Sometimes I view a sub-par (or downright terrible) zombie film that still has a redeeming aspect or quality to it–a performance, or special effects sequence, or cameo that I think is just great–despite being in the middle of a lousy film. Such is the case with Brian Posehn’s performance in the 2007 Chris Kattan and James Denton straight-to-DVD zombie western, Undead or Alive.
First off, it’s not a terrible film. But neither is it Shaun of the Dead. I’d give it about a 5 out of 10. It’s got a few good jokes, and Kattan is all right. (I always liked his “Mango” SNL character in small doses, and his “Gay Hitler” was funny, even if it was just one joke.) James Denton gets some of the funniest lines, actually. Navi Rawat is ridiculously good-looking as the love-interest, but doesn’t really add to the comedy. The real highlight, however is Brian Posehn!!!
I’ve liked Posehn for a long time. I never watched him on Just Shoot Me!, but I thought his bit-parts on Mr. Show were awesome, and I’ve always liked his stand-up comedy. If you don’t know his name, Google him, and you’ll probably find you’ve seen his face before.
Anyhow, Posehn is born to play a zombie. His natural, lumbering gait is perfectly suited for the living dead. His zombie mannerisms–whether attacking, startled, or biding his time–are just excellently rendered. My only complaint is that there is not enough of him in the film! In the opening sequence of Undead or Alive, the Posehn-zombie decapitates a chicken. Then he’s featured a little more in the introduction, and then again at the very end of the film. Alack! If only he could have been the main character!
Anyhow, watching Posehn’s excellent performance made me think about other actors whom I would like to see play zombies. Here is my list (What’s yours?):
Udo Kier (Has already played every other monster there is)
I’ve often heard the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash called the three most important punk-bands of all time because of what they respectively established about the genre. Namely:
The Ramones established how punk should sound.
The Sex Pistols established that punk should be rude and dissrepectful to authority.
The Clash established that punk should be political (specifically, left-leaning political)
In that connection, it is interesting to think about the relative importance of zombie movies in terms of what they established about the zombie-genre (or just the zombie). If people know one thing about zombies (modern zombies, not the “classical” Haitian voodoo kind), it’s that they are reanimated corpses, arisen from the dead and on the hunt for the living. But if people know a second thing about zombies (most do), it’s that they want to eat your brain. Usually, zombies are portrayed as being able to articulate a primitive version of the word: “…braaaaaaaains…”
Based upon these dominant perceptions about zombies, one must conclude (correctly) that the most important zombie film of all time is Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. However, one must also conclude that right behind it at #2 is Dan O’Bannon’s lesser-known Return of the Living Dead.
Night of the Living Dead established that zombies are reanimated corpses who are after you.
Return of the Living Dead established that zombies want to eat your brains.
I’m continually surprised to find that many zombie fans, even learned aficionados, don’t know exactly where the whole “…braaaaains…”-thing comes from, or if it even had a single origination-point. Well, it did. It was Return of the Living Dead.
Released in 1985, ROTLD features campily-hilarious 80’s stereotypes and great music. In addition to being canonical to zombie fans, ROTLD is a delightful movie (one of my favorites) and an excellent entrance to the genre for anyone unfamiliar. The acting is surprisingly good (for an unknown cast), and the special-effects are great. The violence is creative, witty, and well-timed. There’s gratuitious nudity, sure, but it feels funny and appropriate to the story, not forced and perv-y. The immortal (to zombie fans) lines “send more cops” and “send more paramedics” are also spoken in this film.
You’ve got to give props to Romero as the originator of the modern zombie. He’s the “Don of the Dead,” the “Knight of the Living Dead.” Sure. Absolutely. No question.
But as far as I’m concerned, in order of importance, Dan O’Bannon should be right behind him.
I wonder what the third most important zombie film of all time is?
Most people I associate with are (to my knowledge) not racists. But it seems to me that,
within the category of “not racist,” there are two subsets I think of as “active nonracists” and “passive nonracists.”
Active nonracists note the presence of race (and sex, and class, and ethnicity) when they’re dealing with people, but make a point to be respectful of cultural differences. These people marinate in diversity-seminars, sensitivity trainings, and ethnic history months. These people, it sometimes seems to me, are nonracists by drawing attention to race.
Passive nonracists, on the other hand, don’t even notice race. When they learn that someone is white, or black, or Asian, or Hispanic, they assume nothingabout the person. They don’t even seerace as an issue. (After all, why should it be?)
George Romero, the most famous director of zombie films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead) falls into this second category. However, because he is praised so frequently for his exemplary creative work, people forget to laud him for his breathtaking lack-of-racistness, in an industry (movies) that plays on race-stereotypes to this day.
Romero cast Night of the Living Dead, his first film, in 1968. You’d think, with all the race-riots, bus boycotts, and political assassinations going on during this time, that he would at least be thinking about the race of his lead actor.
You’d be wrong.
As is well documented, Romero cast an African-American actor, Duane Jones, for the lead role of “Ben” in Night of the Living Dead simply because he came in and gave the best audition. That was all there was to it. He was the best man for the job, so he got it. Romero was so not-racist that he didn’t even see that having a black actor would change the way his film was perceived.
The rest of the country was not as enlightened as he.
Many viewers assumed that Ben’s race was part of the film’s message, and interpreted the film’s conclusion (in which Ben is mistaken for a zombie and shot) as an allegory for lynching. Even the purportedly-progressive New York Times, in its review of the film, described Duane Jones’ character as a “resourceful Negro.”
I can almost see Romero flinching as he read that. Ben wasn’t supposed to be a resourceful Negro, he was supposed to be a resourceful man. The character’s race had nothing to do with the plot of the movie.
Perhaps because of this attention, Romero did tackle the issue of race in many of his subsequent zombie films. However, it gives me faith in humanity that, in 1968, someone had such confidence in the ability of humans to transcend petty issues of racial difference, that he could make Night of the Living Dead.
Final thought: It strikes me, as I write this, that there is no word for the opposite of a racist. “Un-racist?” “Not-racist?” “Unprejudiced?” These all negate racism, but with a negative. Where is the word for someone who does not see race as an issue at all? Maybe the word for that should be “Romero.”
People could use it like:
“Dude, did Bill assume you were good at math just because you’re Asian?”
I’m Scott Kenemore, author of The Zen of Zombie (and the forthcoming Z.E.O.).
I wanted to start this blog to share thoughts I have about zombies, and interesting zombie stuff I find out about.
I find myself prompted to talk about zombies so frequently (and I consume so much zombie-related media) that I am confident I’ll be able to keep these posts interesting and relevant. For example, I’m already excited to share my thoughts about the underrated Return of the Living Dead, about George Romero’s vital contribution to the dialogue surrounding race in America, about lost zombie-gems I’ve encountered in my travels, and about the zombie-related trends I see coming in the future.
I believe I am not alone in thinking our culture is about to enter a “Golden Age” of the zombie, in which zombies will become more mainstream, but also more mature and relevant than they have ever before been.