Rigor/Mortis: The Industrial Life of Style in American Zombie Cinema

By Sutherland, Meghan | Framework, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Rigor/Mortis: The Industrial Life of Style in American Zombie Cinema


Sutherland, Meghan, Framework


In some sense, every zombie film is a kind of remake. The undead have been lumbering around recycled B-film sets and Hollywood lots since the days of silent cinema, and even in early pictures like the 1932 White Zombie (Victor Halperin, US) and the 1943 I Walked with a Zombie ( Jacques Tourneur, US), the limited horizon of actions available to them-not to mention to their inevitable prey-already gives their narratives a hint of the uncanny return. Necessity, the rote, the well-worn path: these are the trajectories traveled by bodies utterly surrendered to their own physicality. Still, since the release of Don Siegel's 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US) and George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead (US), the corpses that animate the American zombie film have conjured the idea of the remake in a decidedly more literal way. Siegel's film- itself a loose remake of Robert Wise's 1945 Body Snatcher (US)-has inspired no less than three explicit remakes: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978), Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 1993), and the forthcoming Nicole Kidman film The Visiting (Oliver Hirschbigel, 2007). And for its part, Romero's film has yielded not only a string of structurally similar sequels, but a series of remakes as well. While Romero's own films Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005) each re-enact variations on the archetypal zombie plot, wherein growing ranks of undead converge upon a small group of the living, the popular 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake (Zack Snyder) and the (once again) forthcoming Day of the Dead remake (Steve Miner, 2007) redouble them yet again. In other words, it is not just the dead bodies that are reanimated and proliferating in zombie cinema; it's the films themselves, too.

So what are we to make of this echo between the subject of the zombie film and the industrial production mode that tends to animate it? And moreover, can the mainstream zombie genre's apparent tendency toward remaking tell us something about the notion of the remake itself? There are of course a number of ways to approach these and other questions concerning both remakes and zombie films. For example, several essays in Dead Ringers and Play It Again, Sam-two recent anthologies that try to examine the remake more substantively-approach the subject from the perspective of Hollywood's economic and industrial efficiency, or with a view to isolating the ideological meanings remade films can carry in their particular historical and geographical contexts.1 In a lively philosophical departure from this paradigm, David Wills considers the remake as a concentrated expression of cinema's more generalized textual qualities, such as repetition and citation.2 And in their respective book-length studies of film remakes, Constantine Verevis and Lucy Mazdon both emphasize amalgams of these same basic coordinates, which entwine at once to constitute the remake as we know it in a larger framework of meanings and intentions; from industrial forces, to cultural and historical discourses, to issues of medium-specificity, authorship, and intertextuality.3

To be sure, all of these factors figure broadly in the remakability of the zombie film. On the one hand, the genre's cult status, its affiliation with a nofrills B-film production-style, and its record of solid returns in the Hollywood mainstream surely contribute to the high concentration of remakes. For example, Romero's low-budget, independently produced Night of the Living Dead-a box-office hit upon release that became an object of great devotion in cult cinema viewing-offers a good indication of why Hollywood might gamble on repeating the zombie formula through remakes. Not only does the repetition of cult cinema viewing procedures imply a built-in audience eager to embrace the ritualistic pleasure of seeing the same story again and again, it very nearly suggests a cost-effective indie prototype for the institutional premise that justifies the Hollywood remake's pleasures. …

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