industry picks up this icon in the 1930s, because in these movies, in these early movies, it is a sort of white voodoo master or mad scientist who raises the zombies for his own menial ends, to take over the world or just to run his factory or whatever. [SUGAR MILL GROANING SOUND]
ARUN RATH: The black Haitian zombies in the film literally slave away in a sugar mill run by voodoo master Murder Legendre, played to the hypnotic hilt by a still vital Bela Lugosi.
MURDER LEGENDRE: They work faithfully. They are not worried about long hours. You could make good use of men like mine on your plantations.
ARUN RATH: The white zombie of the title is Madeline, an American woman who has come to Haiti with her fiance to be married at the estate of Beaumont, a man they'd just met. Beaumont falls in love with Madeline and convinces Legendre to turn her into a zombie so she'll submit to him. Yes, along with an overwrought racial dynamic, there's a huge serving of gender politics.
PETER DENDLE: You've got Bela Lugosi being in possession of a woman's body, for instance, of a living or half-living, moving body, going through the motions of living -- getting up in the morning, coming down to the table, but with no glimmer in her eye, with no, no sense of passion, of responsiveness. You've got them being, being in total control of them, and, and you've got to scratch your head and wonder what are they doing when the camera's off.
ARUN RATH: The black zombie slaves and controlled woman themes appeared throughout early zombie films like I Walked with a Zombie, Voodoo Man and the aptly named Womaneater. Racial and sexual anxieties have a timeless appeal, but by the 1950s, the American subconscious had bigger fish to fry. [MUSIC FROM INVISIBLE INVADERS UNDER] [ATOM BOMB GOES OFF]
INVISIBLE INVADERS NARRATOR: Since the first revelation of the atom bomb at Hiroshima in 1945, the United States, England and Russia have been experimenting with more and more increasingly deadly weapons.
ARUN RATH: In 1959's sneakily subversive Invisible Invaders, nuclear tests convince aliens that Earth is finally worth conquering. They do this by taking possession of human corpses and making them attack the living. Mankind's savior: an anti-nuke peacenik scientist.
MAN: You say we should call an immediate end to nuclear experimentation. But you know that's impossible.
PEACENIK SCIENTIST: Then limit it to experiments for peace!
MAN: Dr. Fenner, we've been over all this before.
ARUN RATH: The zombies of Invisible Invaders seem almost entirely middle-aged white men in suits and ties.
PETER DENDLE: What is a zombie but a conformist? What is a zombie but someone who has to go through the motions, maybe with some, some tiny instinctual primal awareness underneath it all that he's not fully experiencing what it means to be an individual, to be human.
ARUN RATH: But lest you think that the zombie is a creature of the left, film critic David Edelstein points out the depersonalized zombie was also a fine metaphor for what was creepy about Communism.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: I mean any kind of collective delusion, Communism as well. I mean you can look at Don Siegal's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Phil Kaufman re-make as, as zombie movies. These are movies in which people have their individuality deadened, and, and they, they become part of the collective.
ARUN RATH: The re-animated corpses may have represented soulless Eisenhower conformists, or maybe they were soulless Communists, but one thing seems clear: the real enemy was us. Whether it's zombies in Invisible Invaders or pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, characters are repeatedly confronted with friends and family who now see them as prey. And in 1968, just when it must have seemed like America really was turning on itself, in a year of assassinations, violent protests and race riots, George Romero came out with Night of the Living Dead. David Edelstein says the film is a powerful metaphor for the meltdown of the American family. [NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD MUSIC]
DAVID EDELSTEIN: The American family imploding from within, it's no accident that brothers turn incestuously on sisters--
WOMAN: [SCREAMING] --No, Johnny, no!--
DAVID EDELSTEIN: And that little daughters kill their own mommies...
ARUN RATH: In the film a group of survivors barricade themselves against a zombie onslaught in an abandoned farmhouse. Our protagonist is Ben, the only black man in the bunch. He's also the only one who is not petty, rendered stupid by fear or just plain stupid to begin with. Because of his levelheadedness, Ben is the only one to survive the night. But the next morning, he's shot by a band of roving rednecks, deputized to exterminate the zombie menace.
MAN: All right, Vince. Hit him in the head, right between the eyes. [GUNSHOT. BODY FALLS. GUN CLICKS.] Good shot. Okay, he's dead. Let's go get him. That's another one for the fire.
ARUN RATH: Peter Dendle.
PETER DENDLE: A lot of the images in Night of the Living Dead respond specifically to some of these social tensions: the reliance on authority sort of falling apart; the police force is a veritable sort of militia of rednecks... [POLICE INTERCOM, DOGS BARKING]
MEN: [SHOUTING] Get those dogs back off of those things!
ARUN RATH: In Romero's story, every person who died became a zombie, rising again to feed on the flesh of the living. The decades after Night of the Living Dead saw an explosion of movies in this vein, and Romero-esque zombies appeared in hundreds of features, even spawning cottage industries in Italy and Spain. And since 1968, Romero's zombie children have taken off in countless symbolic directions.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Zombies are blanks. You can project anything you want on them.
ARUN RATH: David Edelstein.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: You can make them Southern, KKK hicks, and they can become mindless reactionaries, or you can give them vests and peace signs, and they become mindless counterculture drug casualties. You can give them plague, and then they become carriers of, of sexual diseases.... Romero's innovation in Night of the Living Dead was to make them, to make them cannibals or vampires; to make them actual carriers of plague, and this is something that's followed through on in 28 Days Later. [ZOMBIE COMBAT NOISES, MEN SHOUTING, GUNFIRE]
ARUN RATH: 28 Days Later features a zombie plagued created by the release of a deadly, or--undeadly virus. [HUMAN SHOUTS OF PAIN, ZOMBIE GLEE] As in most of the post-Romero films, the main characters tend to meet their end not because of the zombies, but because they lose their head -- or their humanity. [28 DAYS CLIP]
MITCHELL: Easy, tiger. You don't want to go picking a fight with me, son. [A HUGE BODY PUNCH, CHOKING SOUNDS]
MAN: [SHOUTING] Sgt. Farrell!
MAN: Mitchell, first action [on].
MITCHELL: [...?...], sir.
MAN: Then get to it!
DAVID EDELSTEIN: The true horror, it turns out, isn't the infected, but the people who put their own welfare over the rights of others. It's not the, the flesh-gouging zombie that we have to worry about in those movies. It's the soul-gouging zombie within.
ARUN RATH: When 28 Days Later came out last summer, critics raved about its broader themes, which included sexism and man's tendency to Fascism, and fear of a self-induced apocalypse. It was dubbed "The Thinking Man's Zombie Movie," a distinction only true if you haven't been paying attention for the past 70 years. For On the Media, I'm Arun Rath.
(*) In the original broadcast,Sam Raimi was erroneously reported as the director of The Cider House Rules. Lasse Hallstrom directed The Cider House Rules.