The Man Comes Around Again

An old genre is back to judge the living and the dead

Given the speed-walking cannibal ghouls of 28 Days Later and the blue-faced mall rats of the new Dawn of the Dead (not to mention the lumbering punishment receptacle of The Passion), the living among us might well wonder: Why zombies? Why now? My own X-ray of the collective unconscious tells me that the zombie flicks of today appeal to us precisely for presenting the inverse of Mel Gibson's Passion: They reaffirm the primacy of the living and the dead in an era of pie-eyed afterlife ideologies.

No wonder the first deeply jarring moment in Universal's Dawn of the Dead remake is a montage of present-tense apocalypse that begins with a row of Muslims bowing in prayer while Johnny Cash sings "The Man Comes Around." Director Zack Snyder presents a total-meltdown world--not just the film's fantastical site of zombie Armageddon, but a more recognizable battleground in which Jesus-scented Pax Americana meets super-size jihad in an NFL scrimmage with almost no survivors.

The Springer show: Mark Borchardt and Nadine Gross in 'Living Dead Girl'
Ed Araquel for Cricket Films
The Springer show: Mark Borchardt and Nadine Gross in 'Living Dead Girl'

Dawn 2004 pays lip service to George A. Romero-style satire in its first half-hour, as the living hole up in a suburban shopping mall, stonewalling the dead. Snyder performs a fascinating investigation of upscale retail architecture, and delivers a grunt-versus-civilian allegory no more or less sophisticated than the one in 28 Days Later. But as the film goes on, it becomes a fairly straightforward (and excitingly made) rendition of John Carpenter's renditions of Howard Hawks's renditions (!) of the classic Western: Good folks on the inside of a building figure out how to fight the bad, inhuman folks on the outside.

Coming at a particularly bloody and sorrowful moment in our conflict overseas, Dawn of the Dead seems to disable the very notion of ideology--particularly the transcendent, religious kind--by focusing on the sacred nature of the not-yet-undead body. What Snyder's pseudo-Marine rent-a-cops can't comprehend is that there's no heaven, no tomorrow, no rank or status, no touchdown dance in the cool part of the mall. There's only survival or death: the lesson of a Sam Fuller war film sprayed in splatter-movie blood. The new Dawn's blunt candor in facing the existential void is positively bracing; I think the mall crowds that have flocked to it might even call it fun.

The local manifestation of zombiemania is the nine-minute "Living Dead Girl" by Twin Cities-based goremeister Jon Springer. (Having graced the Central Standard and Minneapolis/St. Paul festivals, the film screens at Bryant-Lake Bowl's "Cinema Lounge" on Wednesday, April 21 at 7:00 p.m.) But while Springer's silent movie-style saga, some of it shot around the Mall of America, is a near-PowerPoint enumeration of images from Romero's original Dawn, it actually answers to an even higher calling. Once bitten, the title character (Nadine Gross) staggers down a would-be Romeroesque Twin Cities street only to discover a gaunt, white shroud-bearing, hangdog Jesus H. Christ (played by none other than Mark Borchardt, icon of American Movie). Before you can say, "Eat of my body, drink of my blood," the Living Dead Girl grabs the Lord's wrist and...

Seems to me the secret to Springer's impending success outside the state lies less in the arm-munching side of the equation than in the holy-rolling side. Like the big-haired Jesus freaks of Christian metal, Springer aims to cross over through his canny deployment of a quintessentially adolescent form: in his case, old-school horror. Indeed, Springer has become adept at tucking born-again messages into traditionally unsanitary places: His "Heaven 17" features a lecherous, vampiric villain who performs third-trimester abortions; his comic "Heterosapiens" has straight man John A. Seed scouring the retro-futurist Simulingus for a sex fantasy that's divine. In "Living Dead Girl," the director delivers his heroine unto an abstract reverie of Minneapolitan church spires and stained-glass facades: the do-it-yourself recipe for Elysian fields, I suppose. The punch line: There's a spiritual meaning behind the commercial surface of the godless zombie picture.

Never mind that Springer's finale has the soft punch of a public service announcement's last beat. This guy is onto something that has legs: Christian trash art that has been vacuum-cleaned of messianic pomposity--just in time to capitalize on the emergence of "mainstream" fundamentalist pop art à la Gibson's Passion. Up to now, Springer has complained (or bragged?) about the necessity of self-financing his movies. But on the evidence of "Living Dead Girl," I'd say he might as well start speed-dialing brokers to pick out his new digs in Bel Air.

 
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