I’m not a big zombie movie fan. In fact, to be honest, and I don’t really care for the genre. It might have to do with the fact that they are a subset, or, at least, a close cousin–of the horror genre, and there are very few horror films that I’ve enjoyed watching. I get roughly the same sensation watching a horror film as I do riding a roller coaster, which is to say, both feel like a voluntary colonoscopy. It’s like putting your stomach in a blender and clicking “mix.” Why would anyone choose to be that uncomfortable for no reason for an entire afternoon?
But for some reason, I’m on a streak of liking films that are satirical treatments of the zombie genre. There’s really four of these satires that immediately come to mind. One such film is Shaun of the Dead (2004), a delightful British comedy that is both heartwarming and outrageously funny. Another two of them are related, Zombieland (2009) and Zombieland: Double Tap (2019). In these two comedies, it isn’t just the zombie genre that’s parodied; it’s 20th and 21 Century cultural kitsch. Since the characters are living in the post-dystopian remnants of an America laid waste by zombies, every object they encounter is a mirror of 21st century American material culture. What the characters miss reveals something about them–and, by implication, about us, as their contemporaries. What they gravitate towards, find comforting, and veer away from illuminates something about our current culture.
Material Culture and the Head Fake in Zombieland
Those two films–in an odd sense–are like post-apocalyptic archeological excavations, a type of retro-VHI parody–with zombies. Perhaps the best example of this archeological motif is the quest Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) dedicates himself to–finding the last remaining Twinkies. It’s like an Indiana Jones plot combined with a Lebowski trip to In-N-Out Burger, but (you know) with zombies. Tallahassee has experienced unimaginable loss because of the zombie apocalypse, but Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) notes he has one weakness, a comfort food that will return him, if only briefly, to normalcy. The quest for Twinkies is Tallahassee’s version of the search for the Holy Grail. It’s his way of recovering a sense of the past.
I know where Tallahassee’s coming from–perhaps you do, too. On one of my trips to Europe in maybe 2004, I was with a couple of other college students, and we were all three hungry. Given the fact that we were in Germany–which is, you know, on the other side of the planet!–I suggested we take this opportunity to eat, I don’t know, German food.
The other two, demurred: “no, we desire, McDonald’s.” [dialogue may not be exact.]
“McDonald’s” says I, “McDonald’s? Are you freggin’ kidding me? We’re on the other side of the planet, and you want McDonald’s?”
“Yes, that’s what we want.”
I was out-voted, dear reader, so we had McDonalds. (It wasn’t a total loss; I was able to confirm that McDonald’s food really does taste identical everywhere, or at least in two continents. But that same impulse that motivated my two compatriots that afternoon persuaded me, on a different trip, to eat Subway in London–it was familiar, and I had had enough excitement for one day. And it’s this same longing that motivates Tallahassee to get those Twinkies.
My larger point though is that a film that is ostensibly about one thing, can in many ways be entirely about something else. You might call this a “head fake” film. Zombieland looks like a romantic-comedy zombie parody, and it is that. But it’s also a film about material culture and the power of every day items to bring transcendent comfort and joy. It’s a head fake film (a term I’m adopting from Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture“). Essentially, I’m identifying a head fake film, as a film that functions–thematically, narratively, or symbolically–differently than it at first appears. Of course, many films are head fake films, but some more so than others.
Get Out, Horror and Comedy
And that brings me to Get Out, the 2017 horror/thriller film, directed by an exciting new auteur director, Jordan Peele. Peele’s film tells the story of Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), a young man engaged to the beautiful Rose Armitage (Allison Williamson). There’s a mixed-race relationship, and Rose’s family is not quite rich, but a bit more than simply upper middle class. They have servants around the house, all of them black. And there’s something off about them, but Chris can’t figure out what. He enlists the help of his friend, Rod Williams (Lil Rey Howery). Rod is an employee at the TSA, and this film plays that for laughs both ways (He’s a little bit Newman on Seinfeld and a little bit what Edward Snowden was warning us about).
At any rate, Rod is one of the few people Chris can trust, as he grows increasingly disconcerted with his surroundings. The other person he can trust is his fiancée, Rose–or so he thinks. For as the film continues, Chris discovers that his intuition was right. And his discovery is, well, freaky to say the least. The Armitage family has been harvesting the bodies of African Americans and replacing their brains with those of elderly white people, who are looking for a new lease on life and a touch of cultural prestige that they associate with Black culture. Rose’s father, Dean Armitage (Bradly Whitford), is a neurosurgeon, and with the help of his son, Jeremy Armitage (Caleb Landry Jones), he removes most of the brains of unsuspecting black men and women and replaces them with the brains of older white people. The victims still exist, just barely, in a sort of passive role, but the white person takes over their body and controls it with their own brain. I mean, I can’t help but think of Krane, the timeless enemy of Renaissance turtles.
Critics have made any number of claims about this film. There is an obvious racial subtext to the film, but I’ve heard other interpretations that get at related but more specific issues. For instance, different parts of the film–including the ending of the film–touch on the inequity of treatment by law enforcement based on race. My friend Kirk used a reader response interpretive lens once to note how the ending of the film is received differently by predominantly white versus black audiences (I can’t find his movie review, but here’s his blog).
Get Out, the Zombie Head Fake
But what I’d like to talk about is how Get Out is a head fake film. It’s not just a parody, comedy, and horror film. It also hits many of the hallmarks of a zombie film. If we look at some common definitions of a zombie on dictionary.com, we’ll see some connections to Get Out. For instance, one of their definitions of zombie involves “a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, listless, or seemingly rote; automaton.” The type of stilted, rigid behavior and monotone speaking style referenced here resembles the zombie-esque characters in Get Out. There are other connections between zombie myths and this film. There’s the obvious fact that the victims’ brains are being “eaten,” at least metaphorically in the film, which makes the story figuratively a zombie story, if not literally.
Zombie films may include a thematic subtext that addresses the way humans create an other, in order to embody their fears, anxieties, or hatreds onto another group, and this is of course true for Get Out. Just like with any film, these thematic motifs are sometimes purposeful and sometimes subconscious; they are sometimes a way to interrogate and critique ideas, but still other times, simply a manifestation of the thing they’re portraying (such as racism).
An article by Kyle Allkins, “‘Those Things and You People’: Issues of Racism in Zombie Cinema,” speaks to how Zombie films can either reinforce or call reflective attention to the semiotics of racism, depending on how the story is told. Allkins observes that this genre typically portrays a racist exclusion of the other, but “zombie cinema may also punish the culturally normative ‘we or us’ for seeking violence against the racialized or feminized ‘them'” (112).
In other words, zombie films can either uncritically reflect America’s worst racist attitudes, or they can critically interrogate those prejudices, and the zombies can either be seen as horrific monsters or an unfairly “othered” they. Peele’s treatment of the conflicts between Chris and the other characters seems to highlight the racial hypocrisy of Rose’s family, so the director’s intent seems fairly clear–perhaps, at times, even a bit heavy handed.
This act of othering emerges out of the communal fears of the culture that produces the film, and America’s evergreen fears still spring from its first and still lasting original sin: racism. And so it’s not surprising that racism is the subtext of many (though not all) zombie films. One webpage connected to The Ohio State University covers “The History of the Zombie in Popular Culture.” This short history points out that “[a]s an element of popular culture, zombies have often represented common fears or anxieties held by the country at the time.” The article is actually quite helpful in showing how a film can invoke the semiotics of contemporary cultural conflicts, whether they be about race, disease, technology, or consumerism.
Clearly Get Out immerses itself in issues concerning racism. There is an othering happening throughout the story. We see it when Chris and Rose are pulled over by the police officer and when Chris meets Rose’s family, who seem to betray a mild antipathy towards him. It’s present during the passive-aggressive interactions at the garden party. And the othering hits its apex during the dramatic reveal in the third act.
One thing I find interesting about this film is how there is a blending of community and zombies. I mean, who are really the zombies? Is it the older white people trying to destroy Chris, or is it those characters whose brains have been partially removed–or both? And since Rose’s community is at once both marginal (different from the rest of society) but yet symbolic of more prevalent white racial attitudes in America, how much can Chris and Rod truly escape the zombie horde?
Of course, I’m not the first to observe the film’s zombie subtext, but it’s a deft touch by Peele that I appreciate. And I have a special appreciation for films that have a head fake. It can be fun to see how a film’s layered meanings surreptitiously reveal themselves. I feel like there’s far more to say here, and I’ve only scratched the surface, but if you haven’t seen the film, I’d invite you to review it. It’s humorous, thoughtful, dramatic, well written, and unlike most horror films, not that gory or scary. Again, I don’t like horror films, but I liked this one. So, get home, and get watching Get Out!