The big “Here, have a Peep” Happy Easter message of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend is pretty obvious. Over wrought, even. And it bonks audiences over the head even harder in the two most faithful film adaptations: 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s Omega Man.
After holding off hordes of undead, mutated and downright sinful former humans for years following a plague, our hero (Vincent Price or Charlton Heston, take your pick) concocts a serum from his own blood (get it?) that could turn the vampires or mutants or zombies or whatever the hell they are into normal human beings again. His blood could save them, should they care to partake (get it?). Then they impale him, but he lets them have his blood anyway because he’s such a nice guy (GET IT YET?!). What I always found interesting about I Am Legend in simple allegorical terms is that it’s a story in which the undead could theoretically be resurrected a second time, but our hero isn’t even resurrected once. Nope, he’s just dead there in the pool with a spear through him. The world’s awash with Christian allegories, from The Pilgrim’s Progress and Billy Budd to The Day The Earth stood Still, E.T. and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Of all the films inspired, even loosely, by Matheson’s short novel, for my money none offers a more accurate and realistic portrait of contemporary Christianity than George Romero’s Dead series, in which he leaves all the hamfisted crap behind. After all, why only have one paltry little Jesus when you could have a world swarming with Jesuses everywhere you look? Isn’t that a happier thought? Instead of merely telling the story of the Son of God, across the films Romero actually spreads it out, giving us the history of what happened after the Lord Jesus ascended to Heaven. And of the films in the series, in simple allegorical terms none comes closer to capturing the very essence of Christianity than 1979’s Dawn of the Dead.But let’s back up a minute furst. Unlike the novel, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead starts at the beginning. Here comes the newly resurrected Jesus (Bill Hinzman) wandering through a graveyard, anxious to spread the Joyful Word of the Lord: He has risen, indeed! But who does he run into first? Doubting Thomas (well, Johnny) and his whiny, simpering sister, Doubting Barbara. Trie as He might, though, Jesus can’t get them to listen. Not at first anyway.
Ah, all those happy Christians and all that communion. It was a good start, an accurate portrayal of the early spread of Christianity (or the modern Jehovah’s Witness movement), but it wasn’t until Dawn of the Dead that the allegory comes fully together to illustrate what Christianity had become in the centuries since.Second down the list after communion, Christianity really is all about buying things. Tourists buy fake relics and prayer hankies in the hopes God will grant them magic powers. At Christmas you buy as much shit as you can to celebrate the birth of Bill Hinzman, show up those stupid heathen neighbors of yours and prove how much you love God. If you’re a televangelist you buy fancy cars and houses and hookers to prove how much God loves you. If you’re the Catholic Church you buy real estate and funny hats and the silence of all those little boys you raped so those followers who don’t read the papers will continue to believe you’re the earthly embodiment of godliness. Buy, buy, buy. And what better way to symbolize that than with a trip to the mall?
As the film opens, thanks to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead Christianity has spread over the globe, save for a handful of heathens who remain resistant to the Word of God. They do everything they can to stop the spread of the Good News, including using violence (isn’t that just like a heathen?) but of course it’s useless. Their machine guns and machetes are no match for a solid faith. Failing that they try to hide, but you can’t hide from God. He’ll find you, all right.
Meanwhile, what’s life like for a Christian? Well, you get Born Again, then you take some communion and convert a heathen at the same time (even those pesky Hare Krishnas come to see the light), you travel with a community of like-minded friends and fellow Christians, you stop for more communion here and there along the way to reaffirm your faith, then you all go shopping at the mall.
The genius of Romero’s allegory in Dawn of the Dead is that the mall not only represents “the mall,” but the kingdom of heaven itself. It’s clean, it’s bright, it’s filled with beautiful music and jam-packed with all sorts of nice things to buy. Sometimes it may seem closed to us, but all we need to do is wait a little while, continue believing, take communion whenever we can and convert more heathens. It doesn’t matter if the crowds outside grow, because there will be room for everyone in God’s Holy Mall. If you continue to have faith, some day soon a group of Heavenly bikers will show up and open the gates to allow all the believers inside (where, yes, you can have even more communion!). And the shopping can’t be beat!
Yes, even more than Matheson, it was George Romero who finally showed us all the true meaning of Easter. Thank you, Bill Hinzman!