What to watch on Halloween
What to watch on Halloween is certainly not the most pressing question for those on the left who are interested in more substantial redistributions than popcorn and candy. Yet socialists often seek left-wing content and social justice films. (Indeed, the popular YouTube channel Scary cats, made a list of the best 5 anti-capitalist horror films.) And let’s be clear, there’s a good reason the left is interested in horror movies.
While materialism may demand the absence of the supernatural: a need to explain earthly phenomena and true oppression, capitalism is a strange and frightening system, and often invites parallels with the supernatural. The end Mark Fisher argued that “capital is at all levels a strange entity: conjured up out of thin air, capital nevertheless wields more influence than any supposedly substantial entity.
But this tendency to understand economic injustice through fanciful and macabre images is not new. After all, Karl Marx loved to draw inspiration from Gothic imagery in his prose, writing: “Capital is dead labor, which, like a vampire, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives more, more. it sucks from work. Indeed, he wrote about vampires in the first volume of Capital, a work written before Bram Stoker Dracula and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla.
This love of Gothic imagery, this interest in horror has only grown among the contemporary left, with the emergence of Gothic Marxism, which emphasizes the need for a shared imagination to understand the capitalist system and a focus on the irrational, exemplified in the horror and fantasy genres.
While vampirism still characterizes the capitalist class; these are the zombies that the left identifies with. In a post-industrial context, the zombies represent a wandering and displaced proletariat – unemployed workers taking revenge on white-collar workers, assimilating them into their ranks. Immersed in and deprived of intellect, zombies are both exhausted workers and consumers, even tech junkies.
The power of this metaphor comes in part from the work of George A Romero Dawn of the Dead (1978), in which zombies surround a shopping center, threatening comfortable consumption patterns. Indeed, it is difficult to go beyond the connotations of shooting a zombie movie in a shopping center.
However, if one was looking for a political allegory this Halloween, it is also worth checking out Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero’s first dedication.
While no one with a brain (if you’ll excuse the bad pun) disputes that Night of the Living Dead is a classic of zombie cinema – even if the term used is ghoul – it is often discussed for its historical status; its novelty and originality. After all, this is the first modern zombie movie; the first movie where the zombies… sorry, the cannibal ghouls are recognizable zombies… the living dead.
The film was made on a low budget. It is black and white but does not look aged. Part of the reason is that Romero’s guerrilla cinema adds a certain dynamism. With hand-held camera techniques that Romero had perfected while doing commercials, the film is a tour de force of cinematic craftsmanship.
But another factor that keeps the film stimulating is the social commentary. Ben, the protagonist, is Black. He, unlike his white counterparts who find themselves hoisted up on a farm, is able to keep a cool head in the midst of the crisis. As Jordan peele, the director of Get out, explained, it is because Ben has to navigate racism and its dangers that he is able to adapt to the crisis.
Yet, and here’s the spoiler, Ben survives the zombie apocalypse, but not the law enforcement officer mistaking him for a zombie. Using a scorched earth policy, the cops brutally dispatch the zombies, burning the corpses. Mercilessly, they also seem indifferent to human life, adopting a shoot-first policy.
In the end, the film becomes a series of still images. It is not only poignant because the still images accentuate the death of the protagonist; they also induce a feeling similar to documentary photographs, resembling documenting an atrocity. Made during the Vietnam War – or rather the United States’ Vietnam War, there were undoubtedly echoes of the photojournalism of that era – of American aggression as well as the over-police protests. Through the use of still images, we become confronted with a form of dehumanization and indifference to human life, illustrating a kind of mechanized society where any disturbance of social functioning must be removed. The causes that can turn people into ghouls are not examined; instead, the law must be instigated, brutally if necessary. And there is no doubt a feeling of racism; a desire on the part of the police to neutralize and kill “the other”.
In our time, when the murders of unarmed blacks went viral, amid disproportionate black imprisonments and militarized police forces, the film has tragically not lost its relevance. You can’t help but watch it with George Floyd in the lead and the Black Lives Matter steps.
The film remains so powerful because it is a protest against dehumanizing forces. It is a film about inhumanity as much as it is about literal inhumans; a film about people who must work together against a threat. The survivors inadvertently turn on each other rather than act in the collective interest to survive the ordeal. And while the zombies start off as the main threat, real-life horror creeps in and overwhelms the film’s end. Indeed, as we see corpses burnt in the film, it is impossible not to think about the COVID pandemic and its mismanagement, how bodies have piled up amidst the incredible death toll in the States. United, or to the authoritarian police of most migrants and workers. -class neighborhoods in NSW.
The film deals with this powerful protest, while still being fun and playful – it’s a film, at least on the surface, about cannibalism and ghouls after all (although the emphasis is more on the human drama of dealing with it. ‘a crisis). Night of the Living Dead Definitely worth watching if one wants something more than a silly viewing (yes, another bad pun). As anti-capitalist horror continues to excite the imagination, it would be remiss not to add Romero’s films to the list of horror films socialists watch.
[Aleks Wansbrough, Marxist and academic, is the author of Capitalism and the Enchanted Screen: Myths and Allegories in the Digital Age, published by Bloomsbury.]