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Zombie Films Loss of Fullness

In Uncategorized on March 28, 2013 at 6:02 am

Zombie - FullnessI get it when I am sitting with dear friends enjoying good food and conversation.  Also, while walking alone in the woods on a clear fall day.  It can also be experienced when listening to music or viewing a painting.  It can be evoked in the cathedral or on the seashore.  Charles Taylor called these encounters with “fullness.”  Fullness is a sense that life is “fuller, richer, deeper more worthwhile, more admirable, more than what is should be” (5).

Experiences of fullness can orient us because they offer “some sense of what they are of: the presence of God, or the voice of nature, or the force which flows through everything, or the alignment in us of desire and the drive to form” (6).  Historically, and in the case of most religious believers, the power from which fullness flows has some transcendent source outside of the individual.

After our culture abandoned God as a source of fullness we looked inside ourselves to find an alternate source.  There are several internal sources of fullness.  The first is the power of reason.  Here there is an “admiration for the power of cool, disengaged reason, capable of contemplating the world and human life without illusion, and of acting lucidly for the best interest of human flourishing” (9).  From this view, life calls for heroic action where we accept ourselves as “beings both frail and courageous, capable of facing a meaningless, hostile universe without faintness of heart, and of rising to the challenge of devising our own rules of life” (9).  The second internal source of fullness emerges from the Romantic critique of disengaged reason.  This outlook, too, looks for fullness in immanence, but it finds reason to be inadequate and seeks it in “Nature, or in our own inner depths or both” (9).

George Romero rejects any source of fullness, whether immanent or transcendent; he denies fullness altogether.  His movies emphasizes the “irremediable nature of division, lack of centre, the perpetual absence of fullness” (10).  In the next post, I will explain how in Night of the Living Dead, this absence is apparent in the loss of traditional values as well as the loss of the possibility of heroism.

Next zombie post: Traditional Values–Consumed by the Zombie Horde

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Zombies Can’t Be Evil

In Uncategorized on March 21, 2013 at 4:50 am

Zombies not evilZombies function in many ways like a traditional monster, in that they represent the opposite of how we like to think of ourselves.  In other words, they transgress boundaries and challenge the identity of the modern self.  Their otherness is tailor-made to terrorizes the residents of the closed immanent frame: they have no cause and therefore have no meaning; they embody the abject, and thus threaten identities formulated against the physical world; they rub our noses in our very biological materiality and force us to face the finality of death in a world with no transcendence; and, in part, they offer us the humour needed to deal with this fact.  While the zombie monster represents otherness, the zombie films themselves, particularly Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, also reflect the modern secular denial of the transcendent as well as the consequences of this denial.

Traditional movies in the horror genre present a fairly simple morality. Often it is the monster that embodies evil.  Other times, the monster is a creation of an evil scientist or sorcerer, but the representative of evil is pretty clear, as is that of the good.  In zombie narratives, because there is no transcendent source for morality, the categories of good and evil are not as clearly defined as they were in the past.  The monsters are not evil in the traditional sense, nor does the hero represent an ideal to which we can aspire.

Zombies reflect the modern secular denial of the transcendent as well as the consequences of this denial.

The zombie monster is hard to classify morally.  It is difficult to say that zombies are evil because they lack the conscious will we usually require for the attribution of that term.  Wood points out that one of the main differences between zombies and the monsters in the horror genre that preceded them is that they are “not burdened with those actively negative connotations (‘evil incarnate,’ etc.)” (102). To bear such a label would link it to some transcendent category.  In the zombie films of the voodoo era, there was a clear source of evil, but it wasn’t the undead.  In these films, the zombies were mere tools in the hands of an evil sorcerer, but since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, one of the defining characteristics of the zombie horde is that it has no leader.  There is no authority or power, no longer any villain bent on some evil purpose who controls them.  In his book Heroes and Villains, Mike Alsford says that villains “generally seek a law unto themselves. They usually have as their primary goal, power over others, world domination, control of the entire universe or, in some really ambitious instances, godhood (96).  This was very much the model for villainy in the pre-Romero zombie films like White Zombie, in which the evil Legendre turns corpses into zombies to work in his sugar mill, and worse, zombifies another man’s fiancé so as so as to possess her, body and soul.  But in modern zombie films, there is no villain that fits Alsford’s description.  In The Night of the Living Dead “the diseased, instinct-driven automatons walk the earth without a leader.  They need no master to seduce new recruits or to direct their assault on normality” (Waller 280).

Zombies are not evil in the same sense that monsters always have been.

The zombies are leaderless, but they are also, more or less, motiveless.  Frankenstien’s monster sought inclusion in community, Count Dracula was driven by conquest, but the zombie’s motivation is far baser.  Alsford says that villains are motivated by “the desire to dominate, to subsume the other within the individual self and that without compunction. . . .  The villain uses the world and the people in it from a distance, as pure resource” (Alsford 120).  Although this characterization of true villainy seems to describe the zombie horde, the word “desire” is too strong for the undead found in Night of the Living Dead, where we find more of a compulsion than desire; desire implies a self with at least an emotional if not spiritual longing.  Zombies are not driven by any such motive—not revenge or the quest for power, not even the desire to destroy for the sake of destruction—but by the most immanent of motives: hunger. The living dead simply “eat warm flesh, a fact that Romero graphically records and never allows us to forget. . . .   Romero’s living dead tear at their food and devour it like starving animals to whom all of existence is only a matter of hunting for food and eating” (Waller 276).  Zombies are thus not evil in the same sense that monsters always have been.  They reveal that without the transcendent, there is no longer room for evil as a motivating force—these monsters are simply hungry, and who can fault them for that?  The monsters are, again, a reflection of modern selves, for in neither the monster, nor the modern self can we clearly identify the source of evil.

Next Zombie post: Zombie Films and a Loss of Fullness

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“I’m out of ammo!”

In Uncategorized on March 14, 2013 at 4:13 am

zombie hordeAnother important characteristic of the zombie that makes it ideally suited to terrorize our contemporary society is that it is a horde.  They attack in large numbers and overwhelm their victims by sheer weight of numbers.  The horde absorbs individuality—and we modern selves are obsessed with questions of identity (what is me and what is not me?).  And with the absorption into the zombie horde, these questions, for the victim, become irrelevant.

With absorption into the zombie horde, questions of identity are irrelevant.

An individual zombie is almost no threat to any healthy adult.  It can be easily outrun or dispatched by a decent blow to the head.  What makes zombies a threat is that there are so many of them and their bite results in the absorption of their victims into the horde.  This loss of the unique self is an affront of to our modern conception of the individual.

Charles Taylor observes that the individualism of the past was restricted to the artistic élites, but by the time of Romero’s first zombie film, it had become a “mass phenomenon” (473).  Prior to the Enlightenment, one’s identity was, in part, contingent upon one’s place in society and the honour conferred accordingly.  A shift occurred in the Enlightenment when ideas of honour were replaced with the more Universalist notions of the dignity of all human beings.  In the late-eighteenth century, the idea of universal dignity was complemented with the idea that each of us has a particular way of being human.  Thus, it became “important to find and live out one’s own [humanity], as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or previous generations, or religious or political authority” (475). Taylor considers the 1960s as the “hinge moment” (476) where this individuation became mainstream.  Significantly, it was in this decade that the first modern zombie movie was released.  Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968) are monstrous in that they attack this new understanding of the individual.

The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context.

In an age when the dignity of all human beings translates into the importance to being true to oneself, a zombie’s bite obliterates that unique self.  The zombie horde is a mass in which all individuality has been eradicated; it is an ironic caricature of the “mass phenomenon” of modern individualism.  There are small differences between zombies, like clothing or “degree of putrefaction,” but these “only exacerbate their similarity, since they are markers which refer to the state of their corpse when they died, not anything that has been chosen to create individuality since reanimation” (Cooke 167).

The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context.  This is yet another source of horror that the zombie horde embodies for the modern self, who considers itself, above all things, autonomous.

Next zombie post: Zombies Can’t Be Evil

Previous zombie posts:

Zombies are Funny

In Uncategorized on March 7, 2013 at 4:00 am

Zombies Funny

Unlike other monsters, “zombies do not need any separate comic relief . . . they are their own” (Paffenroth 14).

“The human body isn’t just a hunk of flesh—it’s a ludicrous hunk of flesh.”

Zombies personify death; they force us to face the fragility of our bodies  and our own material future .  This may be too much to bear, except that while the zombie is inherently horrifying, it is also “irresistibly comic” (Cooke 166).

 

Of this comic dimension, Russel says,

 

[T]he comedy exaggerates the horror by making us even more aware of just how ridiculously vulnerable the flesh is.  If Romero’s aim really is to make us lose all faith in bodily integrity, then it’s the comic impact of the gory special effects that hammers the point home.  The human body isn’t just a hunk of flesh—it’s a ludicrous hunk of flesh.  (95)

Zombies are funny because they “lack coordination and intelligence,” so they are frequently victims of “simple slapstick, physical gags” (Paffenroth 14).

Zombies aren’t just funny, “Ha ha.”  Kim Paffenroth identifies “the comedy of reversal” as another type of humour in zombie films, “especially the reversal of social roles” (16).  He suggests that zombies are the “lowest, most ‘peasant’ type of monster . . . but enjoy greater success at annihilating humanity that any previous monster ever did. . . . The whole idea of zombies taking over the world is both a funny and potent parable of human hubris, arrogance, and self-sufficiency” (17).

They are physical comedians and they provoke the ironic snicker, but I suggest we laugh at them for a third reason: as a means of dealing with the despair of living without transcendence.

The humour inherent in zombie narratives enables a distancing between ourselves and a reality that would perhaps be too much to bear.

Given that they bring material man face to face with his annihilation, the comedic dimension of the zombie is a form of “gallows humor”—a dark, fatalistic humor, the sort one might display on the gallows before being hanged.  James Thorson argues that genuine gallows humour is intentional and purposeful, the main purpose being to cope with death, either through defiance or emotional escape.

We laugh at the zombie as a means to cope because, in the context of the closed immanent frame, death is something too terrible to contemplate.  The humour inherent in zombie narratives enables a distancing between ourselves and a reality that would perhaps be too much to bear.

Next zombie post: The Zombie Horde

Also Cited:
Thorson, James A. “Did You Ever See A Herse Go By? Some Thoughts on Gallows Humour.” Journal of American Culture 16.2 (Summer 1993): 17-24. Web. 11 July 2012.

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