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 out leftist content and films about social justice. (Indeed, the popular YouTube channel Scaredy Cats, has done a list of top 5 anti-capitalist horror films.) And let’s be clear, there’s a good reason for the left to be interested in horror films.
While materialism may demand the absence of the supernatural: a need to explain earthly phenomena and real oppression, capitalism is a strange and creepy system, and often invites parallels to the supernatural. The late Mark Fisher argued that “Capital is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity.”
But this tendency to understand economic injustice through fanciful and macabre imagery is nothing new. After all, Karl Marx loved to draw on gothic imagery in his prose, writing, “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Indeed, he wrote about vampires in the first volume of Capital, a work written before Bram Stoker’s 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 stresses the need for a shared imagination to understand the capitalist system and a focus on the irrational, exemplified in horror and fantasy genres.
While vampirism still characterises the capitalist class; it is zombies the left identifies with. In a post-industrial context, zombies represent a roaming and displaced proletariat — workers without jobs taking their revenge on white collar professionals, assimilating them into their ranks. Immiserated and robbed of intellect, zombies are both workers and burnt-out consumers, or even tech-addicts.
The power of this metaphor in part comes from George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), in which zombies encircle a mall, threatening comfortable modes of consumption. Indeed, it is difficult to look past the connotations of setting a zombie film in a mall.
However, if one was looking for political allegory this Halloween, it also worth checking out Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero’s first offering.
While no one with a brain (if you excuse the bad pun) disputes that Night of the Living Dead is a classic of zombie cinema — even though the term used is ghoul — it is often discussed for its landmark status; its novelty and originality. After all, it is the first modern zombie movie; the first movie where zombies … sorry, cannibal ghouls are recognisably zombies … the living dead.
The film was made on a shoestring budget. It is black and white but doesn’t feel aged. Part of the reason for this is that Romero’s guerrilla filmmaking adds a certain dynamism. With handheld camera techniques that Romero had perfected making commercials, the film is a tour de force of cinematic craft.
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 hauled up in a farmhouse, is able to keep a level head amid the crisis. As Jordan Peele, the director of Get Out, explained, it is because Ben must 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 who mistakes him for a zombie. Employing 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.
At the end, the film becomes a series of still images. This isn’t just poignant as the still frames accentuate the protagonist’s death; they also induce a similar feeling to documentary photographs, resembling the documentation of an atrocity. Made during the Vietnam war — or rather the United States war on Vietnam, there were undoubtedly echoes of the photojournalism of that era — of US aggression as well as the over policing of protests. Through the use of still frames we become privy to a type of dehumanisation and an indifference to human life, illustrating a sort of mechanised society where any disruption to social functioning must be done-away with. The causes that may make people into ghouls are not examined; instead law must be instigated, heavy-handedly if need be. And there’s no doubt a sense of racism; a readiness by police to neutralise and kill “the other”.
In our own times, when murders of unarmed Black people have gone viral, amid disproportionate Black incarceration and militarised police forces, the film has tragically not waned in relevance. One cannot help but watch it with George Floyd in mind and the Black Lives Matter marches.
The film remains so powerful because it is a protest against dehumanising forces. It is a film about inhumanity as much as literal inhumans; a film about people needing to work together against a threat. The survivors haplessly turn on each other rather than acting in collective interest to survive the ordeal. And while zombies begin as the primary threat, real life horror intrudes and overwhelms at the close of the film. Indeed, as we see corpses burned in the film it is impossible not to think of the COVID pandemic and how mismanaged it was, how bodies piled up amid the incredible death toll in the US, or the heavy-handed policing of mostly migrant and working-class neighbourhoods in NSW.
The film manages this powerful protest, while also being fun and playful — it is a film, at least on the surface, about cannibalism and ghouls after all (even if the focus is more on the human drama of dealing with a crisis). Night of the Living Dead is certainly worth watching if one wants something more than mindless 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 any socialist’s list of horror movie watching.
[Aleks Wansbrough, Marxist and academic, is the author of Capitalism and the Enchanted Screen: Myths and Allegories in the Digital Age, published by Bloomsbury.]