Willie Nelson – The Words Don’t Fit the Picture

The Words Don't Fit the Picture

Willie NelsonThe Words Don’t Fit the Picture RCA Victor LSP-4653 (1972)


Willie Nelson languished in near obscurity as a solo artist through the 1960s and early 1970s, despite recognition penning a number of hits for others.  In his early days he conformed to the whims of his producers, with a typical “Nashville” sound.  As time went on, he — like a lot of Motown stars like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder — sought to assert himself more in the recording process.  His vocals changed.  Rather than holding notes for a long time and adding a lot of vibrato like a pop crooner, he sang ahead of the beat more forcefully and sang with more clipped, staccato phrasing.  The backing vocals, string backing, and other Nashville trappings fell by the wayside too, and Willie’s accomplished guitar playing featured more prominently — characterized by his trademark pauses interrupted by staccato runs on his iconic converted classical acoustic guitar.

The Words Don’t Fit the Picture is something of a forgotten item in the Nelson catalog — AMG gives it only a one-sentence review, RYM has no reviews and only a few ratings and it’s not even mentioned in Graeme Thomson’s biography Willie Nelson: The Outlaw.  It was released around the time Nelson moved to the Austin, Texas area and hired a new cutthroat manager from the rock world, before his big break with Shotgun Willie.  It has elements of the Nashville sound, but also plenty of moments that foreshadow the ways Nelson would breakthrough to superstardom in a few years.  He wrote or co-wrote everything here.  Though it would be hard to call any of these standouts, there’s not a bad tune to be found.  And this set is nothing if not eclectic.  Nelson’s wide interests in jazz, western swing, traditional pop, soul, etc. subtly make their presence felt.  In essence, Willie takes the Nashville sound as far out as it can go, right to its furthest boundaries.  Take “London,” for instance, which sounds like a countrified version of a beatnik monologue off a Tom Waits album.

This may be a transitional effort, but it wonderfully captures a lot of strengths of the different elements at play.  It also shows that Nelson was certainly a professional, delivering crisp songs in an assured manner, even when they have “typical Nashville” written all over them.  Listeners who can forget about where this stands in relation to other things Nelson has done may find that this is simply a damn fine country album.

Willie Nelson – The Sound in Your Mind

The Sound in Your Mind

Willie NelsonThe Sound in Your Mind Columbia PC-34092 (1976)


Willie’s proper follow-up to his smash success Red Headed Stranger is another winner.  He sounds perfectly at ease with himself, ready to let this album unfold slowly.  Martin Scorsese once recounted his career in the 1970s and 80s by noting that no one had time for a personal cinema in the 80s.  What was true for film also held true for music.  The intimate and frequently sad, downer themes of a lot of 70s music largely disappeared in the 80s.  That’s one reason The Sound in Your Mind stands out, because this sort of album wasn’t being made anymore a few years later.  That’s a damn shame too.  Because Willie does a lot of intimate songs here that touch on many poignant, lonely sentiments in a warm and comfortable way that found no space in public consciousness in the coming Thatcher-Reagan era.

One of Willie Nelson’s best qualities was the eclectic musical interest he had, and the ways he could bring his varied interests to bear on his records with a light and never overbearing touch.  This collection of old standards and new performances of some of his own best-known (but old) songwriting is presented with spare and unobtrusive accompaniment.  There is a late-night aura over everything.  A small but rich assortment of pedal steel, piano and prominent bass give help keep this from settling into too much of a same-y sounding rut (what The Troublemaker threatened to succumb to).

If any one thing stands out most about The Sound in Your Mind it has to be Nelson’s vocals.  His vocal delivery evolved over time.  By the mid-70s he reached his peak.  It might be fair to say this album was his very peak as a vocalist.  That voice, with its natural Texas twang and ahead of the beat—and sometimes behind—attack, is an irrevocable force, as immediately recognizable as that of any singer of the 20th century.  By this point he used vibrato much more willingly than a decade prior.  This album is loaded with great songs and performances, like “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day),” “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time),” and “The Healing Hands of Time.”  This is another great one from a stretch where it seemed like Willie couldn’t go wrong.

Willie Nelson – Phases and Stages

Phases and Stages

Willie NelsonPhases and Stages Atlantic SD 7291 (1974)


If a thing is really worth doing, it may take fits and starts and many failed attempts to finally get it done in spite of the tremendous inertia that resists changes of direction in life.  That describes both the process of making Phases and Stages and its thematic subject matter.  Willie Nelson worked on this album for a number of years before its release.  Many of the songs had been written long ago, and he had recorded early versions for RCA that weren’t released.  When he went to Atlantic Records, he had to obtain clearance from RCA before he could re-record the songs for this album.  While Willie liked to record with his touring band, the plain fact is that most of those musicians were of fairly modest abilities.  Producer Jerry Wexler brought Willie to Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, home of many great soul recordings, to create the album.  Rather than the touring band, Nelson is supported by crack session men.  It’s the finely-honed abilities of the supporting musicians that brings life to Willie’s music here.  He put them on the spot, perhaps forgetting he was the only one who had lived with these tunes for years.  But preventing anyone from settling into the familiar is a perfect match for the tone of the material.  Phases and Stage is about the dissolution of a marriage, with side one taking the woman’s perspective and side two the man’s.  This is Nelson’s second concept album, the first being Yesterday’s Wine.  Johnny Cash had pioneered the use of concept albums in country music.  With precedent behind him, Willie makes this one work.  What gives this album its strength is its ability to tap into the mundane aspects of a romantic breakup with poetic grace.  The proper songs are broken up by a 20-30 second recurring theme, “Phases and Stages.”  It’s hard to point to any faults on this one, save perhaps some people’s desire to skip the recurring theme.  Phases and Stages is one of Nelson’s most durable albums, among his very finest — maybe even his very finest.

Willie Nelson – Shotgun Willie

Shotgun Willie

Willie NelsonShotgun Willie Atlantic SD 7262 (1973)


After relocating to the Austin, Texas area and taking up residence at the Armadillo World HQ bar, Willie Nelson dropped Shotgun Willie on the world, his first album for the new country division of New York’s Atlantic Records.  Nelson had been around for a long time in the music business, but this record was different.  At the Armadillo, he had brought together conservative (redneck) country audiences and liberal (hippie) audiences.  A more telling description though is that he tried to drag rock fans into the country fold without alienating his base of country music fans.  He tried and succeeded.  He also adopted a new look inspired by Leon Russell, with long hair, an earring and a short, slightly unkempt beard.  His first offering for Atlantic, as the label’s biggest country act, broke from anything he had done before.  For what it’s worth, he never tried to repeat it, either.  This was a record infused with rock sensibilities, bolstered by an occasional horn section.  It was his first recorded in New York City.  Actually, the first tracks recorded ended up populating his later-released gospel album The Troublemaker, with the Shotgun Willie material recorded toward the end of the studio sessions.  His regular touring “Family Band” is present, but augmented by Doug Sahm (Sir Douglas Quintet) and his band, Johnny Gimble, and both Waylon Jennings and his wife Jessi Colter.  His sister Bobbie joins the band for the first time on piano, and she proved an invaluable asset through the years.  Even troubled soul/R&B visionary Donny Hathaway gets an arranging credit.  Willie by this point had completely shed the crooning style of his earliest recordings.  Though it’s worth noting that Willie’s vocals would continue to evolve, as would his guitar playing.  “She’s Not For You” ends up being the most telling performance in terms of they way Nelson would refine his distinctive clipped, start/stop singing and guitar style.  There are some great tunes here, like “Whiskey River,” which Nelson would almost religiously use as a concert opener for, well, forever.  It’s the prominent drum beat (much heavier on the bass kick drum than usual), electric guitar (sans a lot of slide or twang), and horns (in true Atlantic R&B style) that allow this album to completely break from the mold of Nashville-styled country music.  It also has an upbeat tone that contrasts to the typical collection of sad sack country weepers that would have been more typical of the day.  No need for a tear in your beer to enjoy it.  This album garnered Nelson his first real taste of success, his best-selling to date. He was also getting recognized as a peer by the biggest acts in music, and not just those in country music.  His days of being considered a second (or third) class performer were now over.  Willie had some more good things in store, with a number of great albums delivered in the coming years.  But his road to superstardom took its biggest turn right here.  The take-home lesson is that the folks in New York knew how to record better music than those in Nashville.  Willie, and his new manager Neil Reshen, worked hard to get the opportunity to be the guy who crossed over first.

Scott Walker – ‘Til the Band Comes in

'Til the Band Comes In

Scott Walker‘Til the Band Comes In Philips 6308 035 (1970)


‘Til the Band Comes In is a transitional album.  Unfortunately, it finds Scott Walker transitioning from the artistic triumph of Scott 4 and his other earlier solo efforts to the crass commercialism of his mid-1970s output.  Despite its unevenness, the best material is among the man’s very finest and too good to pass up.  It all starts fine enough.  “Prologue” opens the album with sweeping strings that work quite effectively drawing in listeners.  “Little Things (That Keep Us Together)” is propelled with an odd meter (5/4).  Walker’s delivery of “Joe” bears an astonishing resemblance to Jack Jones.  Then “Thanks for Chicago Mr. James” arrives, building slowly with prescient glockenspiel chimes toward peaks that rush past in a dramatic fashion few but Scott Walker could muster.  It is the pinnacle of the album.  That is both the good news and the bad news.  While the album has its strengths, its flaws start to become apparent when Esther Ofarim rather than Walker sings the next song “Long About Now”.  It’s not that her performance is poor, but that she doesn’t have the same nuance and presence — she’s a bit like a stuffy, quavering version of Karen Carpenter, perhaps even comparable to Vashti Bunyan or the young Marianne Faithfull.  The guest vocal is doubly unfortunate because Walker’s voice was really in its finest form entering the early seventies, so any lost opportunity to hear him seems like a small tragedy.  As the album progresses, something else becomes apparent.  The songwriting isn’t always there.  The lyrics can be too blunt and the musical concepts sometimes feel like they revisit areas Walker has already explored, but with less compelling results this time around.  The overly affected “Time Operator” and the forced, trite “Cowbells Shakin” come to mind as the low points.  They are broken up by the bawdy cabaret number “Jean the Machine”, which, though a novelty song, does keep the pace moving (and that’s not to mention that it expresses sympathy for a “commie spy” during the Cold War).  The album does pick up a bit in the title track and the stirring “War Is Over (Epilogue)”, the latter having a shimmering grandiosity worthy of pause.  The cover “Stormy” is most definitely passable, though the last part of the album, post-epilogue, comes across as filler.  Wally Stott arranged most of the album, but Peter Knight arranged the last third — all covers.

Most of this album is fine, fine music.  Scott Walker does achieve something here.  Yet somewhere along the line, something slips from his fingers.  In some ways it’s a sign of the times, as the deepest material perfectly reflects a sense of nervous, incomplete satisfaction with the changing world, echoing the way Hunter S. Thompson wrote about the end of the Sixties, looking west with the right kind of eyes and almost seeing the high-water mark where the wave finally broke and rolled back.  But ‘Til the Band Comes In can feel like something neglected or unfinished, propped up at times.  It is as if a desperate conservative streak overcomes Walker as a specter of spiritual and physical weariness arises.  Rather than articulating the state of the world through his eyes he’s just caught up in the menial aspects of getting by.  His immediate path forward would be downhill.  This would be his last album to feature his own songwriting for some years.  Of course, hindsight has shown that he came back as strong as ever later on.

New York Dolls – Dancing Backward in High Heels

Dancing Backward in High Heels

New York DollsDancing Backward in High Heels 429 Records FTN17813 (2011)


Long live New York Dolls.  If the original band took early 1960s girl group and Brill building pop, blues and early rock and spun it out into a rocking yet brilliantly simply thing called glam, then the new band has found a way here to take many of the same influences and put them together in an entirely different way.  Guitar solos?  Forget them.  Have some sax breaks and keyboards instead.  Most of the songs are new ones by David Johansen and Syl Sylvain.  But best to check the liner notes to confirm, because you won’t believe me.  This stuff passes quite effectively as the genuine article of early 60s New York pop.  Is that where they are dancing backwards to?  Yeah, things trail off a bit toward the end.  But damn if this isn’t a fun little record.  A testament to music that never loses its appeal, and to those who can go on making it forever if they care enough.

The Mekons – Fear and Whiskey

Fear and Whiskey

The MekonsFear and Whiskey Sin Record Co. SIN 001 (1985)


By the time the 1980s rolled around, there were decades of recorded music widely available in the Western World.  This remarkable technology sort of raised the bar for allowing great performances to reach wider audiences.  Others have noted the dark side too, with regional peculiarities eventually giving way to fairly homogeneous musical culture, and with ordinary people less musically literate–they didn’t have to perform themselves to regularly hear music any longer.  So, in that sometimes claustrophobic setting, it made sense that musicians would begin to look back and recombine the various elements already floating around.  Enter The Mekons.  Originally part of the punk scene, they took a brief hiatus and then came back as something different.  Often described as “cow punk”, they kept elements of punk but were adding country music to it.  Really, they added a whole lot more than just country.  But country was a type of music increasingly associated with uneducated rural and working class people, with conservative values, and punks didn’t always fit that description.  The Mekons proved it could be seamlessly incorporated into an urban, educated, left-leaning band’s music.  This album holds a special place in the hearts of many listening to college radio in the day, though the follow-up The Edge of the World is arguably even better.  It’s an amalgam of all sorts of things, with “Psycho Cupid (Danceband on the Edge of Time)” drawing some elements of the post-punk offered by English bands like Swell Maps and Essential Logic.  The use of drum machines and melodica are reminiscent of The The.  Lots of the punchy numbers on side two recalled the punkish celtic folk of The Pogues.  But there is plenty of anthemic rock here too (“Hard to Be Human Again,” “Last Dance”).  The irreverent, eclectic approach evokes, of all things, Headquarters-type Monkees albums.  What it all meant was that there was something to be found looking back, taking bits and pieces of the past and pulling them together, holding none of it too sacred to be meddled with.  This is a good album to hear just about anytime.

U2 – Achtung Baby

Achtung Baby

U2Achtung Baby Island 314-510 347-2 (1991)


U2: the band music geeks love to hate.  Achtung Baby is one of the best reasons to legitimately hate the band.  They never were original.  As at least one other critic has noted, their early output was basically a warmed-over version of Echo and The Bunnymen — though in that U2 did manage to write some great and very accessible post-punk tunes.  As the 1980s progressed, and their fortunes continued to rise, their music became increasingly dreamy, romanticized and airy.  This was fine enough for The Joshua Tree, but it was also OVER with that album.  Rattle and Hum had a few decent songs, but the sheer pretentiousness of it all was unbearable.  With the dawn of the 1990s, and the rise of “alternative rock,” U2 was in a bit of a predicament.  They weren’t exactly that kind of a band.  Well, no problem!  They would become that band, or at least pretend to become that kind of band.  This proved to be the defining moment for U2.  They could always be called upon to chase whatever ridiculous fad took hold of mainstream pop rock.  Sure, Achtung Baby has superb production.  Off in the background, it might even sound pleasant enough.  But on a closer inspection, it reveals itself to be about as phony a record as you could find.  In some ways, it was unsurprising that over a decade later the band would take a lot of flack for avoiding taxes in Ireland by moving its music publishing operation to The Netherlands, all the while campaigning for global celebrity “causes” that tend to be undermined back home by their tax sheltering/evasion schemes (to the extent the campaigning had any validity to begin with).

Frontman Bono is of course an easy target for the ire of U2-haters.  He fits perfectly one of Dostoevsky’s great put-downs from Crime and Punishment (1866): “He was one of the numerous and varied legion of dullards, of half-animate abortions, conceited, half-educated coxcombs, who attach themselves to the idea most in fashion only to vulgarize it and who caricature every cause they serve, however sincerely.”  Achtung Baby is Bono’s “emperor has no clothes” moment.  “Even Better Than the Real Thing?”  Ha!  Fat chance.

Elvis Presley – Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

Elvis PresleyElvis Presley RCA Victor LPM-1254 (1956)


It is impossible to consider the state of American social fabric in the mid Twentieth Century without factoring in Elvis.  The magic of Elvis’ early career was that he was this “other” when it came to the characteristically straight-laced 1950s mainstream culture.  He took just about every element of unacceptable subculture and threw it together in a seamless, integrated package.  C.A. Swanson & Sons introduced the “TV Brand Frozen Dinner” in the 1950s, and it featured a complete meal separated into divided compartments.  Take that as a metaphor for the era.  Elvis represented all the food commingling, a stew that crossed all the boundaries and dividing walls.  There were poor, rural, hillbilly country elements, there were bits of raucous blues and r&b, and more, and it all came together as this new thing people called rock ‘n roll.  The music drew from black and white culture at a time when ugly Jim Crow segregation still ruled.  But this music was a powerful shot across the bow of the status quo, a warning sign that segregation and the thinking behind it didn’t work.  Some truck driver kid from Memphis crossed over.  And his undeniable charisma and energy just didn’t leave room for doubt that the most compelling argument was on the side of a new (younger) generation and their new way of thinking.  When Elvis famously went on the Ed Sullivan TV show and his gyrating hips couldn’t be shown on camera while he danced and performed because of what they suggested, it is telling that Sullivan still had Presley on, because there was simply no denying that he had something compelling to offer that people identified with.  Sullivan had no choice but to accept it.  Elvis wasn’t trying to wage a cultural war.  But the size of his talent, like that of Louis Armstrong a generation earlier, transformed the cultural fabric.  He represented the most successful kind of revolutionary: one that almost naively didn’t recognize or seek change but instead suddenly and completely offered a viable alternative that left the old ways obsolete.  They call those paradigm shifts.

Elvis had begun his career with the tiny but now legendary Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee.  But as Presley started to gain some attention, label owner Sam Phillips sold his contract to RCA Victor in late November 1955 for $40,000 (Phillips made a fortune by investing that money in the new Holiday Inn hotel chain).  RCA producer Steve Sholes took Presley to Nashville and began recording songs.  “Heartbreak Hotel” was released as a single, and after Elvis made a series of appearances on television for The Dorsey Brothers’ “Stage Show” the single became a smash hit.  A few weeks later, Presley’s debut long-player Elvis Presley was released.  The rest, as they say, was history.

This album was remarkable in that the LP format was still a new prospect.  There were no accepted formulas for how it might work for rock and roll music, if at all.  Singles were still the dominant medium.  It featured a few leftover recordings from Sun Records (“I Love You Because,” “Just Because,” “Trying to Get to You,” “Blue Moon”), plus new material recorded with Sholes.  Elvis tackles covers of some of early rock and R&B’s biggest talents, Carl Perkins‘ “Blue Suede Shoes,” Little Richard‘s “Tutti Frutti,” Ray Charles‘ “I Got a Woman,” The Drifters‘ “Money Honey.”  But he also ventured into the territory of Hollywood show tune balladry with Rodgers/Hart’s “Blue Moon.”

Although Elvis was a hot commodity and starting to receive more and more attention, he was still unproven and not yet a big star when he recorded Elvis Presley.  As reviewer timregler writes, “so what we get is Elvis on his own terms . . . .”  There is something still raw, uncertain and dangerous about this music.  The Sun recordings feature Presley with mostly just an electric guitar and acoustic bass (plus drums on one track), while the RCA recordings add piano and drums for a fuller, more elaborate sound.  The Sun tracks have the label’s characteristic reverb, leaving a faint feeling of spooky, otherworldly distance.  That atmosphere is felt most strongly on “Blue Moon.”  The punchy numbers “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You)” and “One-Sided Love Affair” benefit from the drive they provide that frees Elvis’ vocal acrobatics to develop more nuance.  If Presley’s earliest Sun recordings didn’t make explicitly clear the man’s range, it was undeniably apparent when the later RCA recordings sat next to them.  The earliest attempts at pop balladry are here.  Although in some respects this remained Elvis’ weakest skill at this moment in time, he demonstrates a lot of potential, if nothing else, in songs like “I’m Counting on You.”  Elvis’ surprising growth as a singer, together with more elaborate production in the coming years, would improve his prospects.  Yet the multifaceted approach of mixing up-tempo rockers with slow ballads would make this LP a defining statement and standard against which rock and roll albums (and pop music albums in general) would be judged for decades to come.  The songs may not all be great, but there was practically no filler here.  This was put together as a full album of material rather than a few preexisting singles cobbled together for re-release or a few singles padded with many inferior outtakes.

The vocabulary of this album is romance, tempered with some self-assured posturing.  This made perfect sense in an era of claustrophobic conformity.  It represented a more unbridled form of individual expression.  But the predominant language of romance made it accessible yet also less directly objectionable than, say, the more intellectual jazz and beatnik music of counter-cultural circles.  Elvis had stumbled through the unlocked back door of America’s cultural stronghold.  And it seemed like everyone else followed.  While certainly Elvis was not the only musical innovator of his day, the magnitude of his rather sudden and surprising fame made him an easy reference point as a kind of dividing line between different eras of popular culture.

Elvis became the fist popular music superstar of his kind in large part due to the timing of his arrival.  In the 1950s, the United States was the biggest economic superpower in the world (parts of Europe still being in ruins).  The combined legacies of the so-called Progressive and New Deal eras, together with the economic opportunities created by massive World War II industrialization, created a unique environment in which the powerful (willingly or unwillingly) gave working people the greatest share of wealth and power that they had ever experienced in the history of the nation.  Those gains would be attacked relentlessly, and would begin to steeply erode in less than two decades, but they still presented themselves as new and seemingly permanent changes as Elvis came to the fore.  This was the double whammy of Elvis’ stardom.  He was the choice of both the young and of the working class.  And he was their ally in the sense that he was a cultural commodity, an emblem of uncontrollable cool and swagger, the sorts of characteristics that entrenched interests can never convincingly deliver.  But while cultural mavericks exist all the time, Elvis’ records sold millions of copies, proving not only in cultural terms but also in terms of cold hard dollars (the language of entrenched interests) that he had tapped into something that was tangible from any angle.

Zombies, Zombies, Zombies! And Those Who Deal With Them

For decades, “zombies” have preoccupied the makers of films, television shows, comics, and more.  What does this genre have to offer? As we’ll see, there is some excellent filmmaking hidden in this genre, though many attempts to extend it are terrifyingly bad.

I Walked With a Zombie

The earliest zombie films–White Zombie (1932), etc.–were basically typical monster movies, not terribly unlike Frankenstein (1931), or maybe thrillers–like I Walked With a Zombie (1943) that draws on myths of Hatian voodoo.  Some of those movies are well regarded, but the “zombie” element was generally confined to a single character with some makeup that converted him into a monstrous “other” that the protagonist has to confront and cope with.

I am Legend

A book, I Am Legend (1954) by Robert Matheson, had a significant impact on the future use of zombies in film.  As of this writing, three film adaptations have been made: The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith.  While the book and the first movie adaptation relied on vampires rather than zombies, the story structure of having a revolutionary actor (searching for a cure) within an apocalypse of monsters would influence an unknown, independent filmmaker named George A. Romero to run with the idea in a slightly different direction.  The latter two film version tended more toward the use of “zombies” than “vampires”, to some degree at least.  Omega Man is probably the one to watch among them.

This idea of substituting zombies for vampires even shows up in the spirits industry, with the brewery Clown Shoes changing the name of its American Imperial Stout beer from “Vampire Slayer” to “Undead Party Crasher” after a patent and trademark attorney who co-owned a competing business distributing an imported “Vampire Pale Ale” brought a trademark infringement lawsuit.  The new label for the Clown Shoes brew asks if we need the undead and trademark attorneys too.  A werewolf-looking trademark attorney is having a stake driven through his heart in a cartoon in the background.

Let’s get back to cinema though.  The identifiable genre of zombie films–that of the “zombie apocalypse” movie if you will–came into being with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Romero established himself as the undisputed master to the genre.  He made B-movies like director Samuel Fuller or even John Cassavetes, making due with smaller budgets, unadorned camera and editing technique, and minimal technical features like special effects, but packing quite a punch in terms of substantive content.  He delivered “soft” science fiction, in which the suspension of disbelief in re-animated corpses is a tool to explore human relations and the human condition.  But unlike sci-fi films that may have explored similar human issues, zombies presented a rather simple premise that required only a minimal (if central) suspension of disbelief.  There may be zombies, but all else is “normal” in the world.  Romero’s films laid out the basic elements of most zombie films to follow: the “undead” (ghouls) coming back to life for unexplained reasons, slow and staggering movement, the need to destroy the head to incapacitate them, herds or swarms of them moving together, and a taste for human flesh.  Where the early “monster movie” zombie pictures tended to deal with a main character’s terror of the unknown, or perhaps to suggest that monsters may just want to be like “us”, Romero flipped the relationship and suggested instead that maybe “we” are like zombies.  Night of the Living Dead had an existential edge like Sartre’s play No Exit (1944), with its famous assertion that “hell is – other people.”  In all of Romero’s later zombie films, though, existentialism was replaced or augmented by questions of consumerism, class consciousness, political (in)equality, and similar social commentary.

Night of the Living DeadNight of the Living Dead established the frequent zombie moving setting of a sudden onset of people turning into zombies, and a group barricading themselves into a house to survive.  The threat of zombies infecting others in amass outbreak explains itself easily, lending an air of credibility to an otherwise incredible plot device.  Like almost all of Romero’s zombie films, the actors are basically unknown to screen audiences.  He also casts the lead as an African-American, at a time when Hollywood did not do so.  Most characteristic is that Romero portrays U.S.-Soviet Cold War militarism and social authority as the “real monster”.  This placed Romero among the 1960s counterculture, and vaguely attached him to the so-called New Left.  Though he remained an independent force, both literally in the sense of existing outside the Hollywood system, but also symbolically int he ideas presented on film.

There were many subsequent films Romero made in the same milieu as the original Night of the Living Dead.  The first was Dawn of the Dead (1978).  To many, and despite rather poor acting, Dawn is the greatest of Romero’s zombie films.  Rather than retreating to an isolated home, in this instalment the main characters barricade themselves inside a large shopping mall.  The film addresses a legitimate question of realism: what if the government or other people cannot (or simply do not) suppress the rise of the zombies?  What happens over a longer time period?  Of course, people need food and other supplies.  A shopping mall as a mecca of consumerism in the late 1970s is a metanym of consumer culture of the day.  Romero’s biggest achievement is to show the zombies taking on “human” qualities, like trying to go to the mall and mindlessly “shop”.  Unlike the early zombie films, this did not posit that zombies wanted to be like us but that consumerism has become so ingrained in Western culture that not even death and reanimation as zombies diminishes those impulses.  In the 2013 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes the 2011 riots in Great Britain in terms of the inability of the rioters to transcend the predominant ideology of their society, and therefore they act out within that paradigm.  Romero’s mall-bound zombies are a very cynical illustration of the same point.  What also becomes a trend here is the question of collective action.  The onslaught of zombies seems to force the survivors to work together, overcoming whatever objections they have to doing so.  In that, a subtle point is made.  Working together is more effective that working alone (or against each other).  The question is how this can be achieved, and maintained.  King Vidor had already made Our Daily Bread (1934), about people founding a collective subsistence farm during the Great Depression, but a zombie apocalypse provides the basis to illustrate the concept more obliquely.

Day of the DeadDay of the Dead (1985) seemed, for at time at least, to be Romero’s conclusion of a zombie trilogy.  Compared to the first two films, it balances somewhat more refined and modern film technique with more nuanced social commentary.  In this version the zombie apocalypse is well underway.  A band of survivors holds up in a military installation whilst a resident scientist conducts research on zombies that are (with great effort and risk to humans handling them) corralled into a pen prior to the experiments.  The film’s greatest strength lies in the characters.  The conflict between the humans and the zombies is merely the setting to explore the tensions between the humans, with class and almost tribal characteristics dividing many of them.  Soldiers resent the educated scientist’s pursuits.  The civilians and pilots fear the raw aggression and violence of the soldiers.  Men despise powerful women.  Those in a hierarchy abhor democracy.  Another key plot point must be mentioned: Bub.  The scientist at the military facility is experimenting to see if the zombies can be controlled and peaceably integrated into human society.  Bub (Sherman Howard) is his most promising zombie research subject.  While many deride the Bub character (as something like a precursor to Jar Jar Binks of the Star Wars franchise), he represents something completely new for the genre.  This is Romero’s lionization of attempts to normalize the most monstrous.  It encapsulates the utopian heart of his films.  Bub symbolizes a hope and belief that social transformations are possible.  He presents an ideology that comes from the zombies.  But there is another strikingly radical aspect to Bub as well.  He also represents, just oh so slightly, a kind of core goodness of the ordinary man.  While most human survivors (especially the soldiers) want the zombies exterminated, Bub is a test case for overcoming the urge to destroy what is different.  The interpersonal relations of the characters who are trying in varying degrees to come to terms with these ideas is the axis on which the film turns.  Bub may not be a particularly subtle device, but the reactions of the humans around him certainly are.  For these reasons, Day of the Dead may be Romero’s very best.

After a two decade hiatus, Romero came back with three more zombie films:  Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009).  All three exhibit more self-awareness of their place in the pantheon of zombie films and use humor more liberally than the earlier Romero efforts.  They also update the context by many years, in that like all of Romero’s zombie films they have a contemporary setting.

Diary of the Dead revolves around a group of college students trying to escape and survive from the time that the zombie apocalypse just begins.  One of them is an aspiring filmmaker, and he is making a documentary “Diary of the Dead” to document the apocalypse to counter the false information spread by the mass media, who, on the zombie question, are trying to conceal the nature, extent and origins of the zombie outbreak.  Diary‘s use of first person camera and the importance it places on alternative media are somewhat forced.  The script never convincingly explains how Internet distribution of a guerrilla documentary film would really work, given that it depends on enough of humanity surviving to maintain not just internet communication lines but also electricity.  The use of first person camera to draw in viewers and elicit sympathetic reactions can at times feel like a con job.  Frankly, The Blair Witch Project (1999) beat Romero to the idea, which is better suited to zombies as mysterious monsters lurking in the shadows, used for fright (like an old Jacques Tourneur film) but nothing more.

Survival of the Dead picks up from a minor plot point in Diary in which a small band of soldiers rob the students.  The film revolves around the questions of allegiances and trust, and the interactions not just of individuals but between small groups.  The soldiers from Diary seemed like self-interested rogues in that earlier film, but in the latter are redeemed as altruistic and simply in search of survival.  They eventually encounter bands of other survivors engaged in the vestiges of a kind of family feud on an island.  People who seem trustworthy turn out to be con artists, and others show compassion when it counts.  Intended, perhaps, as the most humane of the Romero films, the sometimes low-rent acting, not to mention the less-developed script, doesn’t always allow the surprise twists in the behavior of the characters to seem convincing.  Survival seems like the least original of all of Romero’s zombie films because the major themes and interactions between characters are fairly familiar ones.  No new perspectives are really made possible by their use in a zombie film.  You can find much of this stuff in plenty of old westerns, for instance, and the westerns are better.

Land of the DeadThis leaves us with Land of the Dead.  It is the only of Romero’s zombie films to feature A-list Hollywood actors (Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo, Simon Baker, Asia Argento, and even Simon Pegg in a cameo).  Of the “comeback” Romero films, this is easily the best.  The zombie apocalypse has been underway for some extended period of time when the film opens.  A group of people use a train-like armored vehicle called “Dead Reckoning” to go out into zombie-infested areas and collect supplies for a gated island city where humans have gathered.  The city was a luxury condo/apartment highrise complex, and Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) is a man who has set himself up as the sort of CEO dictator of the facility.  He provides amenities such that the rich who live in the highrise maintain their posh standard of living as if there was no zombie apocalypse outside.  The rest of the residents of the island are either servants for Kaufman’s city-state empire, or are confined to make due in a ghetto on the streets of the island outside the main building.  The main characters have varying degrees of awareness–for some, there are awakenings that play out onscreen–of what Kaufman is up to and the cruel mechanisms he employs to maintain the very divided and unequal society on the island.  Many of the main characters take personal risks in order to act with altruism.  And there is constant talk of how to topple Kaufman’s empire to foster equality and fairness, balanced against concern for the collateral effects that a revolution presents.  In a sort of echo of the Bub character from Day of the Dead, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is a zombie who somehow intuitively knows how to use the remnants of human society for his own purposes.  He does not need a scientists to teach him how to do these things.  He appears initially at a gas station, and clumsily finds a way to use the gas pumps.  He teaches other zombies, in a way, how to use other tools from the human world.  As the movie progresses, Big Daddy seems to be on a mission to avenge wrongs committed by the humans against zombies.  Much like Yertle, the turtle on the bottom of a king turtle’s tower built of his own turtle subjects in the Dr. Seuss story “Yertle the Turtle” (1958), who says, “we too should have rights,” Big Daddy seems to be presenting the question of whether zombies have rights too.  One of the main human characters ceases fire around Big Daddy, as if to entertain the notion.  The class warfare and inequality of the island city give Land of the Dead much of the same spirit as the earlier Romero movies, even if it also makes overtures to more conventionally polished Hollywood filmmaking technique.  It has the hallmarks of the early Romero zombie classics, and almost like the Nineteenth Century French novelist Balzac, it uses the genre to paint a picture of human society through an assortment of specific interactions of individuals.  The zombies merely provide a shock to the social structure, and empower (or force) the characters to make their own moral decisions in a relative vacuum of social ritual.  Do they recreate what was before or try something else?  Rather than expounding pure theory, Romero provides little set pieces for the characters to make discrete choices.  What makes Romero so unique is that he uses zombie films to show character interactions that place radical options on the table–the sorts of options that are normally omitted through all sorts of ploys like concision, viability, naivety, and the like.  An interesting issue not really addressed by the film is why so many of the characters seem so interested in U.S. currency.  Would people really still honor it?  That’s probably a question for the proponents of Modern Monetary Theory.  Anyway, the only quibble with the film is that Simon Baker seems miscast in the lead role.  He’s a bit too affable.

Shaun of the DeadWhat about zombie movies outside the Romero universe?  There have been many.  Some are actually comedies.  Return of the Living Dead (1985) (and its many sequels) fit the description as comedies.  These films popularized the now-ubiquitous concept of zombies eating people’s brains, not just other parts of them.  And because they were made with assistance from John A. Russo (the co-writer of Night of the Living Dead), they follow much of the basic Romero template for zombie behavior.  Another comedic portrayal of the standard zombie apocalypse theme was Zombieland (2009).  Unlike most zombie films, this was a big-budget Hollywood film.  It manages to have some good gags, while trying hard to appeal to a sort of cynical nerd audience, though also dragging in a romantic subplot that could be borrowed from almost any other genre (which should be happy to be rid of it).  But Shaun of the Dead (2004) is the reigning champ of zombie comedies.  It is a satire of all the zombie apocalypse movies.  Much of the cast of the British sitcom Spaced (1999-2001) appears in one form or another–those actors would go on to make a series of satires of different film genres together.  The gags hit the right notes.  They capture much of what the original Romero movies were about, with witty dialog and excellent performances.  The characters make all the dumb mistakes characters always make in these movies.  The send-up is self-aware and well-informed.

28 Days LaterThe most significant film to break from the Romero mold while still presenting a classic “zombie apocalypse” theme was 28 Days Later (2002).  In this format, the cause of the zombie outbreak is known and explained from the very beginning of the film.  Scientists are conducting biotech experiments that produce uncontrollable rage in test chimps.  Animal rights activists trying to liberate the caged animals inadvertently release the disease into the human population.  The infected are not the slow, lumping zombies of the Romero movies.  The disease causes violent, uncontrolled imperatives to attack living humans.  These zombies move quickly, always at a full run.  They are almost rabid.  The main character somehow survived the onset of the zombie apocalypse while in a coma in a hospital.  He awakens 28 days after the outbreak, hence the title (though inexplicably he awakens in an empty hospital on clean sheets).  He meets up with some other survivors who know how to navigate the apocalypse, as best as they can, and who understand–and explain and illustrate–that any contact with fluids from the zombies or any bites mean infection.  The rest of the film deals with the group of survivors trying to find a military outpost that will protect them from the zombies, and the valor of individuals in the group protecting the others from both zombies and predatory humans alike.  The action is taut–this is as much a pure action film as a thriller.  The characters are believable and compelling.  There is a clear line drawn between good and evil.  Above all, though, this film set out a new set of rules for the zombies in zombie films.  A sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007) was dreadful.  Following the I Am Legend format there is a search for a cure, together with the now typical device of a quarantined city.  Filled with main characters who are (contrary to intent) manifestly unsympathetic, the film basically imploded onto itself and can’t end soon enough.

The Walking Dead (2010- ) was a surprise hit zombie apocalypse TV show, based on a graphic novel series of the same name launched in 2004 by Robert Kirkman.  It is a signature cable channel show.  As broadcast networks focused on cheap-to-produce reality shows, cable networks began to finance lavish dramas with production values approaching Hollywood theatrically-released movies more than standard broadcast TV fare.  This won large audiences.  The Walking Dead is extremely derivative of what came before it.  The premise, as the series begins, is that the main character awakens from a coma to find himself in a zombie apocalypse.  Sound familiar from 28 Days Later?  The zombies are dubbed “walkers” (like in Romero films) and exhibit much the same lumbering movements as all the Romero films.  But rather than have anything good or new to say, the show is mostly a melodrama, that is to say a soap opera.  The setups are implausible.  Many of the characters are inconsistent–constantly changing their personalities just to facilitate a plot twist.  This show is terrible.

Hollywood has tried to catch up (and cash in) on the zombie buzz generated by the success of The Walking Dead, much like they did with a “vampire” fad a few years earlier (yet again, zombies are kind of a second wave after vampires).  Among those efforts is World War Z (2013).  This is a formulaic Hollywood movie through and through.  The main character (Brad Pitt) searches for a cause of the epidemic, and also for a cure.  Every part of the plot follows the “Chekhov’s gun” principle; foreshadowing is absolute and rigid.  The zombies follow the 28 Days Later pattern of being wild and frenzied.  Framing of the action borrows heavily from the disaster movie genre.  The audience is expected to sympathize with the exceptionalism of the family at the center of the story, and multiple deus ex machina plot twists are needed to keep the story moving.  While lavishly produced, with every technical detail nearly impeccable, the story is stupid, derivative and implausible.  At least Hollywood’s last big (non-comedy) zombie movie, the Will Smith version of I Am Legend, required you to suspend disbelief only as to the presence of zombies but not with regard to the actions and emotions of the uninfected human characters. No such luck here.  No, here we get a character on UN-coordinated missions who brings a satellite phone for personal communication only, making no attempt to communicate with the UN regarding his progress other than to fly around the world trying to reach their base and maybe fill them in at that point.  Too bad he did not put the UN on speed dial before he left!

Wholly aside from the movies, “zombie walks,” “zombie pub crawls,” and other such events have arisen with participants donning zombie costumes and makeup.  Some of these are just middle class past times.  But some take up the spirit of the Romero movies by being used a protests against consumer culture, or other things.  In Minneapolis on July 22, 2006 a group dressed up as zombies and lurched through a public festival, with portable audio equipment playing announcements like “get your brains here” and “brain cleanup in Aisle 5.”  The police arrested them, claiming at first that it was for “disorderly conduct” but then later saying that use of the audio equipment constituted the illegal display of simulated weapons of mass destruction (“WMDs”) (yes, the police, and later city attorneys, actually asserted this).  The “zombies” later won a lawsuit against the police, the court saying there was no probable cause to arrest them.

There is certainly more to the zombie phenomenon than meets the eye. For one, there are more zombie films than can be mentioned here.  I didn’t even mention Bruce Campbell movies!  But the pervasiveness of zombies in popular culture makes them worthy of note.  Hopefully, this little primer offers a head start.

Cultural Detritus, Reviews, and Commentary