To Hell and Back: Kolchak’s Zombie and TV Catharsis

If Professor Van Helsing and Ben Hecht had a baby, he would be Carl Kolchak, reporter with the Independent News Service and freelance fighter of all things that go bump in the night. This rumpled, irredeemably square, paranoid pathological loner in a seersucker suit carries (under his hat, probably) the heritage of two great genre traditions: screwball comedy and classic horror.

Seriously, underneath all of the ’70s special effects and silliness, Kolchak: The Night Stalker stands out as one of the greatest genre-bending television shows of all time. The series dared to probe a lot of America’s deep-seated cultural issues—while still providing a laugh and a creepy good time. My favorite episode, “The Zombie,” directed by Alex Grasshoff and aired in September 1974, subtly grapples with the issues of urban crime, police corruption, immigrant assimilation, and even slavery.

Perhaps most cleverly, in every episode, Kolchak investigates a story, discovers something supernatural, and, always, always fails to publish conclusive proof that what he saw was real (what he tells us in his noirish voice-overs doesn’t count—that’s just between us and him). Thanks to this running meta-gag, Kolchak breaks his camera (as in “The Zombie”), or destroys all proof of the monster, or gets barred from the official info by the cops. We, as viewers, get to see the monster that TV brings into our living room… but which the old-fashioned reporter just can’t capture.

Most intriguingly, I would argue, the series recurrently refutes the kind of closure that movie horrors can provide. Instead, Kolchak never convinces anyone about the truth of what he saw…which means that every week, we get a fresh yarn with fresh catharsis. “The Zombie” hints that TV is actually a lot like religion: it supplies us with fantastic and frightening visions on a regular basis. The force of the plunge from normal to paranormal, reiterated each week by the ritual credits and the parallel refusal of closure in each episode, strives to unsettle the viewer so that he or she will crave and embrace many returns of the ritual.

But, before we get too far into that, let’s have a look at the series’ iconic credit sequence:

These opening credits give us a microcosm of every episode in the series: a progression from the normal, fun newspaper world into some strange, paranormal darkness. The camerawork is really good, in my opinion—one of the few places I can think of where those ubiquitous 70s zooms work with the spooky, “oh, no, what now?” tone that this snippet establishes before the plot even launches. As the prosaic, inviting workplace transforms into a hostile low-key lit noir environment, we come to understand that dread constantly lurks beneath a façade of comforting normalcy.

I particularly admire the extreme close-ups of typewriter mechanisms, shown from multiple, juxtaposed angles, as they grow increasingly aggressive and disorienting. In one shot, almost abstracted typewriter keys fly towards the camera, as if attacking the viewer. The jump cuts, too, from the side to the front of Kolchak’s face, disturb the conventional, unified sense of space established at the beginning of the credits.

The credits significantly conclude with a blurry freeze frame. This freeze emphasizes a sense of suspension from the very beginning of each episode. The aporia or the feeling of impasse in the opening immediately provokes tension for the audience. Indeed, “The Zombie” doeswant us to feel uncomfortable—it pulls us in with messy problems and bad memories only to eventually snuff them out. But, even then, not quite…

So, returning to the episode at hand, in “The Zombie,” Kolchak faces off against an undead Haitian gangster named François Edmonds, brought back to take revenge on the mobsters who put out a hit on him… and on the corrupt cops who let it happen. In order to stop this juggernaut of Afro-Carribean vengeance, Kolchak peers into different facets of otherness. He visits voodoo shops.

He gets roughed up by immigrant criminals. And this might be a good place to point out that the competing Italian and Haitian gangsters (one of which is played by a pre-Huggy Bear Antonio Fargas!) represent a kind of return of the repressed.

These gangsters, whether in the mold of 1920s mafiosi or new, pimped-out African American hustlers, have assimilated into American culture so well that they’re no longer really “others.” They become uncanny not because they embody foreignness, but because they have totally absorbed the twisted version of capitalist ethics that’s inherent in crime—notice how the tires in the garage meeting frame their heads, like the venerated profiles on coins. In their own way, they incarnate the American Dream.

Our poor Kolchak even has to spend a night in a grave himself with a dead man hanging into the grave—an experience which brings him symbolically closer to death.

However, Kolchak’s primary nemesis (spoiler alert!) isn’t the gangsters or the zombie, but rather a frail Haitian sorceress, Mamalois, the aunt of the murdered man whose body she controls.

 This shot, as Kolchak enters her home, visually sets up a powerful clash of cultures—but a muddy one. In the end, Mamalois’ tradition of mixed Pagan and Christian rituals makes her difficult to nail down and thus more worrisome as an enemy.

Meanwhile, Mamalois does not budge from her armchair and keeps her eyes fixed on the unseen, off-screen television set which the spectator hears through the sound perspective of the speaking characters.

From the TV, we can clearly discern dialogue that happens to come from the Audie Murphy film To Hell and Back. A proud woman, whose foreignness can be inferred through her thick Italian accent, rejects the condescending charity of an American soldier, who offers to pay her brother for an unfinished job.

Maria: My brother do not beg, soldier.

Murphy: He wasn’t begging. He did a job for me, and I paid him.

Maria: I see what you call job. You do not let him finish.

I regard this cinematic “quotation” as a commentary on the action in Kolchak. It seems a little too on the nose and easily audible to be a coincidence.

In the context of Mamalois’ house, a wild mixture of Afro-Carribean-European influences, this allusion to paternalistic, economic persuasion/coercion calls up memories of slavery and of brutal colonization. As in the movie within the TV show, the white male defender of empirical truth, Kolchak, must confront a woman whose challenging foreignness disinters and disturbs the past transgressions of his own culture.

The choice to frame the characters with the television antennae also hints that the comical reporter and the sinister sorceress share a larger representational purpose: they both exist as television fictions that satisfy the desires of the audience members, simultaneously watching on their television sets.

Similarly, on the left side of the screen, a tonsured monk figurine (not really clear here, but watch the episode and you’ll see it!) looms in the foreground, positioned on top of the television. This detail positions the television as a kind of altar and links the TV medium to religious ritual.

Of course, we spy on the real ritual in the next scene in which Kolchak, again, an outsider even among outsiders and others, watches Mamalois consecrate a mini coffin for him—setting him up for a violent zombie death and motivating him to stop the monster or die.

He finds the zombie in a junkyard of rusty, decaying cars (um, 1970s automotive crisis anxiety, anyone?), crawls into the hearse where the creature lies dormant and prepares to pour salt into its mouth and sew its lips shut. The sheer length of this sequence and the tight framings amount to pure bone-curdling suspense and masterful television.

Suddenly, the zombie awakens. Our intrepid reporter bolts. Clambering through piles of cars, Kolchak falls back onto the roof of one and looks up, as a cut reveals a low-angle shot of a loop of rope dangling conveniently above him.

The zombie rushes at Kolchak, but he throws the impromptu noose around the monster’s neck, grabs the other end of the rope, and jumps off the car. Our reporter hero lands derriere-down on the camera that he dropped in the scuffle. The next shot discloses the effect of his fall and the counterpoise of his weight: the zombie hangs struggling in the noose.

Wow. Could this long shot of the hulking, dark-skinned François Edmonds, struggling in a noose, fail to remind one of photographs of lynched African Americans?

Having failed to seal the lips of the zombie, and thus to silence the history of injustice which the zombie incarnates, Kolchak must repeat racial violence. However, acting in split-second self-defense, stress by the pace of the editing, rather than out of premeditated hate, Kolchak can cancel out the menace of minority rage and restore ideological order.

The pace of editing here, rather than dropping off, stays strong, rhythmically cutting between two ceremonies: Mamalois’ as she tries to revive the zombie, and Kolchak’s, as he lights candles to release the creature from its undead state.

The zombie’s feet stop kicking…

…as the candles burn out.

The montage brings together the ebbing life of the vengeful monster, the defeat of the foreign voodoo priestess, and the triumph of the reporter. In concert with the tribal drumming on the soundtrack, the frenzied speed of the cause-and-effect crosscutting between two competing rituals endows the scene itself with a cathartic exhilaration. As the spectator puts together the various interdependent processes, he or she joins in the rite of exorcism and feels a part of Kolchak’s agitation and victory.

However, the scene still ends with the prerequisite shot of Kolchak clutching his fractured camera.

The irony that Kolchak, a reporter, cannot show the supernatural, but ABC can, on a once-a-week basis, constructs the meta-punch line of the entire series. After all, the continuity of the show depends upon the protagonist’s failure: if Kolchak could verify his wild claims, he would no longer have to struggle to convince his boss, the police, or society at large.

Moreover, the fact that Kolchak can never secure evidence of the supernatural suspends the content of the show itself in the realm of the symbolic. In other words, unlike Kolchak, ABC does not intend to convince viewers that monsters and ghosts actually exist. The series derives its marketability not from alleged truth, but from emotional and psychological effect as a recurrent escape valve for social anxieties, channeled into pleasurable, visceral genre thrills.

So, to make a very, very long blog post short, if you haven’t seen the series, plunk yourself down, grab a box of some kind of vintage candy (I suggest Mallo Cups) and watch “The Zombie” right now. You may be surprised by how amazingly insightful—and enjoyable—it is.

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