April 14, 2004


Ribbons of Revenge: The Hollywood dream machine and America‚s post-9/11 subconscious. (MATT ZOLLER SEITZ, Apr. 13, 2004, NY Press)

THERE'S A MAN going round taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won't be treated all the same
There'll be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around.

So sings Johnny Cash in "The Man Comes Around," a song inspired by a dream Cash had wherein Queen Elizabeth II told Cash he was "a thorn tree in a whirlwind." Cash knew that phrase was familiar but could not remember where he first heard it. He later said he located it in the Book of Job and was spurred to write "The Man Comes Around," a song built upon biblical imagery of reckoning and responsibility. Many of the lyrics are either direct quotes or paraphrases of lines from the Book of Revelation—the ultimate reckoning, the "end of days."

It's fitting that Cash's last classic plays beneath the opening credits of the new Dawn of the Dead. The horrifically funny montage depicts America's zombie-fueled collapse in quick-cut, channel-surfing glimpses. In this grainy, bloody stream of images, made jaunty by Cash's frank warnings of biblical judgment, it's like seeing live news coverage of a society's collapse. It's the perfect mood-setter. Zack Snyder's remake of George Romero's same-titled 1978 original zombie epic, about a band of hardy Americans making a last stand against the Other in a shopping mall, offers not just the latest in film school style and splatter FX, but also a recent-vintage assortment of real-world fears.

The poster tagline for Romero's original promised, "When there's no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth." But the tagline actually makes better cultural sense in the remake, when it's quoted onscreen in a cameo by Ken Foree, star of the 1978 Dawn. Romero's Carter-era zombie picture was a bloody goof on consumerism—a horror-movie dig at a country that had fallen so deep into narcissistic isolation that its denizens shopped after they'd dropped. With few traces of religious feeling, much less religious fear, it felt like a 1970s disaster picture with zombies instead of an earthquake.

The new Dead feels more uncanny. Where the undead onslaught in Romero's version seemed a motiveless plot-driver, the onslaught in this new version seems more purposeful: a massive punishment for massive sins. It's an end-of-days movie strengthened by thematically appropriate touches: the Cash-backed credits sequence, which includes a high-angled shot of men kneeling in prayer; an "innocent" child zombie that's like a ghoul equivalent of a preadolescent suicide bomber; shots of wrecked cityscapes dotted with World Trade Center-style smoke plumes; a pivotal conversation between major characters about the possibility of paying for one's sins in hell. The ruined America depicted in the new Dead still appears democratic, capitalist, secular. But an unknowable spiritual world lurks beneath the surface. When the spiritual world erupts and the horror show unfolds, we sense that characters who didn't think about the afterlife before are thinking about it now—maybe even dreaming about it.

Just as Cash's song was inspired by a dream, the new Dawn is one of many recent movies that seems to have been dreamed up by the industry. Recent history has seeped into movies, and manifested itself in powerful, if mostly oblique, ways. With some overlap, the movies tend to fit into one of two categories: revenge dramas and religious pictures. [...]

Perhaps religion was never truly decimated or rendered irrelevant in this country. Even in supposedly godless places like New York City, The Passion of the Christ is as popular as it is everywhere else. Perhaps, instead, faith was simply made no. 1 on the unwritten list of things Americans weren't supposed to talk about; culturally and politically, faith was driven underground like a river of lava from a volcanic eruption that occurred long ago. Now the world is less stable than it was during the 1990s, and we're seeing little theological eruptions when we go to the movies.

Christ is the Krakatoa of theological eruptions—the right religious picture for the right time. Where the Jesus of 1988's The Last Temptation of Christ was a neurotic waffler who doubted He was really God's son, Gibson's Jesus could not be more certain of His identity and His destiny. He's an action-hero Jesus, a unilateral, go-it-alone Jesus who's willing to withstand horrendous punishment without complaint on behalf of a world that does not understand the nature of His sacrifice, much less the means by which it must happen. (Jesus' departure from the cave of resurrection is accompanied by martial drum music—the warrior reborn.) [...]

Drawn from Mike Mignola's graphic novels, Hellboy at first seems like just another B-list comic book picture, this one about a nice-guy devil that growls softly and swings a big fist. But even a cursory examination of the film's images betrays a stark religious sensibility. Look past the wham-bam mayhem and you'll see a celebration of religious and political conversion—and easily the most Roman Catholic Hollywood film not directed by someone named Scorsese.

The title character is an imp brought into our world by a Nazi experiment overseen, bizarrely enough, by Rasputin. The imp is a gun-fighting, pizza-scarfing galoot raised by the United States' Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense and taught to love America and want to protect it. (He even carries rosary beads.) His enemies include a host of HP Lovecraft-inspired demons and a reanimated, mummy-like ninja assassin whose insides turned to dust long ago. Co-writer and co-director Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Blade II) deploys Christian motifs throughout, including sacramental rivers of blood, stigmata and intimations of resurrection. (The murder of Hellboy's surrogate father, a paranormal expert played by John Hurt, occurs while a turntable plays "We'll Meet Again.")

Del Toro favorably contrasts Hellboy's sarcastic yet sincere allegiance to Christian America against satanic foes who aim to unleash the Seven Gods of Chaos on the world. The final 15 minutes are a near-apocalypse, with Twin Tower-sized demon tentacles raking down from storm clouds. Like a comic book opposite of Jesus, Hellboy realizes that the entire time he imagined himself in unshakable allegiance with the good guys, he was actually part of an anti-divine plan orchestrated by the forces of darkness. If he hopes to save his adoptive Christian culture, he must reject his true father, Satan. Writing in the online magazine Film Forum for Christianity Today, Jeffrey Overstreet correctly observed that del Toro's film "boasts more religious symbolism than any comic-movie yet produced."

Hellboy is a deliberately light film, but its messages are dead serious: good and evil are struggling for control of every mortal soul; the end of days are nigh; agnosticism and neutrality are as bad as conscious evil; it's time to pick a side.

What's remarkable is not that 9-11 forced folks to choose sides, but how briefly so many could stand to stay on the right side.

Sympathy for a devil (Gene Edward Veith, 4/17/04, World)

A story that deals with spiritual issues can go about it in several ways: (1) Show the spiritual realm as all good, as in sentimental ecumenism and New Age spirituality. (2) Show the spiritual realm as all evil, as in most horror films and evocations of the occult. (3) Show the good in conflict with the evil, as in much popular fiction.

This third possibility is not quite the full Christian worldview. Some renditions of the conflict actually are pro-evil, but even the more usual scheme of rooting for the good guys who win at the end stops just short of Christianity. The Bible teaches that even the "good guys" are fallen, that sin inheres in their nature, so that they are pulled toward their enemy's side-at least until they too are rescued, going through some death and rebirth that is emblematic of Christ.

Hellboy (rated PG-13) embodies this Christian view of a spiritual warfare that is both external and internal. The hero is the spawn of a devil who has been raised in a good Christian home. To be specific, in terms of the fantasy, when Nazi occultists tried to open a portal to hell, they were thwarted by American GIs and the rosary-toting, Catholic Professor Broom. When the portal was closed, a little red baby with a tail and horns was left behind. The professor raised him as his son, and when he grew up, Red (aka Hellboy) worked with his adopted father in a secret subdivision of the FBI, designed, as they say, to "bump back" at "things that go bump in the night."

This team battles the evil side, and the film draws on the symbolic resources of Catholicism (reflecting the theology of director/writer Guillermo del Toro), with the good guys using the cross on the rosary, relics, and holy water.

Nurture Crushes Nature: The Letter of Hellboy to the Galatians. (Annie Frisbie, Metaphilm)
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ Therefore, you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”

—Galatians 4:4-7 NKJV [...]

The moral of the story is that adoption trumps nature. Hellboy is not prisoner to the accident of his birth, he is freed by adoption to triumph over his innate evil, and to eradicate that evil from every fiber of his being.

The Christ of the Apostles’ Creed descended into hell before he rose from the grave. Paul tells us that his triumph made it possible for all who believe to be adopted by their heavenly father and thus themselves receive the full measure of the inheritance due to the perfect son. In the days of Paul, adoption was a cultural custom where families would choose from older male children based upon their promise and their ability to become heirs—thus to manage the properties and carry on the family name—not our current model of adoption where infants are more desirable. Adoption was predicated on performance, and adoption was limited to free males. A slave or a woman could never hope to change status, which is why the gendered word “son” holds such meaning when looked at in the cultural context, why it is so significant that adoption is now opened to all.

Our adoption by God is more like Hellboy’s adoption by Professor Broom. When God chose us, he chose ugly, squirming, evil creatures without hope or future. Professor Broom saw past Hellboy’s origins and uncomely appearance and saw instead a creature he could love. And love he did, giving Hellboy the gift to renounce evil entirely. When God adopts us, we change entirely. No longer are we creatures of sin, bound to darkness, doomed to fail. We are freed from our birth. We are freed for something great: to be the true heirs of God’s promise of salvation. The promise is now and forever, and there’s work to be done. So what are you waiting for?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 14, 2004 8:14 AM

For more on Hellboy I recommend the excellent guide to the comics by Mr Scott Tipton.


Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at April 14, 2004 8:38 AM

This is an engaging and thoughtful essay, but there are some real head-scratchers in it.

"Even in supposedly godless places like New York City . . ." Say what? New York contains more believers that perhaps any other in the country. It's ruling elite may be godless, but its people are not.

Posted by: Paul Cella at April 14, 2004 10:56 AM

Thus the word "supposedley".

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at April 14, 2004 11:21 AM

"...but how briefly so many could stand to be on the right side."

That's because the right side usually isn't the easy way; there's an anecdote by J Michael Strazynscki that makes the point.

And besides, the right side includes all that Christian sexual morality that doesn't let you rut like a bonobo just because I WANNA!

Posted by: Ken at April 14, 2004 12:02 PM

Why so surprising? How long did it take the Hebrews to build the golden calf after being delivered from Egypt? People are flawed and weak, you've said so many times.

Posted by: brian at April 14, 2004 2:07 PM

I loved Hellboy, the movie. Excellent stuff for a variety of reasons. It's made me want to go buy the comic books.

Two tentacles way up.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at April 14, 2004 2:35 PM

We don't become sinless when we are converted to the truth: we are still wounded by the effects of our former transgressions, and the healing of them is slow. It is never surprising, though occasionally disheartening, to realize how easy it is to slip back into the patterns of behavior we came from.

Posted by: Arnold Williams at April 14, 2004 5:14 PM