I have talked before how I found Stephen King‘s On Writing in a bargain bin in the street, and how that discovery catapulted me toward a dozen years of constant writing since. The novel I sat down to write after reading Kings part-memoir/part-manual is called “The Other Side of the End,” about a group of friends too hungover to make it to the apocalypse. It isn’t very good, but after I wrote it in the winter of 2006 I came to realize that it was in significant ways writing about 9/11. Though I didn’t construct the book this way, it was answering the question, “What would a generation of people raised on the fear of 9/11 be like?” I became convinced that the subtle formation of that watermark of American history was overlooked and under-considered. And, yet, we were all formed on that fateful day seventeen years ago.
Last week I began reading Stephen King‘s Danse Macabre, having finished H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature and thinking about future work in the field. Danse Macabre is King’s critical study of the genre of horror fiction on film and in print, focussing on 1950-1980 (his years of primary formation and just as he was beginning to come to the front as a leader in the genre). In a lot of ways, it is exactly what I expected: a smart, punchy, humorous and informed study written in a mix of pottymouth prose, spirited self-reflection, and endless intertextual references–all interspersed with moments of lyrical beauty and pungent critical thought. So far, at least, it is a great book, though I wish his book and film summaries were a bit more coy about the endings and plot twists. Like C.S. Lewis, King sometimes underestimates how much us normal human beings have read.
What I didn’t anticipate was how strong King is at making the links between culture and these horror stories. This is intentional on his own part, though not because he thinks that any particular film or book or movement is fatalistically determined by its cultural moment and inherently limited that way. Instead, King argues that the horror genre has arisen organically out of human experience. We see this not just in how it uses archetypes–symbols that we all see in our dreams and rituals and the stories we tell–but also in the primal experiences of human fear, bigotry, disgust, horror, alienation, and terror.
As an example of this, I’d like to share with you the unusual link that King makes between 9/11 and the 2004 remake of Romero’s classic, Dawn of the Dead. In this essay he agrees with my argument that 9/11 has formed us all and is still forming us. I tried to capture this idea last year with my post on 9/11 and Mythology, and King backs me up on this point. If you want to know about the political situation we are in, the films that we are watching, the books that pop on and off bestseller lists, the protests you see on campus and on TV, and the culture wars we are waging, we need to look at the mythological moments of our history.
As we choose to remember those who died that day and sacrificed themselves to save others, we also should remember how we are still shaped by the primal experiences of human fear, bigotry, disgust, horror, alienation and–shall I add terror?–in the wake of the 21st century’s founding moment: the collapse of the towers in lower Manhattan.
Genius perfected would be Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn [of the Dead] remake, which begins with one of the best opening sequences of a horror film ever made. Ana (the gifted actress and director Sarah Polley) is relaxing in bed with her husband, Luis, when they are visited by the cute little skate-girl who lives next door in their suburban Milwaukee development. When Luis goes to see what she wants, cute little skate-girl tears his throat open, turning him into a zombie . . . and in the Snyder version, the zombies move fast. (Romero never liked that part, but it works.) Through a miracle of inspired editing (just when did she pick up those car keys, for instance?), Ana is able to escape, first into a neighborhood that’s become a slaughterhouse, and finally into the countryside (with a handy mall nearby).
I’d argue that the most effective terror sequences are either the result of instinct or pure accident rather than screenwriting or direction, and that’s the case here. Polley is a Canadian actress whose face was largely unknown to American audiences in 2004 (her main claim to fame was getting fired by Disney after refusing to remove her peace-sign necklace at an awards ceremony when she was twelve—you go with your bad self, Sarah). If we saw an actress like Julia Roberts or Charlize Theron as Ana, we’d know she’s going to live. Because it’s Polley, we root for her to escape . . . but we’re not sure she will. Those first nine minutes are a sonata of anxiety.
The opening action ends with Ana crashing her car against a tree (and once again, witness the miracles that can be accomplished in the editing room: the car runs at the tree on the driver’s side, but in the next shot hits dead center). The credits that follow, set to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” are accompanied by documentary and faux-documentary footage (there’s that Blair Witch influence again) that’s supposed to show us the onset of the zombie plague. But the first shot shows something entirely different, and it’s here that Snyder shows us exactly what this inspired remake is about and how well he knew what was driving our fear-engines at that particular point in time.
What we see in that brief black-and-white shot is what looks like a thousand devout Muslim worshippers, bowing toward Mecca in unison—an image of mass belief that most Americans found troubling. By 2004, only three years downriver from 9/11, rampant consumerism was the last thing on our minds. What haunted our nightmares was the idea of suicide bombers driven by an unforgiving (and unthinking, most of us believed) ideology and religious fervor. You could beat ’em or burn ’em, but they’d just keep coming, the news reports assured us. They would keep on coming until either we were dead or they were. The only way to stop them was a bullet in the head.
Remind you of anything?
And don’t accuse me of racism or religious prejudice, either. We’re not talking about political, religious, or intellectual concepts here; we’re talking about terror, and that’s exactly what Snyder’s zombies are, it seems to me: fast-moving terrorists who never quit. You can’t debate with them, you can’t parley with them, you can’t even threaten their homes and families with reprisals. All you can do is shoot them and then steer clear of the twitchers. Remember that their bite is worse than fatal.
“Are they dead?” one of the mall survivors asks Steve, the repulsive rich guy.
His response: “Dead-ish.”
Man, that’s scary.
Yet some of the terror in Dawn transcends subtext and goes straight to the id. The movie’s most frightening moment has nothing to do with politics. One of the mall survivors (Kenneth, played by Ving Rhames), has been communicating with another survivor (Andy, played by Bruce Bohne) who is stranded on a nearby roof. They flash chess moves at each other on restaurant dry-erase boards and note zombies who resemble celebrities (Andy, a dead shot, then picks them off). After being bitten by a ghoul, the dying (or already dead) Andy flashes one final sign: not words but a jagged smear of blood. In that single three-second shot, Snyder tells us all we need to know about the insatiate hunger that lives in the decaying interior of an undead brain.
In the end, the survivors—those who haven’t been killed by zombies or each other—set sail on the loathsome Steve’s booze-cruise boat, heading for an unnamed island where they hope to find safety. The final credits suggest that hope is probably vain. It’s not a cheery conclusion, but it didn’t hurt the movie’s grosses (Dawn dethroned Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ at the box office, suggesting that John Lennon was wrong—zombies, not the Beatles, turned out to be more popular than Jesus). And that ending probably reflected the audience’s deepest underlying fear: How can you escape terrorists who don’t care about dying?