Insofar as they occupy the symbolic place of messiah in these zombie apocalypses, it interesting that from Ben in Night, to Peter in Dawn, and John in Day, to Robert Neville in I Am Legend, a central male hero is Black, two of whom are West Indian. All are solid, dependable, capable Black men who strategize and fight their way to survive the zombie outbreak. All Romero’s Black men make alliances with the one White woman in each group, who also makes it to the post-apocalypse.
What can we make of this interesting pattern that zombies seem to be the monsters it is the province of Black men to vanquish? We might wonder, in turn, what it is about whiteness in zombie films that the Black male secular messiah characters point to. Richard Dyer writes that “In all three [Romero] films, it is significant that the hero is a black man, and not just because this makes him ‘different,’ but because it makes it possible to see that whites are the living dead.” In these films, the Black male messiah must save humanity from the affliction of whiteness. Is this sub-trend of Black male hero protagonists a progressive one, as these roles feature positive and sympathetic men who fight to (contingent) victory at the end? Or should we compare the Black messiah to the postmodern stock character Spike Lee termed “the super-duper magical negro” in a spate of films (such as The Green Mile, 1999 and The Legend of Bagger Vance, 2000) in which a Black man appears out of nowhere with magical qualities to help a down-and-out White person reach their full humanity?
Obama has been said to possess an image in the American psyche that lends itself to being cast as a Magical Negro; he has also been referenced in a messianic idiom, and scores of commentators have noted the many times that people use exalted, prophetic vocabulary in describing Obama. Obama was elected in the teeth of an economic super-crisis, a hero who would slay the zombie-banks threatening to cannibalize the nation’s funds. Obama is also figured as a multi-racial person who will usher in America’s multiracial future (the implicit future of these zombie films). In this snapshot at the end of the last presidential debate, John McCain started to head the wrong way off the stage and for a brief moment, reacted to orient himself: his arms went out in front of him and he stuck out his tongue in a grimace. The image with its caption about zombies went up on PoliticalHumor.com and circulated for a while on the web. In quickly casting the stumbling, White, John McCain as a zombie, the maker of the “cool Obama/zombie McCain” image brought American zombie films into conversation with the dramatically unfolding presidential campaign. McCain was associated with the dead and corrupt cannibalistic policies of the Bush administration, which Obama possesses the natural “cool” to slay—or just ignore, until they go away.