I Want More: A Guide to the Music of CAN

This is a guide to the music of CAN.  Releases are divided into full albums, miscellany (mostly archival, soundtrack, and outtake collections), and non-album singles, with each section arranged chronologically by recording date.  Other resources — books, films, a soundtrack filmography, and web sites — are listed at the end.

This is not quite complete yet.


A Brief Introduction:

CAN was formed in the late 1960s in Köln (Cologne), in what was then West Germany.  The band approached rock and pop music with sort of an outsider’s perspective, very much the way pianist/composer Cecil Taylor approached jazz in a unique way from the standpoint of formal training in modern classical music.  There was a tacit affinity in their worldview to the so-called “New Left” movement of the late 1960s.  The band is also cited as a pillar of the “krautrock” movement that sought to reconstruct a new German cultural identity following the defeat of the Nazis by the Soviet Union and allied powers — most of the band members grew up knowing former Nazis.  They did not want to sound like other pop music.  The band’s music draws influence and comparisons to electronic “new music” composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the chance music of John Cage, rock bands like The Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sly & The Family Stone, the vamping funk rock of James Brown, and dub reggae from the likes of producer Lee “Scratch” Perry.  While band members had great familiarity with jazz, they either couldn’t or didn’t want to play jazz.  They did not work with outside producers or even record in commercial recording studios, instead forging their own path in a do-it-yourself way in which they maintained control over all aspects of their recordings.  Always something of a cult phenomenon, CAN remained critical darlings.  Curiously, or maybe not so much, the band’s audience has primarily been male.  Anyway, even nearly a half-century later the band’s music sounds stunningly fresh and impressive.

Original members Irmin Schmidt, Czukay and David Johnson came from backgrounds in modern classical music, each having studied at Darmstadt with Karlheinz Stockhausen.  Drummer Jaki Liebezeit came from a background in jazz, departing a position in Manfred Schoof‘s band after deciding that the scrupulous avoidance of a rhythmic pulse in free jazz was too constraining.  Guitarist Michael Karoli was a former student of Czukay’s who gave up studying law to be a musician instead.  Schmidt was a working conductor and composer who visited New York City where he was introduced to underground rock and the pop art scene.  He returned to West Germany inspired, and with Czukay committed to starting a rock band.  Johnson soon departed as the band pursued more of a focus on rock than pure avant-garde electronics.  Malcolm Mooney was an American traveling the world under the alias Desse Barama to try to avoid being drafted into the military during the Vietnam War, and ended up connecting with CAN partly out of confusion — he wanted to find a visual artist’s studio but ended up in a musical studio.  Although not intending to be a singer when he arrived in Germany, and having no real experience as such, Mooney helped the band coalesce its unique syncretic approach to music with a strong sense of rhythm.  Anxiety about returning to America and being drafted eventually necessitated Mooney’s departure.  He was soon after replaced by “Damo” Suzuki.  An anarchist by disposition, Damo had left home dissatisfied with Japanese culture through a connection with a pen pal in Sweden.  He had made his way to Germany where he frequently busked on the streets of Cologne and also was involved in a theater orchestra/band.  Holger Czukay encountered him on the street and invited him to sign at a concert that evening, with no rehearsal.

Most band members came from a middle-class backgrounds (in one case more upper class).  This gave them access to unique opportunities and allowed them to overcome obstacles that would have caused the demise of other bands.  For instance, Damo was very nearly deported before Irmin’s connections to West German state radio lead to a high-level government intervention that allowed Damo to remain.  Another sometimes overlooked aspect of the band’s history is that they formed in the wake of the so-called West German “Economic Miracle,” which partly stemmed from the Marshall Plan but was primarily a function of the USA forgiving WWII debts and using West Germany (and Japan, and later South Korea) as special economic development zones — something explicitly and purposefully denied to the UK and France.  In that climate of economic abundance there were funds and materials floating around for artistic projects.  The band maintained a very collective approach to music-making.  Everyone’s contributions were considered at an equal level.  There was no band hierarchy or designated leader.  Compositions, production and similar efforts were credited to the entire band regardless of specific individual contributions.  They also exactly equally shared band income, at least once Hildegard Schmidt became manager.

Achieving modest popularity in West Germany and the United Kingdom, they had some minor commercial success with recordings but had only one regional “hit” song with “I Want More.”  As the 70s rolled on, new members Rosko Gee and Reebop Kwaku Baah (both formerly of Traffic) joined in.  Czukay left the band by the end of 1977.

The band formally split up in 1979.  Irmin Schmidt then founded Spoon Records, and, via a distribution arrangement with Mute Records, CAN recordings are now more available than ever.  A few archival releases dribbled out in the early 80s, as well as some compilations.  A reunion instigated by originally vocalist Malcolm Mooney happened in the late 80s that lead to a new album.  A few additional reunion recordings of individual songs and sporadic reunion concerts took place too.  The former band members mostly pursued solo and other new musicals projects, and often collaborated.



Legend:

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Johnny Cash: A Guide to the Music of The Man in Black

A list by Syd Fablo and Bruno Bickleby

Introduction

Born: February 26, 1932, Kingsland, AR, United States
Died: September 12, 2003, Nashville, TN, United States

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The Shape of Jazz to Come: A Guide to the Music of Ornette Coleman

A guide by Syd Fablo, Bruno Bickleby, and Patrick.

Introduction

 

This is a guide to the music of Ornette Coleman.  Albums are listed chronologically by recording date, broken down into multiple periods of his life and career and supplemented with biographical information.  Outtake and various artists collections are shown indented and with smaller font and images.  Bootlegs are listed, indented, but images and details are provided for only a few selected bootlegs that are of particular significance.  Guest and sideman appearances are listed separately toward the end.  Book, film/video/TV, and web site resources about or featuring Ornette are listed at the end.  The authors also provide curators’ picks and some other items of interest at the end.  While there are some compilations and box sets of Ornette’s work available, note that (with one exception) most focus on only a narrow period of time or are explicitly record label specific — the most significant of the label-specific ones being Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings.  It is somewhat unfortunate that many of Coleman’s recordings are currently out of print.  Moreover, unlike the deluge of archival, outtake and bonus material issued for certain other famous musical contemporaries of Ornette, there has been comparatively little of such material by him officially released to date.


A Brief Biography

 

Birth Name: Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman

Born: March 19, 1930 (or possibly March 9, 1930), Fort Worth, TX.

Died: June 11, 2015, New York, NY.

Ornette received almost no formal musical training, and was a noted autodidact.  Reports of him being unable to read music are often exaggerated in order to present him as a kind of primitive musical savant, rather than as someone from humble roots who willfully bucked convention.  Though he began playing music professionally while still a teenager, it was not until he was in his late 20s that he recorded as a bandleader and he was almost 30 years old before he found success as a solo act — rather late by typical jazz standards.  His music was resisted and disliked by many, but he showed an uncommon amount of “grit” in sticking with it despite adversities and setbacks.  Listeners tend to have a “love him or hate him” sort of reaction.  Usually described as shy (i.e., introverted), he also struck many as an unusual guy for his mannerisms and outlook on life.  He eventually developed his own musical theory that he dubbed “Harmolodics”, which he insisted can be applied to how one conducts their own life and to other artistic forms.  Often he described himself as a composer who performs.  “Lonely Woman” was his first “Harmolodic” composition, and is perhaps his best-known song.  One-time collaborator Pat Metheny said about him, “Ornette is the rare example of a musician who has created his own world, his own reality, his own language – effective to the point where emulation and absorbtion [sic] of it is not only impossible, it is simply too daunting a task for most musicians to even consider.”  His career (and fortunes) ebbed and flowed, with periods of intense activities and long stretches of public inactivity.  He nonetheless came to be regarded as one of America’s greatest musical innovators.  He also had a considerable art collection, and partly due to those interest notable contemporary artworks were reproduced on many of his albums, on the cover, back and/or inserts.  At least after achieving career success, he was a dapper dresser, often wearing brightly colored custom made suits.  His sister Truvenza (Trudy) Coleman also had a musical career, though she did not work with her brother professionally.


Legend

🎷🎷🎷 = top-tier; an essential

🎷🎷 = second tier; enjoyable but more for the confirmed fan; worthwhile after you’ve explored the essentials and still want more

🎷 = third tier; a lesser release, for completists only



Continue reading “The Shape of Jazz to Come: A Guide to the Music of Ornette Coleman”

Listen to This: A Guide to The Red Crayola/Red Krayola

Introduction

The Red Crayola on Forty-FiveThis here be a guide to the recorded music of The Red Crayola/Red Krayola — abbreviated as RC or RK.  Releases are arranged chronologically by recording date (not release date), broken up into rough “eras”.  The groupings correspond to major shifts in the geographic location of the band.  A legend is provided, as are recording credits, where available.

A Brief History

The Red Crayola (sometimes spelled “The Red Krayola”) are an exceptionally long-lived rock band.  Their origins were in the psychedelic mid-/late-1960s, formed in Texas by university students engaged with the burgeoning countercultural movement.  The band broke up and reformed, and then effectively dissolved by the end of the 1960s.  But Mayo Thompson, who worked in the visual arts (he was an assistant to Robert Rauschenberg) and also dabbled with a solo career, resurrected the band name in the mid-1970s.  For about fifty years Thompson continued the band in various incarnations across different continents.  In the later 70s and through all of the 80s, the band was based out of Europe, then returned to the United states permanently in the early 90s.  The always band fit into the musical “underground”, and was never about commercial success.  Mayo Thompson endorsed one critic’s description of the band’s music as “not practical”.  Actually, the band’s political outlook became explicitly leftist/communist.  But they tended to rely on wacky, dadaist humor and “performance art” techniques, eschewing virtuoso performance.  The band frequently emphasized equal sharing of credit, regardless of contributions, so many releases intentionally do not credit individual songwriters, or even which musicians appear on which songs playing which instruments (a practice that ended only with Introduction in 2006).  This was part of an over-arching inclusionist sensibility.


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Don’t Believe the Hype: A Guide to Public Enemy

Welcome to a humble guide to the music of Public Enemy, one of the most iconic, innovative, and long-running hip-hop groups in history.  This guide focuses on albums, rather than singles.  Links to other resources are provided at the end.  Credits listed below are accurate to a point; the band tended to skip attribution — and often intentionally obfuscate — who contributed to producing individual tracks and entire albums.  Information on available releases is current for the United States as of early 2016, and focuses on physical formats.


A Brief History

Public Enemy (PE), formed in “Strong Island” [Long Island], NY, in 1982, emerged at the forefront of “conscious” or “positive” hip-hop.  Biographer Tim Grierson wrote, they had “little interest in the materialism and bloodshed that had quickly become two of [hip-hop’s] major selling points.”  Instead, PE wrote songs mostly about political and social topics.  At the same time their music earned a reputation for being dense and hard, as in the most densely layered in all of hip-hop.  At the peak of their fame in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were deemed controversial by some — partly a conscious strategy —  and became embroiled in quite a few scandals — some deserved and some not.  As much as they tried to make intelligent music, sometimes looking back it doesn’t seem as intelligent as it aims to be (though usually it is).  They have survived for decades, innovated hip-hop music and various music production and distribution techniques, and fallen off from widespread public consciousness in later years.  Chuck D has engaged in various other projects, from speaking at conferences to TV hosting and more, and Flavor Flav starred in a number of “reality” TV shows (“The Surreal Life,” “Strange Love,” and “Flavor of Love”), a short-lived sitcom (“Under One Roof”) and launched some restaurants (he is a trained chef) that quickly closed.  Chuck D has maintained an anti-drugs (including anti-alcohol) approach, though Flavor Flav has had many drug abuse problems and his TV appearances are rather at odds with the core of Public Enemy’s artistic stance.  And yet, given that Chuck D has said that Flavor Flav “is the street,” the group’s willingness to include someone from a different sort of background faced with attendant challenges is worthy of respect.  The group was (and is) more than just Chuck (the MC) and Flavor (the hype man), though a self-serving (unaccountable and even hypocritical) opacity falls across much of their work as to who is involved (or not involved) in actually making the music on recordings — the credits that follow are accordingly incomplete.  There have been falling-outs, bitter rivalries, members ejected then later brought back, new members absorbed — accounts of those happenings vary widely and former members disagree with a few of the “official” accounts.  Technically, Chuck D and Flavor Flav are the band, in terms of who signs the contracts, and the others are their employees.  Professor Griff was forced out in the early 1990s, but he returned seven years later.  Hank Shocklee was perhaps the major innovator in terms of producing the beats on records from the band’s peak, though a combination of legal issues related to sampling, theft of the vinyl the band used for samples, and differences of opinion about whose contributions made the band successful, he left in the early 1990s.  Whether directly related or not, the band only briefly maintained both commercial and critical appeal following that split.  And despite all this PE has made good music decades after they formed.  Most interestingly, they have taken bold steps to maintain independence from the corporate, major-label music world while still touring and recording.  There are few hip-hop acts as long-lived or as deeply beloved by fans.



Legend:

⊕⊕⊕ = top-tier; an essential
⊕⊕ = second-tier; enjoyable but more for the confirmed fan; worthwhile after you’ve explored the essentials and still want more
⊕ = third-tier; a lesser album, for completists, with perhaps only one or so notable songs


Continue reading “Don’t Believe the Hype: A Guide to Public Enemy”

Nina Simone

Nina Simone was an enigma.  She is often described as a jazz singer.  She wasn’t one of consequence.  Stack her next to an actual jazz singer and this becomes pretty clear.  She developed a reputation as an artist with moral integrity.  Yet that reputation wears thin when looking at how many misguided concessions to pop fads are littered all through her recording career.  Much is made of her bitter break from Euro-classical music early in life.  Denied entry to a conservatory (The Curtis Institute of Music) as a pianist, she turned to singing in lounges.  Little of her piano playing impresses on her own recordings, though it can be effective in accompaniment.  But when you hear her voice on a good recording, she definitely had something special.  Singing may not have been her desire, but it was her great talent.  Sometimes talents choose their medium, rather than the other way around.  She was often at her best when adding a rough blues or gospel or jazz inflection to burningly austere chamber pop songs.  She was sort of a gothic shadow cast from commercial pop.  It was the tone of her voice that embodied a palpable sense of anger that drove so much of it.  Close listening doesn’t reveal much clarity in her rhythmic phrasing, her control of vibrato, her pitch range, or even her use of melisma.  All that aside, she had the power to deliver songs as if saying, with a firm scowl, “I will sing this song and I will make you remember it.”  The single-minded resolve to put her own identity into her music is fiercely determined.  This makes the greatest impression on the material that resists that approach.  When she worked with jazzy orchestral backing, as was a prevailing style for a time during her long career, the resistance to her identity could be too much.  When she played straight blues or even militant soul and R&B, there was nothing really working against her identity to put up any challenge.  She reversed her formula and added formal pop technique to rougher electric soul and R&B, and it came across as a reflection of her limitations rather than her positive talent.

What follows is a long yet incomplete set of brief reviews of her albums.  This is limited to what I’ve heard, which does not include anything from her time with Colpix Records.  Continue reading “Nina Simone”

Collection of Modern Jazz

Collection of Modern JazzWelcome to a “virtual” compilation album of jazz from 1960 to 2009, intended to be an introduction to jazz music from that time period for anyone with an interest.  It is generally meant to be a follow-up to a compilation like The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, with a focus on a later time period.  In moving into more modern periods of jazz history, the listening experience can be more challenging for many because there begin to be marked departures from familiar modes of musical practice.  With regard to literary practice, the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovskii wrote of “laying bare the device” and the technique of “defamiliarization” (or “estrangement”), which are key elements underlying most modernist art movements that, as a general rule of thumb, all rely on a fairly high degree of audience sophistication.  The same holds for modern jazz.  The music here does get quite challenging at times, and is more along the lines of serious, intensive listening music than casual background or dance music.  That is as much a reflection of trends in music history as a reflection of choices among the trove of great recordings that could easily replace the selections here.  Every effort has been made to take that into consideration in keeping the overall set as accessible as possible for relatively novice listeners, but without shying away from important recordings that make for challenging listening.  All that said, listening to this compilation should probably be prefaced with some understanding of the roots of jazz prior to 1960.  The criteria in making selections has been to attempt a reasonable sketch of the musical innovations of modern jazz, with attention also paid to historical trends in the sense of well-known sub-genres.  Songs — and some artists — already represented on other compilations like The Smithsonian Collection, have been excluded here to avoid redundancy.  It is important to note that this compilation does not track only popular, heavily marketed trends in a rote manner, and so anyone who believes the mainstream account that “jazz just died” at some time in the 1970s should probably look elsewhere for a more sanitized overview that pretends jazz hasn’t kept on surviving at a smaller scale via independent, underground, and publicly-subsidized outlets.

This collection is arranged roughly in chronological order by recording date, though it is not strictly chronologically arranged.  For each song selection, the songwriting credits, first release, recording date/location, and personnel are listed to the greatest extent possible, though precise information is not available in every case.  Compiler’s notes are given for each selection as a guide for those seeking clues as to suggested musical elements to listen for, as well as to provide reasons for the inclusion of certain tracks.  This collection is not comprehensive and exhaustive, of course, and so it does make some omissions of many great and worthy artists and recordings.  Moreover, numerous popular movements like “smooth jazz” and “acid jazz” are not represented, as some argue those are not properly called “jazz” at all, at least in the sense that their audiences tend to be outside those historically associated with jazz as such.  In order to allow a greater number of different recordings to be represented, while still allowing the collected material to hypothetically fit on a reasonable number of compact discs, many selections are presented in edited form.  While those selections deserve to be heard in their complete form, the difficult decision to present edited version seemed necessary given the length of most modern jazz recordings.  In earlier eras jazz musicians were limited by recording formats that only offered a few minutes worth of recording time.  With technological advances, recordings could be made of indefinite duration.  Many musicians have taken advantage of that fact.  With the advent of digital music, listeners programming this collection electronically can perhaps ignore the suggested time edits, which are merely a byproduct of the limitations of physical media.

Anyway, the primary objective of this collection is to serve as an educational tool to introduce new listeners to modern jazz.  It is hoped this will be a a launching pad for the exploration of the wide and varied interstellar universe of modern jazz.  It is hoped that listeners will follow up a careful review of this collection with explorations of other jazz music.  The personnel lists, record label listings and compiler’s notes hopefully provide some suggestions for additional listening.  But don’t stop there.  For more introductory jazz resources, see Jazz Resource Guide. Continue reading “Collection of Modern Jazz”

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.