Saturday, August 6, 2011

Evolution Horror: What Apes and Zombies have in common.

I wish the title were Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It's a small criticism for the most satisfying summer film in recent memory. For one, "dawn" is more reflective of the events of the film, than Rise of the Planet of the Apes. For another, "dawn" would have given me a certain intertextual thrill. For in my mind, the Apes Saga has always been a close cousin to George A. Romero's Dead Cycle, and even if they didn't choose the word "dawn" in order to make that kinship explicit, the new film is in a few ways the inevitable love child of the two series.

Both series started in 1968. There are obvious huge differences. Planet of the Apes was a studio picture with an A-List star and a director one film away from an Oscar. Night of the Living Dead was a no-budget cheapie (indie before the word existed) shot without stars of any kind. Both films used genre and metaphor in gripping ways, and needless to say they are both a product of turbulent, searching times.

The Apes Saga touched on the politics of the day, made social commentary, and posed big questions in none-too-subtle ways about the Nature of Man. The Dead Cycle did all the same things but with a sly wit and Romero's unabashedly counterculture ethos in every frame. The Apes lacked a single master (although Paul Dehn, with writing and/or story credits on all the four sequels comes close) in the way that the Dead Cycle has had in Romero.

Beyond those differences, the apes and the zombies serve almost identical functions as metaphors: they are a mirror reflection of us, who we REALLY are underneath it all, and perhaps in some small way they are better than us, or what we have become. In zombie terms this is the domain of Romero alone. Only he, the father of the sub-genre, casts a sympathetic eye towards the zombies, never letting us forget that they are us. By the third film Romero gets us to empathize with them, and he never lets us forget their humanity for the rest of the series.

The filmmakers of the Apes Cycle similarly remind us constantly that our simian counterparts are more than justified in feeling superior to us, and in the fourth installment, man's fascistic oppression and enslavement of apes makes the coming bloodbath feel inevitable and warranted.

Hubris, that favored flaw of the Greeks, is also the tragic flaw of both series. It leads to our destruction as a society, and it constantly has the characters asking how these creatures could ever usurp mankind. It's usually while wondering that that a character is either killed by gorillas or eaten alive.

And then there's race. It has always haunted both films, in the way that we treat these fantastic others. And in both series there typically is an African-American male character who holds a prominent role even if he's not the hero. Romero always took care to have a black hero in the mix, and in his fourth film he chose to make the zombie the black hero (interesting that in both of the series fourth episodes Land of the Dead and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes there is a revolt led by a messianic figure) and the equivalent to Caesar in the Apes Saga.

As for the Apes films, there are key supporting roles filled by black male actors in the first two films (Taylor's science officer in the first, the African-American member of the the subterranean mutants in the second). While the third film breaks this trend (Montalban fills the void in the third film I suppose), the fourth and fifth more than make up for it. Though a member of the fascist government, MacDonald (Hari  Rhodes) is the conscience of the establishment. In case you were forgetting for one second that this society had engaged in slavery before the Apes, MacDonald will remind you.

Another MacDonald character serves as Caesar's right hand man during Battle for the Planet of the Apes. That film is set in a post-apocalyptic world where Ape has yet to dominate Man and drive him into the wilderness, and in many ways this film gives voice to the frightened thoughts many no doubt had about the tenuousness of integration and the unease of living side-by-side with a race that has every reason to hate you. That we know this experiment with integration is doomed says a lot about the pessimism of the early 1970's.

And that brings us to Rise of the Planet of the Apes which I see as a synthesis of the Ape films and the zombie movies. In many respects, the new film follows the pattern of the zombie outbreak film more closely than any of the Apes Saga. Though it lacks the biting social commentary of Romero (or even the earlier Apes films) it does touch on questions of scientific ethics, not unlike Day of the Dead.

Steven Jacobs, played by Nigerian-British actor David Oyelowo, is the corporate exec who is the putative villain in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Please note that he shares a last name with Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of the original Apes Saga through his APJAC Productions. Much will be made of the fact that the black character in the new film is not sympathetic, represents late capitalism itself and everything that Caesar must overthrow. The Obama connection is obvious and there for you to take how you will. Those who see the new film may not get the full implications of Jacobs' race without seeing the films that came before.

The new film even ends with a patient zero and an outbreak, just like a zombie film. Few films have signaled more loudly that sequels will follow than this one. I will gladly watch to see how the Apes Saga is re-imagined and how strong the parallel to Romero's similarly apocalyptic vision remains.

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