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Credit: TIFF

Get the Hell Out and the politics of zombies

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Oct 5, 2020, 3:00 PM EDT

In terms of paranormal creatures that dominate modern pop culture, the walking (or running) dead has a head over the competition this century. Vampires come and go, werewolves have their moments, and sexy fish-men will always have a spot in Guillermo del Toro's heart, but there's something about zombies that has come to define the era on the big and small screen. When times are tough, and you need an apt metaphor to convey your unease, noble bloodsuckers and lupine packs won't get the job done. For that, you need a corpse.

Get the Hell Out, which played as part of the Midnight Madness section of this year's Toronto International Film Festival, understands the creative use of the zombie. This Taiwanese horror-comedy, directed by Wang I-fan, imagines what would happen if a rabies epidemic led to a zombie apocalypse in the most appropriate location possible: Taiwan's parliament. The Legislative Yuan has something of an infamous reputation. Its political debates among politicians are often so rowdy that they've broken out into physical brawls involving dozens of elected officials. In Get the Hell Out, another day of partisan punch-ups takes a dark turn when the Prime Minister suddenly starts biting people and everyone develops a hunger for flesh. The fight for survival falls on the shoulders of Hsiung (Megan Lai), a brash former MP who had to quit her job after punching a journalist, and Wang (Bruce Ho), the former security guard who ended up replacing her but is too busy dealing with endless nosebleeds to think straight.

The central metaphor of Get the Hell Out is a blunt one, even by the pretty simple standards of zombie fiction. Some reviews have claimed that this approach is too simple, a cheap reduction of something more complex, but that feels like the point. Everything about Get the Hell Out is a big honking caricature, an over-the-top bombastic display of smart-stupid decisions, complete with lots of blood and even a few memes. Nobody takes politics seriously here, much less the politicians themselves. While Hsiung has noble intentions, she's too quick to fight, and Wang essentially falls into the gig because he gets popular on social media. The ludicrous villain, gangster-politician Li, dresses like a pimp and struts around with a strange crew of hangers-on who shoot money guns and thrust their groins at every opportunity. They could not possibly be any more evil unless they had horns growing from their foreheads, but nobody seems to care. This is just politics. Turning everyone into mindless flesh-eating zombies doesn't change things all that much. Alive or undead, everyone still refers to them as "idiots."

When real-life politics is beyond parody, how do you even begin to satirize it? Perhaps this sort of broad pantomime — a cross between Stephen Chow, John Woo, and the Adam West Batman series — is the only way to do it.

Credit: TIFF

The zombie archetype has remained remarkably unchanging over the decades, even as its political potency endures. Newer zombies may be able to run rather than stumble aimlessly towards their victims/food, but other than that, we've spent close to a century with the same image at the forefront: A rotting, crumbling body, primitive in urges and violent in actions. Yet, like other paranormal creatures such as vampires, the zombie is surprisingly all-encompassing as a political metaphor.

Zombies have always been political, especially in terms of their representation in American cinema. Their origins, however, lie in international folklore. The term "zombie" comes from Haitian folklore and refers to a corpse reanimated back to life, typically through magical means. Professor Amy Wilentz wrote that the modern concept of the zombie was heavily influenced by the superstitions of enslaved peoples. The fear of becoming a zombie and being forever controlled by slaver masters was used to discourage the enslaved Haitians from committing suicide. Popular consciousness of Haitian zombie lore emerged with William Seabrook's 1929 book The Magic Island. Seabrooke cited Article 246 of the Haitian criminal code, which was passed in 1864, asserting that it was an official recognition of zombies.

"Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made by any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder no matter what result follows."

This passage proved influential for one of Hollywood's first zombie movies, 1932's White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi as an evil Haitian voodoo master who commands a crew of the undead and transforms a beautiful damsel into his corpse bride. White Zombie has a decidedly laissez-faire attitude towards cultural accuracy, but it is here that we see one of the true establishing forces of the modern-day pop-culture zombie and its political importance. Zombies aren't just scary creatures: They're the victims of larger, more malevolent forces that prey on our unease. In the early 1930s, a story about an exotic mystery that risks our very freedom and autonomy would have felt right at home alongside titles like King Kong and the emerging Universal horror scene, all of which played with that sense of precarity that haunted contemporary audiences in the midst of the Great Depression. It also, of course, stoked a lot of deep-seated racism by painting Haitian culture as a terrifying threat to poor white girls.

Credit: United Artists

For many zombie fans, the genre became a true political landmark with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, a movie of so iconic that it's difficult to imagine the horror genre without it. In the film's closing scene, Ben, the hero of the story and easily the most competent and prepared of the bunch, seems to have survived the night's onslaught and waits for the authorities to arrive. When he emerges from the cellar, he's shot, and the end credits show his body being burned with the rest of the faceless corpses. It's possible they could have confused him for a zombie, but as the only Black figure in the film being gunned down by a group of giddy rednecks, there's a more insidious possibility at play. While Romero said that his casting of actor Duane Jones had nothing to do with his race at the time, the film premiered the same year as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and for many, the parallels with Ben were impossible to ignore. Many critics also noted how the film subverted the white picket fence image of Middle American bliss, right as the Vietnam War rolled on. As Romero himself said of the movie, "It was 1968, man. Everybody had a 'message.'" He didn't stop there, as the sequel, Dawn of the Dead, became one of the 1970s' most scathing indictments of consumerism.

Credit: Image Ten

By the 1980s, America was in the grip of a new fear: AIDS. A more general panic over the potential spread of a global contagion became commonplace in both the news and pop culture, and it hasn't left us since. As noted by the BBC, "the number of new infectious diseases like SARS, HIV, and COVID-19 has increased by nearly fourfold over the past century. Since 1980 alone, the number of outbreaks per year has more than tripled." The idea that an unstoppable disease could ravage your body and mind, leaving you an unrecognizable shell of your former self, is a pretty universal phobia, one that the zombie metaphor is perfectly designed for (as were vampires during this decade, as evidenced by movies like The Hunger.) They're unstoppable, their illness is extremely contagious, and even if the problem can be contained, it can never be truly stopped. Its impact ripples throughout history. Even the Centers for Disease Control got in on the act by launching a preparedness campaign for the zombie apocalypse in 2011, a decision seemingly made off the backs of the genre's revived popularity thanks to a little show called The Walking Dead.

AMC's The Walking Dead is arguably the most iconic piece of zombie fiction of the 21st century, and in the world of this post-apocalyptic landscape of walkers and survivors, the undead are maybe the least threatening part of things. There are more insidious groups to deal with: Crazed cult leaders, biker gangs, wandering scavengers, and warring factions. More importantly, everyone is armed to the teeth. So much of The Walking Dead, deliberately or otherwise, plays into ideas of survivalist fantasies, ones that confirm how militia-style isolationism is actually a good thing because you never know when the dead might rise up from their graves to eat your brains. A lot of these stories are heavily reliant on stereotypical gender roles: The men fight while the women tend to the camps, their invaluable skills treated as secondary to the act of killing.

Credit: Jace Downs/AMC

Zombies are an inherently nihilistic metaphor. It's one of death and irrevocable pain, but also a deep lack of humanity. Zombies lose what makes them human, but so do those left behind as they rampage and are conveniently absolved from having to care for their sick. In reality, we as a species are not able to do this, nor do we really want to. We're social creatures who care for those we love, even when illness robs them of their dignity, their identity, and their life. Killing zombies looks like a lot of fun, but there is something about the notion of humans having to "destroy the threat" that exposes a lot of ugly truths about ourselves. In the midst of yet another pandemic, this brand of fatalistic individualism may be potent to some, for better or worse.

Get the Hell Out is way less serious in its intentions with its bloody zombies and their slapstick madness. Still, its final message is a surprisingly bleak one: Human idiocy prevails long after the body shuts down, and even when faced with an apocalyptic future, we'll still revert to our selfish ways. It's bleak, but then again, so are even the funniest of zombies.

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