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Towards an Ideology-Free Zombie Apocalypse, Update

September 14, 2011

What I’ve been saying in this blog, I guess, is that the last two decades represent a break from previous versions of popular media in the 20th century. Its not just a paradigmatic break. Those are common, and each decade or so presents a new one; we expect this, and some would say that the breaks happen because we expect them to in the first place. But the popular films of the last 15 or so years, and those have been mainly in the realm of what can be accepted as Science Fiction, are just really different from the films of the sixties, seventies and eighties.

To illustrate this, we can take the case of the I Am Legend films. Only one of these films is called I Am Legend—the most recent one starring Will Smith. But they’re all based on the same novel of that name by Richard Matheson; in addition to 2007’s I Am Legend,  the work spawned 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man. These aren’t remakes, but rather independent adaptations of the same source material. The bare bones: due to a unique immunity, iconoclast Robert Neville survives a worldwide plague brought on by human failings; he is caught between two poles of other survivors. Oh, and zombies.

Vincent Price, the suburban schlubby Neville

You can read these films sub-textually, and derive all kinds of messages, symbology and meanings. But what is more important in this context is the text itself, the ideological messages inserted by the authors and producers. That is, the messages that seem quite obviously put there by the producers as a message to their audience, to history and the culture they’re a part of forming–the stuff that’s quite obviously put there.

The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man have strong textual messages that are quite obviously a product of their time, and in a sense form a time capsule of the prevailing dichotomies, arguments and dialectics of the day. The Last Man on Earth is very interested in critiquing conformity, in expressing anxiety about ‘cognitive invasions’ from Europe [i.e. communism], the search for the meaning of life as expressed through the individual’s isolation in suburbia. Neville has nothing better to do than ask the big questions: What are ‘people’? Why does the individual need them? And do we accept them as they are? Or would we destroy those that we dislike if we got the chance?

The Neville character actively seeks out the undead created by the world wide plague to slaughter them, for no other reason but that he hates their disease, and the fact that they were once human and therefore now different than he. The sense of alienation is palpable through out the film. We realize that Neville was something of an iconoclast to begin with; a scientist who understood both human nature and the ramifications of the plague to a deeper degree than his community. The last scene posits a disturbing story of the post-war American, caught between a rapidly changing capitalist society where the promise of contentment seems elusive and the fear of infiltration and sudden paradigmatic shift. These were the intellectual conversations of the day; the specter of nuclear holocaust, communist subversion and the deformation of historical human society by suburban flight.

Charlton Heston, bachelor pad urban Neville

The Omega Man is also a product of its day. Seventies Neville, played by the meta-apocalypse-archetype Charlton Heston, is different from our sixties Neville. But nonetheless, he remains a character that didn’t fit into the world to begin with. The Omega Man places this outsiderness within the vacuum of a generational and culture war. Like its predecessor, there is an anxiety about the technological/political normal world, but the poles of antagonism toward it are embodied by culture war prototypes—young hippies vs. regressive and antagonistic populism. Neville is an establishment character,  but nevertheless a nihilistic iconoclast as well, not unlike the astronaut he plays in Planet of the Apes. But early on, its revealed that he is nonetheless attracted to youth culture’s hopefulness. He watches Woodstock [apparently the last film ever made] so many times that he can, with a face riven by mourning and regret, repeat the lines as they’re spoken. When Neville is finally ready to emerge from isolation, he chooses to join the youth culture.  Despite the death of the Neville character, which happens in every iteration of the film, he becomes a sort of messianic figure; too good/different in a sense for the world to come, but whose blood nevertheless infuses the hippie Eden that the youth will now create thanks to his work.

An ideological message infuses both of these films, and its obviously there because the authors meant it to be. There are of course unintended messages, but we can ignore those for now. Both films sought to deliver a clear ideological message, and their creators weren’t afraid to ruffle some feathers in the process. The Omega Man even has an interracial, intergenerational romance that’s handled quite beautifully for the time and in the context. Its not an accident that The Last Man on Earth‘s new humans are clothed in fascist looking uniforms, lacking any sort of individuality. Nor is it a coincidence that the band of survivors that represent the potential for repopulating the earth in The Omega Man are all under the age of 28. And in each film, the filmmakers obviously seek to show that the survivors want to establish a different regime in the US; in 1964, that would be a communal society that eschews individualism, and in 1971 that is a youth culture inspired utopia. In both films, there is dialogue that bears this out, its not meant to be inferred. For example, one of the youth survivors explicitly say that his aim is to establish an Eden, but without listening to the “snake” as his predecessors did.

Will Smith, amorphous post-millennial dog-loving Neville

That’s why I Am Legend is so baffling. It has no textual ideological message. The authors aren’t struggling with any big questions of the day. Because there are no big questions of the day in Neville’s pre-apocalyptic world. There is no war, poverty, famine, racism, genderism. There are no extra-territorial threats, no fears of ideological subversion, no culture war. Even the emergence of the disease has no greater symbology as intended by writers, though it certainly could have been put there as a critique of a faulty drug approval system, bigPharma–even the somewhat unoriginal theme of the hubris of mankind playing god. The pre-apocalyptic world is a bland utopia where everyone was middle class to begin with and the only problem, apparently, was cancer. Whereas the previous films retain Mathieson’s original idea of a sort of culture war created by the survivors, plying their own utopian vision to remake the world, there is no dichotomy here. In a telling scene Smith’s Neville also knows the lines of a film by heart after repeated viewings. But where Omega‘s Woodstock brought with it an embedded message,  Legend‘s Neville is watching Shrek.

In Legend‘s post-apocalyptic Manhattan, plague victims are hyper active zombie killing machines. The survivors are completely unaffected by the virus living in a shangrila and waiting for Neville’s blessing to simply start all over again, no lessons learned. If there is a message, it only seems to be a sort of macabre adolescent fascination with being the last person on earth and the surperficial consequences; being able to take whatever you want whenever you want, and dealing with isolation and loneliness. Exploring that premise takes all of five minutes.

I’ll refrain from a conclusion of what this all means. But if sci-fi film has been for modern society a way of working out its issues, what does it say when Sci Fi refuses to actually present any?

Update:

Some other glaring differences between 1971’s The Omega Man and 2007’s I Am Legend:

Omega, heroine African American, hero White, interracial romance [after three years of celibacy, in any case, first man and first woman contact would invariably end in sex].

Legend, heroine Latina, hero African American. No sex, not even fondling. Probably the most unrealistic premise in an already pretty unlikely sci fi scenario, especially because both actor and actress are insanely hot, impecably dressed and at bootcamp-levels of physical perfection.

Omega Neville is immune to virus because he managed to inject himself with the only available sample of the innoculation, being the scientist that was in charge of the health project for the plague. Its never explained how Legend‘s Neville acquires immunity. He’s apparently the head scientist for the project, and also coincidentally the only person in the world who happens to be immune. Obviously this was producer’s fear of a morally ambiguous premise that Neville innoculated himself, but couldn’t innoculate others, [or, as in Omega, wouldn’t].

Interesting Similarities:

–in both Omega and Legend, the military is in charge of the public health management of the plague. Not coincidentally, the US was then and is now, involved in various conflicts throughout the world. 1963’s Neville [named Morgan in this version for some odd reason] is a civilian scientist, coincidentally during an ostensible period of US peace. And also interestingly, 60’s Neville is a subordinate to the head of research on the disease. In both Omega and Legend, Neville is the most brilliant scientist in the world, in charge of the international research on the disease.

–in Omega and Legend, novel audio technology takes a central role in various scenes. Omega-Neville is a hip dude with eight track in both car and at home,  Legend-Neville listens to Ipod.

–The seventies and 00’s Neville’s take full advantage of the plethora of designer clothing available throughout the city. They remain impeccably dressed and groomed through most of the film, and they keep the house tidy. Compare that to schlubby Neville of the sixties. House is a mess, dresses like high school science teacher.

One last word on Contagion, Soderbergh’s realist take on the Zombie Apocalypse, which also leaves discussion of current events out of the plot line. Here is the difference between a smart and somewhat courageous blockbuster, and the kind of fearful filmmaking of I Am Legend. In the last scene of Contagion [and whether you like it or not, its a Sci Fi film], a political statement is made. Capitalism, which urges the decimation of the environment and increasingly unsafe food preparation practices, is responsible for the disease. Moreover, there needn’t be a cognitive aspect to the disease. The infected fill out the role of dangerous antagonists reserved for Zombies in other films, as a simple product of human nature in a capitalist, bureaucratic society. There’s a remarkable difference when sci fi makes a statement, compared to fearful sci fi that takes no chances.

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