White Zombie Supremacy: What The Horror Canon Reveals About Resisting Racism

The truly horrifying part of progressive zombie films is what they say about humanity.

Sometimes horror is far more than jump scares and gore — sometimes it reveals terrifying truths about humanity. Consider, for example, the entire zombie-film oeuvre of the late, great George Romero, and Jordan Peele’s recent zombie-inflected film Get Out.

Each of the two primary types of zombie — the enslaved automaton version associated with Haitian lore, and the viral, infectious zombie inaugurated by George Romero — often serve to critique oppressive power systems within the zombie canon. While Romero relies mainly on viral zombies to critique humans as monstrous, Peele draws on the enslaved zombie figure to de-normalize the exploitation of black bodies and skewer the entitlement of his film’s white characters.

While the group of white supremacists that marched in Charlottesville might not bring to mind a zombie horde given their active shouting and tiki-torch-wielding bravado, they can in fact be read as descendants of the iconic white posse featured at the close of Romero’s first zombie film, Night of the Living Dead. Though we don’t generally picture zombies marching apace and shouting racist slogans at full pitch, this type of viral hate is exactly what Romero was getting at. Civil Rights sentiment shapes Night, a film famous for its shocking ending: the killing of the film’s lone surviving black man, Ben, by a group of white vigilantes. In Romero’s own words, “When daylight comes…here comes the posse and here come all these rednecks. And, to me, those are the real zombies, you know.”

Zombies in George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’; Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville

This representation of “real zombies” as the true monsters of society is evident in many of Romero’s films. From Dawn of the Dead’s depiction of the race- and class-based cleansing of innocent citizens, to Land of the Dead’s evocation of the historical practice of red-lining that resulted in massively segregated communities, to Diary of the Dead’s critique of the surveillance state and anti-immigrant sentiment, Romero’s works continually engage with the legacies of imperialism and white supremacy.

Though oldest in his zombie oevre, Night is particularly relevant now given the way it frames the zombies’ desire to kill as similar to that of the white law enforcement posse led by Sheriff McClelland, the “good ole boy” officer convinced he can put an end to the zombie scourge. When asked by a reporter if he will be able to stop the zombie invasion, he confidently proclaims:“Well, there’s no problem. If you have a gun, shoot them in the head. That’s a sure way to kill ’em. If you don’t, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat ’em or burn ’em. They go up pretty easy.”

Though the “they” the sheriff refers to are zombies, his rhetoric and demeanor evoke white supremacy, as do his white swagger and uber-confidence. He and his posse ultimately kill Ben — the only human who managed to survive the harrowing night in the farmhouse. Before they do so, they are visually connected to the zombies via their pack formation and their slow-footed approach. They, like the zombies that shambled towards the farmhouse during the night, are all white.

Ben, played by Duane Jones, in George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’

While at the time of its release, the film spoke to the ways black bodies were framed as criminal in order to delegitimize Civil Rights sentiment (something explored in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th), today it speaks to rampant police brutality, the presentation of black protestors within the sports industry as “sons of bitches,” and the recent naming by the FBI of Black Lives Matter activists as “Black Identity Extremists.Sheriff Joe Arpaio, pardoned by Trump earlier this year, provides another real-life counterpart to the Sheriff in Night, while the murders of innocent black civilians by police en masse is more in keeping with the team of predominantly white male officers from Dawn of the Dead who indiscriminately kill humans in tenement housing, one of them shouting “Blow all their Puerto Rican and n***** asses right off!”

Jordan Peele’s recent film Get Out also nods towards a problematically white supremacist law apparatus. Near the start, it features a racist police officer — one who demands identification for no reason from the black male protagonist, Chris. Building on the tradition of early zombie films, in which black bodies were turned into zombies in order to feed the imperialist-capitalist mill (as in White Zombie), Get Out features white elites who bid on black bodies at modern day slave auctions so that they can take part in the “Coagula Procedure” — a medical transplantation of a white person’s brain and identity into a younger, fitter black body. Like Romero, Peele frames racist white humans as the true monsters, equating them to imperialist masters who want to benefit from black bodies/labor, all while pretending to be “post-racial.”

In contradistinction to early zombie films such as White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie, Get Out does not present white women as endangered by voodoo forces. Instead Rose and her family endanger blacks, relying on Rose as a “snare” to lure black bodies to the estate. This is made evident in the pictures Chris finds, as well as in a scene near the end of the film where we witness Rose, dressed all in white and sipping a glass of milk, peruse online dating sites for her next victim. Given that milk was historically deployed as an assimilationist beverage foisted on immigrants as an American drink that “does a body good,” we might interpret Rose here as an embodiment of calls to keep America white. Though the film came out before the bizarre video featuring white supremacists chugging milk at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, its sinister representation of milk-drinking aligns both with the history of milk as a white beverage and recent interpretations put forth by white supremacists that link milk tolerance to white racial purity.

What is truly horrific about progressive horror films like those of Romero and Peele is what they reveal about humanity. Peele cites this as a goal. Noting his desire to “make a film that acknowledges neglect and inaction in the face of the real race monster,” Peele argues, “Society is the scariest monster.”

Society as scary monster certainly rang true as hordes of white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, and it continues to ring true as police murder black bodies without cause. Yet, it is not only in such blatant acts that white supremacy rears its voracious maw. Rather, like the zombies in apocalyptic narratives, white supremacy is always just around the corner, always lurking hungrily, ever-ready to spread its infection. Like viral zombie-ism, white supremacy takes over the brains of its adherents, spreading its messages of hate and violence to a populace that has been primed for centuries to fear the Other.

Here, Sherronda J. Brown is spot on with her suggestion that an “apocalyptic whiteness” pervades the present moment — a panic that non-white bodies threaten social stability. As Brown explains:

“Apocalyptic whiteness actively seeks to hinder, not only the prosperity, but survival of non-white people for fear of their own extinction; from ethnic cleansing and forced sterilization, to enslavement and concentration camps, to immigration bans and deportation. Borders are a tool of apocalyptic whiteness. As are prisons and immigrant detention centers.”

We see a fortification of such a mythos in Trump’s call to reverse DACA and build a wall, in his long-standing collusion with white supremacists, in his plans to keep non-whites locked out of America or locked up within it.

But what we can learn from the zombie as a figure about the undead nature of racism? Well, to draw on the idea that infiltrates Romero’s canon, we can admit that the so-called “order” of society is built on oppression, and that we need a “new normal,” not a return to the white supremacist status quo. Romero, referencing the Civil Rights Movement as well as the ending of Night, insists “We didn’t want to restore order.” Noting that he refused to change the ending of Night at the behest of film producers and lamenting that too much horror suffers from “Happy Ending Syndrome,” Romero set out to convey a radical message. Perhaps now, some 50 years after Night was made, we need to own up to our desires for such false happy endings, to face up to the reality that racism is an infection that won’t simply fade into the past, and to be willing to face up to white supremacy as the decaying, flesh-eating, brain-dead, infectious monstrosity it is.

Like viral zombie-ism, white supremacy takes over the brains of its adherents, spreading its messages of hate and violence.

We would also do well to remember the term monster comes from monere, to show or warn, and is etymologically linked to a word very important to our times: demonstrate. We must heed the warnings white supremacy monsters convey and demonstrate our resistance in ways big and small. Just as one viral zombie can infect an entire populace, so too will our current moment of white supremacy on the rise continue to spread if we don’t fight against it. As argued by Ijeoma Oluo,“You cannot have a little injustice and call it justice. You cannot have a little inequality and call it equality.” Nor can you have one zombie supremacist shambling through our culture and assume the infection he harbors will not spread.

Whether encountered at the dinner table, in a classroom, in the streets, or in online communication, if we encounter a viral zombie supremacist, we need to pull out our metaphorical Katana sword or before you know it, the existing horde will have multiplied. Like Michonne of The Walking Dead, we must take on the attitude of vigilance and defiance.

Romero calls for defiance repeatedly in his films. More recently, Peele has shown the potential for using horror as a weapon of political critique. As their works suggest, the white viral zombie horde can be stopped, but it’s going to take a mass of social justice warriors banding together and refusing to be enslaved any longer. It’s also going to take facing up to — to end with Romero’s words — “how the monster, the evil, is not something lurking in the distance, but something actually inside all of us.”

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