George Romero and Societal Breakdown

I have a personal history with George Romero entirely separate from the fact that I met him once at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. It was back in the last few years of the 1990s, when I was a tween, that I got really into low budget 70s and 80s horror movies. Introduced me to what Perfidious Albion once called ‘video nasties‘ through the last years of the video rental store. The favorite of mine adjacent to this genre was the original Dead Trilogy, my favorite film trilogy of all time to this day. Night of the Living Dead, both its original and 1990 remake (both were made by Romero hence the lack of usual decline in quality of remakes) got me hooked, and the totally apocalyptical conclusion of Day of the Dead was an apt and surprisingly Epicurean conclusion to the series. But the real stand out was the middle entry, Dawn of the Dead. My favorite movie of all time to this day. I still remember the night I first watched it. It was the week of Halloween, 1997 and I was home alone. Despite the movie already being twenty years old, I had never seen gore like that, nor such a perfect blend of bleakness and comedy. I was a kid and coming into an awareness that shopping malls were the nexus of social interaction still for the time (though this would be the last decade that would be the case), and did not like that, and so thoroughly enjoyed the thorough pisstake of consumer culture the movie represented. Not to mention that soundtrack with what has to be the most iconic (to me) main theme of any movie. I had yet to be acquainted with Italian synth-prog-rock band Goblin, now, thanks to the Giallo film subgenre, a general staple of my life- but unknown to me then. More importantly, I liked that human society still exists at the start of the movie, despite being a sequel to Night, but gradually fades in the background before utterly unraveling by the end, leaving only disparate groups of people to fight over resources while they still hold off the zombies.

No movie after this trilogy ever got world-ending zombies right. Including (and especially) the non-Romero remakes. Romero’s zombies were not supposed to be fast or threatening. The entire point was that humanity destroys itself when confronted by a novel threat of suitable shock value, even if the danger isn’t actually all that great on its own terms. Mass panic, fear, and selfishness are all that is needed to cause a collapse of modern society. Each of the films in the trilogy shows a certain aspect of these themes to perfection. Dawn, in particular, really stands out for its depiction of the news media as it declines along with the rest of society. The opening scene is a chaotic newsroom willing to send people to their deaths in overrun rescue stations rather than lose viewers. From there, as our intrepid band breaks out on their own, we mostly experience what is happening in the greater world through radio and television. The background sets become more ragged looking, the presenters more tired, the discussions more chaotic. Until finally, all transmissions cease.

And if you thought this was cynical, in 2006 Land of the Dead rolled around and we got to see civilization’s reboot quite literally eat itself once again due to an inability to deal with class inequality.

But while the Dead Trilogy may be Romero’s best faire, it is one of his other movies, The Crazies, that we should turn to foremost in the era of Bungled Pandemic. While definitely not one of his best movies as an artistic production, and mildly irksome to my inner military history nerd due to the ubiquity of M1 Carbines shown in the 1970s army, it remains an exceptional take on government, bureaucratic, and small town bungling and miscommunication and is tied only with It Comes At Night for my favorite pandemic movie.

“Oh Gentlemen, we are not dealing with the flu virus here.” The most sympathetic character in The Crazies is played by the same actor who did the best background character in Dawn of the Dead.

In The Crazies, a bioengineered virus by the Department of Defense is accidentally released due to a plane crash over a town north of Pittsburgh. The virus, codenamed Trixie, drives people into violent and irrational fits of behavior making them murderous and/or suicidal. The town is already half descended into chaos by the time the army arrives and begins setting up a quarantine. The initial response was badly bungled due to the need for secrecy, and just when the state forces are beginning to start fixing the situation the people begin revolting. As scientists are given the correct amount of leeway to do real work, the bungled edifice around them crumbles at the moment when it can do some good. The damage is done, a heavy handed government response is too deadly and the people no longer believe nor seek to obey state decrees as too many have been killed or detained.

And here is where the most interesting part of the film comes to play. Unlike the Dead Trilogy, there is no way to tell who is infected with Trixie and who is merely reacting due to stress and mass panic from societal breakdown. The movie shows us multiple massacres and gunfights between the army and the citizens where it is entirely unclear if anyone is even infected with the virus at all. The main band of townies we follow is entirely sympathetic when we see them storm an army occupied house and massacre the soldiers there. But when it becomes obvious part of their party is infected we also see that the main military figures we are following are also sympathetic as the existence of the virus is in fact quite real.

Meanwhile, the monotonous military drum roll music that provides most of the film’s soundtrack goes from annoying but perhaps reassuring and authoritative to increasingly farcical as the entire setting and containment operation collapse under multiple factors of bureaucratic clashes and incompetence. Additionally, the use of amateur actors and locally recruited extras (a common in Romero films) is actually a boon as real life people in a crisis behave like amateurs and not actors with prescribed roles. The heroic Dr. Watts, played by the memorable Richard France, is too rushed to tell his aide the details of the vaccine he is developing and then, right as he completes his task successfully, is caught up in a stampede of detained townies and killed in the resulting mob rush, his work lost. The last surviving rebel local that we followed is finally captured after everyone he sought to escape with has been (rightly or wrongly) killed. It is clear he has natural immunity and even knows it, but he elects to stay silent out of spite once under government custody. Whether this situation is handled well considering the its chaotic and unprecedented nature becomes irrelevant as a new outbreak is reported in Louisville.

This leaves us with some important questions: Did the virus only effect a few people and the rest was all resulting panic? Who was really infected and who wasn’t then? These questions are never answered. It is worth noting that the 2010 Crazies remake, while not a meatheaded disaster like the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake was, makes it obvious who is infected and who is not, which fundamentally undermines the core ambiguity of the original film.

Once again, like in Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s filmmaking is an intense and personal-to-small group view into societal breakdown while, like in real life, feeding incomplete information from rumor, hearsay, and a dysfunctional media. Romero was no fan of unrestrained capitalism or the carceral state, and I can’t help but think he, along with other later-tier Silent Generation directors and writers, saw something in the coming Boomer zeitgeist that would lead to only the most farcical of societal breakdowns. A plague of mullets and hideously colored clothing and interior decor that would usher in a chaotic new dark age of misinformation, confusion, and mass panic.

Set to farcical mall muzak, of course:

The Consolations of Big Picture History

modern plague doctor

Continuing the trend of using my own illustrations for the blog for the time being. It just so happens that I had a picture of a plague doctor in a modern subway station from a few years ago and that just works for this post.

In times of crisis and breakdown there is a tendency to turn to religion and philosophy for context and meaning. I disagree that these should come first. It is history that should come first because it is only in history that the experiences of the present can be directly shown to be outgrowths and inevitable processes of the past. A past that rhymes with often surprising regularity and binds experiences across generations.

This is not to demand the divorcing of history from other concepts in the humanities-indeed that would be foolish. I simply want to prioritize events over interpretation even while I acknowledge that both working in tandem is necessary. Why? Because an un-anchored interpretation on its own is simply editorialism and a concession to postmodern solipsism. Religion on its own is an even more extreme version of this. History, even vague and disputable history, is by definition based around clear cut events and therefore sets limits on just how much editorializing can come from studying it (even if as a humanities discipline there is still quite a lot to editorialize).

Most likely, just like after 9/11, we are about to see an uptick in religious fervor, cult activity, and large groups of people retreating into idealist and individualist-affirming philosophies. This is exactly the wrong path forward, especially considering that it is materialism, science, community response, and state policy alone that are going to curb pandemics and climate change.

If you wish for consolation in the grand scheme of things coming from the humanities, it is to be found in the past experiences of those who came before. Because history shows a few big things quite definitively:

-Pandemics are normal.

-Tragedy is normal.

-Social breakdowns fueled by decaying orders staffed by complacent ghouls are normal.

-These things happening in tandem with each other is not unheard of.

-Practical collective action can matter, atomized individual responses do not. True leadership, such as we see from Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand, comes from governments integrated with oligarchies of proactive expertise rather than defensive ass-covering such as we see among the great powers.

Above all, history shows something that was once summed up perfectly in a phrase from Battlestar Galactica, ‘All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.’ Fictional though the setting is, its a sentiment that could have been written by Kautilya, Thucydides, or Sun Tzu. It is also a sentiment that is deeply alienating to the western European/Christian mind, where history serves as a sort of teleological exercise where life is just a practice run to sort out who gets to go to the good place or the bad place forever.

No doubt this view brings comfort to the moral absolutists and scolds that makes up a noticeable sub-section of humanity. But we shouldn’t indulge such people any longer. They have proven themselves in their eras of dominance (christianized rome, late caliphate, the neoconservative-neoliberal present) to be unfit to hold the reigns any longer. Its time to use history as a far more accurate counter-narrative…the one of connecting us to the greater picture of our past through the shared sufferings and occasional triumphs that make up the story of life.

As evidence for this allow me to use a somewhat strange example. I have generally have nothing but scorn for the phrase ‘conservative intellectual.’ Not as a general principle but certainly applying to the 19th, 20th, and above all 21st Centuries. So-called conservative intellectuals are usually nothing but fearful rubes riddled with sexual pathologies who use eloquent language to deny that problems caused by the powerful are bad and to shift blame onto the powerless as much as possible. While I have massive disagreements and often outright disdain for many leftist and progressive thinkers, they are usually critics of entrenched systems which makes a far greater percentage of them intellectually useful.

But there are two conservative intellectuals from the modern time period that I do have respect for…one is John Gray but if he is even conservative in any way outside of general philosophical disposition anymore is debatable. The other, who I wish to talk about, is Oswald Spengler, even though my disagreements with many of his central thesis are legion.

Despite claims to the contrary, Spengler is a bit of a romantic. He is definitely a Germanic idealist, that most cursed class of philosophers. The central argument of his most famous work ‘The Decline of the West’, takes a great framework (cultures growing, flowering, and dying as part of a natural life cycle), and corrupts it with anti-material assumptions about the intrinsic and platonic nature of culture. In a way, he was a (much smarter) precursor to Samuel Huntington.

What sets him apart, however, is that he was a historian before he was a theorist. Even with his misguided focus on KULTUR, his curiosity about the world, of actual events that occurred make him a fascinating and engaging read. While his interpretation of the past was often questionable, the fact that he engaged with it to construct his world view (rather than the usual opposite of selectively harvesting the past to suit a pre-constructed theory) meant he was way ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to understanding the present and the future. His predictions were often spot on, seeing the social and environmental effects of mechanization long before that was a normal conservation to have, calling both world wars as inevitable before they happened, and how decolonization would soon occur.

Despite Spengler’s love of culturally-focused relativism, he still manages to outclass his ideologically similar thinkers by the mere fact of treating history as an ever-unfolding story that may not repeat itself but definitely rhymes. A grand tragicomedy where we all have roles to play and little control over the stage directions or even casting calls. And, to steal a line from a Thomas Ligotti story, ‘there is no one behind the camera.’

We know by looking at the past that our sufferings are not unique and that our individual influence over grand events is actually quite small. In acknowledging how little control we really do have over vast systemic processes we can become immunized to the paralyzing fear of uncertainty. The Resistance Liberal mantra of ‘this is not normal’ was always entirely wrong. It is the very definition of normality when living in times of uncertainty. Others did it before, we have to do it now. Endure stoically and your odds are making it through with less damage increase. You might even learn something in the process.

Weirdly enough this now leads me to conclude with an example that is not historical, but in the realm of popular (ostensibly) children’s entertainment. Much as its rare to find a conservative intellectual worth reading, its also rare to find popular entertainment that can engage with the general themes of history as a continuous process with no predetermined beginning or end. It is no accident that the show I am watching continuously through lockdown is Adventure Time. Why? Well, having caught most but not all of the episodes and often out of order in the past I finally had the chance to go through it all in order. But, more importantly for our purposes here, because Adventure Time does something I love to see but that is rarely done well…it presents a world where apocalyptic events are normalized into a historical context.

The nuclear analogue ‘Mushroom War’ did not end the world except for those directly killed by it, it merely started a new cycle. Everything changed but by the time of the show’s present era all those changes are now normalized. The past is tragic but also enabled the present in much the same way that the extinction of dinosaurs made way for the rise of mammals. You can never go back and it would be weird to want to. At the same time, the past is what made the present and therefore the future. While Spengler could only see civilizations dying in the absolute, Adventure Time sees civilizations as dying but still contributing to a great compost heap of context that the entire future is built upon. This theme is carried continuously forward as multiple episodes contain not only flashbacks of thousands of years but also flash-forwards where we see ruins of the (usually present-tense) Candy Kingdom. The Kingdom had a technologically advanced future beyond that shown by the present-era episodes of the show, but apparently met a similar fate to the human civilization of the ancient past (our present) and left behind only its ruins. Though this looks pessimistic since we have been conditioned to identify with the Candy Kingdom, new life forms have taken their place and the world continues on-different, but not in the end worse.

In the sense of world building, Adventure Time is actually a deeply historical and historiographical setting, even if its connection to real world history is nonexistent. Compared to most of the anglo-protestant morality plays we get in mainstream fiction as the primary output of our culture that is refreshing. It sells the idea that the study of real world history could propagate to an even greater degree: all of this is normal, and even the weird bits will one day become normal, perhaps even the start of something endearing. You are part of a of a context that started before your birth and will not conclude after you die. The personal discomforts and tragedies you face are events to bind you to the experience of the species, not alienate you from them.

Paul Ryan’s Pandemic

paul ryan workout
Preemptive apologies for the odd formatting of this post, wordpress seems to be struggling with depicting spacing as it appears in the writing box when posting. Getting paragraph breaks appears to be haraam today.
I would hardly consider myself a coronavirus alarmist. I am far more concerned about the public panic and response than the disease itself. Still, it is already having real effects on global markets so it is worth talking about why some countries respond much better than others.
Not a peep about HoW aRe We GoInG tO pAy FoR iT to once again bail out the stock market from the ‘fiscal conservatives’, Paul Ryan Pie Chart Dipshits, and SensibleSerious Neoliberals. Imagine my surprise. Never enough money for bailouts and the Pentagon, but god forbid we have a healthcare and pandemic testing response system…or modern infrastructure, or name any issue here.
Meanwhile as our dogshit healthcare system collapses the worlds largest economy is shown more and more to be based on a house of cards of 70% consumer spending. The supposedly all consuming power of the American economy rests on people being consoomers. The utter hollowing out of civil society means that this tottering pre-Punic War Carthage model of empire cannot even sustain this fragile economic balance when push comes to shove.
Joe Biden, who I generally regard as doomed in a general election against Trump, might even have a shot now considering how badly mangled the Trump administration’s response to this issue is.
That malignant little weasel may have slunk out of the public limelight, but we very much live in Paul Ryan’s America. Nowhere is that more clear than in the pathetic U.S. government response to coronavirus. This is not to say that he himself is solely responsible by any means, but as the hollow empty cipher for the model of hard-right neoliberalism and austerity embraced by the most complacent countries on Earth he is as good a hate symbol as any. Almost universally beloved by the mainstream press for most of his career, he was by any objective standard, an utter failure as a politician.
Kind of like the ‘free global markets’ ideology, Paul Ryan was a vapid nonentity who existed only to serve massive upwards wealth transfers with slick superficial ideological excuses. This required huge cuts to programs that increased societal stability and group cohesion. The privatization of civil society turned everything into a consumer good, but its OK, because its chief acolytes were edgy.
But Reagan and Thatcher are dead, and the Clintons and Bushes are dying. Paul Ryanism is being rejected left and right not because he was rational and they are extremists, but because, under the time of the Ryan-wonks, it was the center that became the true extremists who lived and breathed for the dismantling of society. Meanwhile, the organized and disciplined responses to pandemic from non-austerity practicing countries are well on track to put us to shame.
For the body politic to recover we need immunization from the virus that is Paul Ryanism. We have let this pandemic of pie charts run rampant for far too long. Meanwhile, the young fogies who take after his lead continue to fill corporate boardrooms and government offices all across the United States, the United Kingdom, and other similar countries, striving to defend the dystopia they themselves made. Right now Pence is probably having a conversation just like this, but with more snake handling.