Mel Gibson, wrote Chris Lehmann in reviewing The Passion for The Revealer, turned to the aesthetics of horror to spread his religion. Now Adam H. Becker explains how the creators of the new Dawn of the Dead deploy religion in service of the horror. The horror! Adam is an assistant professor of religious studies at New York University. He last wrote forThe Revealer about “Imam Ali in Sadr City.”
If bad art affords us an easy look at the dominant notions of a particular time and place, cinematic remakes of old, bad movies do so even more. A remake allows for a quick comparison between the then and the now, and the difference between the two versions sheds light on the interests of the more recent version and its audience.
The classic B semi-comedic horror film Dawn of the Dead (1978) has been remade and, considering its material and genre, has done extremely well at the box-office. Headlines a few weeks ago stated that it haddisplaced The Passion of the Christ in the number one spot for gross sales. At first this seemed ironic and suggested that perhaps the zeal for the Passion had more to do with the movie’s bloody shock value and cruel gore than the piety (or anti-Judaism) of its audience. However, the new Dawn of the Dead and the Passion of the Christ do not overlap only in respect to mutilation: the remake of Dawn, in contrast to its predecessor, employs a number of motifs ultimately deriving from Christianity.
Of course, many zombie movies provide an immediate and superficial comparison to the gospel narrative. In zombie movies the dead rise, walk the earth, and take the lives of the living, creating more undead. The gospels relate how, after walking the earth giving life to the dead, Jesus dies but after death rises again, his death and resurrection giving all human beings the opportunity to be immortal. That is, like a zombie but a little less glum. In the terms of this simple comparison, the zombie film is a refracted version of the life and death and life of Jesus, an upside-down gospel where instead of a movement of the living that increases from Jesus and a few fisherman and ultimately, at least in Luke-Acts, ends up in Rome, the dead are the fishers of men who increase their ranks with every bite.
Many zombie movies could be used to make this comparison. The new Dawn, however, employs a number of Christian themes and motifs, to the point that it subverts the upside-down evangelism of its own genre and promotes a piety that in a certain light resembles that of The Passion.
After the opening sequence, which brilliantly, speedily depicts the breakdown of the hero’s surrounding society into a zombie nightmare, the opening credits run with interspersed news footage from around the world showing the zombie menace spreading everywhere, and fast. Most of these images are not decipherable. However, one that was clear, especially since it was so different from all the images of chaos, was a shot of Muslim men praying in a mosque. The diverse and complex experience of the mosque is often reduced in media depictions to the moment during obligatory prayer when all heads descend to the floor. This is certainly an important part of mosque ritual — the community as a whole is submitting to God — but these images have often been used in a manner that plays to Western fears of Oriental despotism and submission, suggesting that Islam poses a great danger to Americans who pride themselves on their individualism.
Whatever the filmmakers’ intentions, the footage of Muslim men praying among shots of civil unrest, violence, and death also immediately invokes what, for lack of a better term, we call the “War on Terror.” Considering the multiple apocalyptic references in Dawn as well as the inevitability of September 11th being evoked in scenes of societal breakdown, Muslim men in a mosque can be transformed in the audience’s minds, through the film’s many cues, into the very opposite of fellow humans praying for salvation. The Muslims are the zombies. There is precedent for this in the first Dawn film, which, in its opening sequences, through the cartoonish verité style of a blaxploitation film, seemed an allegory for the revolt and suppression of the black and latino masses. (If you see the original, please look out for the terrible “Puerto Rican” in brown face make-up.)
In both Dawn movies the protagonists soon make their way to a shopping mall where they find shelter as well as the various amenities they need (and don’t really need) to survive. The first film humorously presents the mall as filled with zombies who, as one character puts it, came there out of habit from their earlier lives. Although this line is repeated verbatim in the newDawn, the critique of consumerist culture is downplayed in the new film. Now, the mall is marked off with names that resonate with the film’s apocalypticism. The new Dawn takes place in the “Crossroads Mall,” where the protagonists spend much of the movie by the “Hallowed Grounds Coffee” shop. They find some of their necessities at a store called “Metropolis,” a name which calls to mind the famous film about the revolt of the masses with a not-so-subtle Christian subtext.
The tag line of the movie –“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth” — also seems to have undergone a kind of Christianization in the new Dawn. In the original film, this line is intoned by one of the protagonists quoting his grandfather, who was a voodoo priest. In the new film, the same actor from the first movie makes a cameo appearance as an African-American preacher on one of the last television broadcasts before even the TV networks shut down. He quotes this line as he is discussing the endtime. Thus the film’s tag line has been transformed from voodoo macabre to Christian apocalypse.
Aside from the multitude of mainly nameless deaths, which creates an army of zombies the living have to avoid through the rest of the movie, the new Dawn follows takes a more traditional horror flick path in using death to convey morality and judge the lives of those about to die. In the new Dawn, you die because you are selfish or immoral. A sycophantic mall security guard who follows the orders of the heartless head of security is marked for death from the beginning. An oversexed, faggy executive who is depicted as a sort of hip media jerk regularly cracks jokes while the others plan the group’s survival. He dies. A woman who has sex with the hedonistic executive dies a most Dante-esque and hilariously gory death. Someone chopping up zombies with a chainsaw slips and ends up driving the saw from her collarbone down through her chest.
Other deaths in the film are redemptive. The heartless head of security is at first inhumane, caring only for his own safely and that of his fellow security guards. After his brief rule is overthrown by a coup within the group, he eventually proves to be a team player. His commitment to the group and his redemption are proven by his final actions: In a flight scene he tells the others to go ahead; he holds off the zombies and finally, when he can’t hold them back any longer, he blows up a propane tank, killing himself and dozens of zombies and blocking the path so that his friends are saved. The once-callous head of security, who became upset when people were making a mess in his mall, has now given his life so others might live — demonstrating how close contemporary Christian and Muslim notions of martyrdom really are, since, if the people he kills were not already dead, we might label him a suicide bomber.
Another character who believes that he has always been a failure in life realizes that he has been bitten by a zombie. He tells the others to go on. They leave him as he contemplates the sunrise with a loaded gun, ready to blow his own brains out right before he dies in order to avoid becoming one of the undead. Again, his forthrightness leads to his own death, which in turn allows others to live. In contrast, the self-inflicted deaths in the old Dawn arose only out of despair, as in the beginning of the film when a young cop, horrified by the social breakdown occurring around him, shoots himself. At the end of the film, one of the protagonists tells his companion to leave him behind as she escapes, but at the last minute decides to live and fights his way to safety.
The redemptive deaths of the new Dawn serve as microcosms of the larger redemption implicit in apocalypse. All the death and destruction of the endtime purifies the world and restores balance by calling in all debts that are due. Perhaps most disturbingly, if we ignore the dark twist implicit in the footage running during the credits, one of the last shots of the movie is of a former marine standing in front of the American flag, suggesting that after the crucible burns away the impurities of this world, thecity on the hill will be left as the holy remnant.