[This paper was presented at the AAR’s Southeast Regional Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) yearly conference in Atlanta on March 3, 2o12, as part of a panel on “Zombies and Zombie Apocalypses.”]
By Joseph Laycock
John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) has won its place as a classic cult film. It has received homage from South Park and street-artist Shepard Fairey. It has attracted the attention of several cultural critics including Slavoj Zizek. The film is also required viewing for several Internet conspiracy sites, who argue that its premise is essentially true. Carpenter produced They Live after a hiatus from directing had allowed him to pay closer attention to the political developments and cultural changes of the Regan era. The film is an adaptation of an obscure science-fiction story, which Carpenter re-purposed into an indictment of the Regan administration and the consumerism of the “yuppie” class that emerged during the 1980s. They Live has remained relevant in part because the social inequalities it depicts have only worsened in the passing decades. Indeed, some scenes from the film appear to anticipate the 2011’s Occupy Wall-Street protest. However, while much has been written on this film, critics have ignored two significant sources of cultural shorthand that make They Live so compelling: Its invocation of the zombie and the films of George Romero, and its inter-textual relationship with Christian apocalyptic tradition. Without these elements, the film would probably not have achieved the cult status that it did. Reconsidering They Live as a film about both zombies and spiritual warfare allows for a richer understanding of how the film communicates its social critique to its audience. This reading also allows for a wider analysis of what walking corpses signify and what relation (if any) they have to American religious culture.
The inspiration for They Live was a short story entitled “8 O’Clock in the Morning,” published in 1963 by Ray Nelson. Nelson studied theology at the University of Chicago before traveling to Paris where he met Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as well as Beat icons Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. He is also one of the only writers ever to collaborate with Philip K. Dick. Critics of They Live have noted that the epistemological crisis raised in the film is reminiscent of a Dick novel (Le Blanc and Odell 2011, 86). Nelson is also the inventor of the propeller beanie. “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” describes a man named George Nada who, after undergoing hypnosis, awakens “all the way” and sees the true nature of the world. The truth is that humanity is ruled by a race of reptilian aliens known as “the Fascinators” that use mind control and subliminal messages to hide their presence. Subliminal commands are communicated through the billboards, the telephone, and especially through television. Nada begins killing aliens, which his society misinterprets as a murder spree. He manages to hijack a TV station where he is able to reveal the aliens to the world before being martyred.
Carpenter’s adaptation casts Nada as a drifter in search of work played by professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Nada finds temporary employment as a construction worker where he meets Frank, an African-American with similar circumstances and a similarly daunting physique. Frank invites Nada to stay at “Justiceville,” a community of shanties built amid the affluence of downtown Los Angeles, where volunteers work to feed and aid the homeless. Justiceville is affiliated with the “Free Episcopalian Church.” Nada investigates the church and learns that it is a front for an underground movement. Instead of pews, the church contains a laboratory used to make special sunglasses called “Hoffman lenses.” That night a SWAT team arrives and bulldozes Justiceville. Police raid the church and those unable to escape are beaten with nightsticks and presumably killed. Nada manages to flee and retrieves a box of Hoffman lenses. Donning them, he is able to see the aliens masquerading as humans as well as the subliminal messages used to control humanity.
The scene in which Nada first dons the glasses is an impressive piece of cinema that belies the schlock-genre of the film. Scenes of downtown Los Angeles are shown through Nada’s eyes first normally and then through the glasses, indicated by black and white. Seen through the Hoffman lenses, an ad for a clothing store actually says, “Consume. No Independent Thought.” A magazine rack contains various slogans such as “Sleep,” “Obey,” and “Consume.” Dollar bills read, “This is your god.” To create this scene, Carpenter had to do each shot twice––first of a normal Los Angeles street and again after the crew set up “subliminal” messages. Carpenter described his profound unease that most pedestrians failed to notice a magazine stand completely covered with totalitarian slogans. This scene also shows yuppies as they “really” are––aliens that resemble walking corpses. The creatures discuss such banalities as Lamaze classes and blue corn tortilla chips. Following these revelations, the remainder of the film consists almost entirely of cartoonish violence and one-liners. Nada is martyred while destroying a device that transmits a mind-control signal throughout the world. As he dies, he gives the finger to the aliens. The final shots of the film show people throughout Los Angeles suddenly aware of the aliens walking among them.
They Live differs from the original short story in several ways. The most obvious is that the aliens no longer resemble reptiles, but living corpses. In the credits, the creatures are identified simply as “the ghouls.” This was a deliberate choice and its apparent purpose was to achieve an inter-textual relationship with the zombie apocalypse genre. At the end of the film, we see a ghoul posing as a film critic complaining that, “Horror directors like George Romero have gone too far.” Another difference is that while the creatures in Nelson’s story raise humans as a food source, Carpenter’s ghouls form alliances with humans, convincing them to betray their species in exchange for worldly riches. This move is part of Carpenter’s repurposing of the story as a critique of capitalism and globalization. In the ghoul’s underground base, Nada meets a homeless man from Justiceville who has become an eager collaborator. Now dressed in a tuxedo, he exclaims, “There’s no countries anymore!” He also explains that the ghouls have come to Earth in search of profit because “We’re their third world.” In this sense, They Live continues a tradition of alien invasion narratives as a tool through which colonizing powers explore fantasies of being colonized themselves. War of the Worlds was inspired by the British colonial system just as Carpenter’s ghouls reflect a neo-colonial system.
Carpenter believed that his film would be received as “just a horror film” and expressed surprise that almost everyone understood its social criticism. In hindsight, it was perhaps hard to miss dialogue such as a resistance leader’s claim that, “Racial justice and human rights are non-existent. They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices.” The Los Angeles Daily News dubbed They Live, “The Most anti-Reagan film ever to come out of Hollywood.” Zizek has hailed it as a powerful metaphor for ideology. Other critics have noted that the ghouls’ constant subliminal urgings to consume are a perfect example of what the Frankfurt school called “false consciousness” (Conrich and Woods 2004, 16). But giving force to this critique of late capitalism are two sources of symbolic capital that have gone largely unnoticed, namely: zombies and the Christian apocalyptic tradition.
Despite the fact that they are technically alive, I submit that Carpenter’s ghouls should be regarded as zombies. Peter Dendle has remarked that, “The substantial overlap among the various movie monsters precludes the possibility of an all-encompassing definition of a zombie.” Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro suggest that zombies are defined by the absence of some metaphysical quality of their essential selves. This missing quality is not necessarily sentience or volition. They cite Brian Keene’s novel, The Rising, as an example of sentient zombies (Christie and Lauro 2011, 7). What the ghouls of They Live appear to lack is a sense of humanity: They are just like us but have no values or compassion for fellow sentient beings. Their morbid appearance is merely symbolic of this inner “deadness.”
The ghouls share several other important similarities with zombies. The greatest of these is that, unlike Nelson’s reptiles, they are able to convert humans to their side. The threat the ghouls present is not dominating the world––they have already done this––it is converting all of humanity to their philosophy of mindless consumption. A scientist working for the resistance explains, “Their goal is the annihilation of consciousness.” In other words, to create a world inhabited solely by zombies. Scott Poole notes that, “Zombie films often force our identification with the walking dead by revealing human beings as the real monsters” (Poole 2011, 216). They Live makes this point especially starkly by portraying ordinary people as walking corpses. It also demonstrates that it is ultimately irrelevant whether our civilization is destroyed by invading aliens or a human oligarchy. Finally, when the ghouls are revealed at the end of the film, a woman in mid-coitus looks down to see she is making love to a living corpse. Jonathan Lethem interprets this scene as a message delivered in the form of a pun: “We’re all fucking ghouls” (Lethem 2010, 156).
Carpenter most likely made his aliens resemble zombies because they have become the perfect metaphor for the critique he was attempting to make. With its origins in the Afro-Atlantic slave trade, the zombie has always been part of a conversation about global capitalism and its victims. Romero’s 1978 film Dawn of the Dead, which depicts zombies in a shopping mall, permanently established the zombie as a metaphor for consumerism. Leah A. Murray (2010, 211-220) notes that zombie films often invite discussions of individualism versus communitarianism. This dichotomy is also interrogated in They Live where Frank and Nada debate whether capitalism is fair. The communitarian society of Justiceville is presented as a more ethical and more human society than the plutocracy of the ghouls.
They Live is also not an “apocalyptic” film in the traditional sense. Society does not appear to be eroding under the assault of the zombies and the protagonists are not operating in the absence of laws. However, the term apocalypse is derived from the Greek apokálypsis and means “lifting the veil” or a revelation. In this sense, They Live returns zombies to the original meaning of apocalypse. Furthermore, civilization as we know it is destroyed in this film: It ends when Nada blows up the transmitter that broadcasts false consciousness. This too is a return to Biblical apocalyptic tradition in which the world is already fallen. The destruction of the world does not represent the triumph of evil but the fulfillment of a divine plan.
Despite the rather substantial amount of scholarship on They Live, most treatments have ignored the seemingly obvious religious imagery of the film as well as the pronounced themes of revelation and martyrdom. The resistance movement sometimes resembles the early Christian Church as it was vilified under Roman rule. For example, a bum in Justiceville mentions a “cult” in San Antonio that has been robbing banks, which the audience can eventually infer is another resistance cell. Nada’s first hint that there is more to the world than he suspects comes from a blind street preacher who quotes Psalm 140, “Serpent’s poison is on their lips.” This religious prophet is partnered with a secular prophet––a scientist––who attempts to warn the inhabitants of Justiceville through a pirated television signal. (The scientist and the street-preacher also comprise a black/white partnership, much like Nada and Frank.) When Justiceville is destroyed we see both of these characters pinned against a wall by police where they are presumably killed. Nada witnesses this martyrdom and immediately loses all interest in finding work or earning money. He undergoes his own process of revelation and is himself martyred in order to bring the movement’s message to more people.
The film’s end is also millennial in its implications. The revelation that was previously known only to a select few has now been given to everyone. While it is not clear what will happen next, the exposure of the ghouls suggests the possibility of a world free from poverty and corruption where humanity’s evil impulses have been defeated. The demise of the ghouls and the world they have created is in essence a vision of the eschaton. This trope of a spiritual warfare against evil invokes an apocalyptic tradition in which an embattled Church, persecuted by the forces of Babylon––variously identified with everyone from the Roman Empire, to the Soviet Union, to the Federal government––will ultimately triumph.
Finally, the film’s premise bears a similarity to the Gnostic cosmology wherein we are engaged in a spiritual struggle to free ourselves from a false world ruled over by false gods. This aspect is especially prominent in Nelson’s short story (Philip K. Dick has often been described as a “Gnostic” science fiction author.) The dollar bills that state, “This is your god,” is as Gnostic as it is Marxist. In fact, They Live is tied to a form of modern Gnosticism. Conspiracy theorist David Icke delivers lectures in which he describes a worldview that combines Gnostic belief with modern conspiracy theories. Icke has suggested that global elites such as George H.W. Bush are literally reptilian aliens who work to keep humanity from achieving its spiritual destiny. Icke and his followers recommend viewing popular films such as The Matrix and They Live as a step toward understanding the global conspiracy. This makes They Live a kind of sacred text.
There are two possible reasons why the religious themes of They Live have been ignored. The first may be that the film has attracted the attention of Marxist critics who have traditionally been tone-deaf to religion. The second is that Carpenter himself was critical of the religious right as well as the Catholic Church. This critique of organized religion appears in several of his films, notably Vampires and Prince of Darkness. Accordingly, some critics have regarded They Live as an indictment of religion because the church is unable to resist the SWAT teams sent by the ghouls (Conrich and Woods 2004, 17). But this interpretation ignores the fact that in Christian apocalyptic tradition the true church is always embattled and faced with overwhelming odds.
These religious themes are likely an important key to the success of They Live as a cult film and as an indictment of capitalism. Douglas Cowan (2008) suggests that the most compelling horror films generally have religious themes. Even for an allegedly secular audience, successful horror movies frequently use a sort of cultural shorthand that invokes religious meaning. The apparently anti-capitalist message of the film was a difficult sell to mainstream American audiences during the 1980s. However, copious amounts of guns, professional wrestlers, and Christian imagery made this message palatable.
If They Live does indeed combine zombies with a prophetic call for social justice, what if anything does this say about zombie films and American religious culture? First, it should be noted that They Live was, in a sense, a prophetic film. It was shot in March and April of 1988 and released in November––days before the election that ended the Regan era. In the summer between filming and release, riots broke out in Tompkin’s Square Park in New York as police attempted to evict homeless people encamped in the park. A number of political activists including Allen Ginsburg attempted to advocate for the homeless. Tensions culminated in a four-hour nocturnal battle between the homeless and police equipped with riot gear. Many police removed their badges so they could not be identified if witnesses accused them of brutality. Footage of the incident bears an uncanny resemblance to the destruction of Justiceville in They Live. These riots were also the origin of the phrase “Die yuppie scum!” Within a year, this phrase was appearing on graffiti and T-shirts (Lethem 2010, 18).
In 2011, this scene was enacted again as Occupy camps across the country––established to protest the very evils cited in They Live––were demolished in nocturnal raids. Notably, Occupy protesters in several cities have invoked the zombie, either by dressing as zombies or creating signs that equate corporate interests with zombie hordes. Like much of the pageantry associated with contemporary leftist protests, the message of marching on Wall Street dressed as a zombie is rather vague. However, it seems that the zombie has become (among many other things) an indictment of corporate injustice and a metaphor for the inhumanity of capitalism.
At the present time, there seems to be a struggle over the political significance of the zombie apocalypse. One the one hand, George Romero established zombies as a powerful critique of consumerism and the military. At the same time, the zombie apocalypse genre has lent itself to Nietzchean fantasies of rugged individualism in which survivors are finally liberated from government and society. The White Supremacist website, Stormfront.org, currently has numerous forums dedicated to what White Supremacists would do in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Some seem to see the zombies as a blessing that will purge society of freeloaders, cowards, and welfare recipients and pave the way for a brave new utilitarian society. Viewed as a zombie apocalypse film, They Live makes for an important counterpoint to this rather disturbing trend.
Finally, Margo Collins and Elsin Bond (2011, 187-204) argue that there has been a shift in the zombie apocalypse genre to “hopeful apocalypses” in which the zombie threat brings out the best in human nature. Carpenter’s narrative, in which Nada and Frank are awakened from the false consciousness of wage slave drudgery and become martyrs in the cause of justice, may be an example of this sort of hopeful apocalypse. Carpenter described his motivation for creating They Live:
This is my country. How dare they? So my movie is about a working man raging against the darkness. And there’s no winning. Do I believe everything could be fixed if we had metaphorical sunglasses showing the yuppies to be aliens? It’s not about fixing it. It’s about revealing it. I don’t know if we’ll ever fix the problems. However I do have a long-term optimism. I hope we survive, because we’re worth it.