CategoryZombies

The Meaning of Life: Consumption

 

A manufactured object obviously has a purpose that was built into it by its designers, but a lot of people do not believe this is true for human beings.

comment on TED in response to the question, “Does humanity have a purpose?” says, “Humanity has no unified purpose and I suggest that history shows us that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous (religion, eugenics…).”

It is true that giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when the single purpose is one for which we were not designed.  If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder, the results can be disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose.

Giving humanity a single purpose can be disastrous, but perhaps this is only true when it's one for which we weren't designed. If I use a swivel office chair as a ladder--disastrous, but this doesn’t mean that the swivel chair has no purpose. Click To Tweet

There is a danger in living for the wrong purpose, but perhaps it is just as dangerous to avoid purpose if we were actually created for one.

Our Default Purpose–Consumption

In our culture, one of the purposes we have collectively chosen for ourselves (or perhaps it has been subtly imposed upon us) is that of consumer–we buy things, lots of things.  The things we buy are designed to wear out after a time, or they are improved upon, so we throw out the old thing and buy another thing.  We are manipulated to be ever discontent and then offered things that will make us content.  It doesn’t work, of course, but that’s OK because contentment would be bad for the economy.

Were we made to consume?  Is this the purpose for which we were designed?

Zombies and Consumption

This question is a weak spot in the fence of our cultural identity and the hands of the undead are pawing at it.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume.  It ever eats, but is never satisfied.  It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.

Perhaps humans were not made for religion, but the zombie tells us that we weren’t made for consumption either.

If we were made for another purpose, the cure for the zombie is to orient its whole life toward that purpose.

The zombie is the picture of humanity which lives only to consume. It ever eats, but is never satisfied. It takes and takes, but no matter how much it takes–brains, liver, thigh–it’s still empty.Click To Tweet

Designed for Relationship

I suggest that humanity is designed for relationship.

Not just any relationship, but the kind that is more interested in the flourishing of the other than the flourishing of the self.  Most people have caught at least a glimpse of what this relationship can be like.  Some lovers are like this–they are so interested in the happiness of the other one that they forget themselves.  Parents constantly set the needs of their children higher than their own.

The paradox in these sorts of relationships is the more you give, the more you get back–and not usually from the kids or even your lover.  It comes from someplace else and it’s so fulfilling.  It’s like you are a swivel chair being used as a swivel chair.

Sadly, not everyone has experienced this sort of relationship.

Zombies haven’t.  They are too busy eating other people.

In a consumer culture, other people can easily be reduced to something we can to use–in essence, something to consume–it makes us zombies.  Some people treat their employees this way.  Some men treat women this way, and women men.  Some kings, their subjects and some mothers, their children.

The good news is that there is a cure for zombies.

Here’s more analysis of the meaning of zombies.

World War Z is not a Zombie Film

I liked Word War Z.

Brad Pitt was pretty good and because he was in it, my wife would see the movie with me.  And that’s a good thing.

I especially liked the representation of the zombies which embodied the characteristics of both raging water and marauding ants.  This combination was new and interesting and scary.

I liked it, and there were zombies in it, but it wasn’t a zombie movie.

Zombie Movie or Movie with Zombies?

I make this claim because it doesn’t line up with some of the most important characteristics established by the first modern zombie movie, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and most of the zombie movies that followed.

In a true zombie movie, there is no immediately identifiable cause for the zombie infestation.  Characters often speculate, but there’s no definitive answer.  To have a cause would confer meaning on the catastrophe and the true zombie movie is far more interested in shredding meaning along with the living flesh of the victims.

In World War Z, where Brad Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, sets out to find the cause of the zombie infestation.  If a cause can be identified, a solution will certainly follow.  Gerry Lane’s courage, character, and analytical skills result in his discovery of the cause and through the greater power of science, the menace is eradicated.

This sort of optimism is not found in zombie movies.

The true zombie movie is fundamentally about how all the things in which we put our faith are inadequate. Government, friendship, money, true love, God, these things are all equally ineffective in helping us with the zombies.  Zombie movies are sort of depressing that way, but its what they are about.

In World War Z we go back to that old savior of modernity, science.  A true zombie movie is anti-modern, but this one is an affirmation of our faith that science will solve all our problems.

A second way in which World War Z strays from the conventions of zombie narratives is its view of human beings.  This movie contains several examples of humans playing nicely with others.  The most poignant of which is Israel’s response to the crisis.  Because of their foresight, they’ve built a huge wall and have systems in place to keep the zombies at bay.  They are safe and secure.  The incredible part of the story is that they’ve opened up their gates to help the rest of humanity–the neighbours on that cul-de-sac don’t usually get along at all.  Even more poignant is this “love your neighbour” attitude results in the annihilation of Israel (this sort of irony is typical of zombie movies).  Almost everywhere Lane goes, he runs across people who are basically good, often scared, but good.

The idea that human beings are essentially good is exactly the opposite presentment of humanity in a true zombie movie.  Usually, once the doors are secured and the windows boarded up, the zombies would cease to be a problem if it weren’t for the actual people who are with you behind the barricades.  Here the selfishness and fear and pettiness and every other human vice are amplified by the threat of the zombies outside the door.  To make matters worse, there is almost always a pack of hoodlums, bent on exploiting the absence of authority.  The living are more of a threat to the survival of the protagonists than are the zombies.  Movies in the zombie genre are consistent in their portrayal of humanity as selfish and brutal.  Again, World War Z goes back about (about a hundred years) to claim that human beings are inherently good.

I don’t think any of this accidental–someone involved in the making of this move is optimistic about human nature and has faith that science will ultimately save us.  Or perhaps, given the environmental, political and economic concerns under which we travail, perhaps the filmmakers wanted to encourage us with a story where we come out on top after some very difficult times.

That’s fine.  And I enjoyed this very aspect of the movie, but that doesn’t make it a zombie movie, just a movie with zombies.

Nazi Zombies

I’ve watched Dead Snow (2009).  In it, a horde of frozen Nazi zombies attacks a group of young people in their mountain retreat.

If I recall correctly, the zombies aren’t just the zombified remains of a WWII German army killed in a mountain pass; they are still ideologically Nazis.

Or at least, really, really mean.

Movies that feature Nazi zombies, and the other bad guy zombies–Imperial Japanese, Soviet Russian, and Viet Cong varieties–are not zombie movies.  They are movies with zombies.

At least, they aren’t real zombies if they maintain their ideological nastiness.

Yes, I am old school–the true zombie is the Romero zombie (Night of the Living Dead [1968]).  These are the standard by which all other zombies are to be measured.

As I’ve written earlier, zombies cannot be fit into categories of evil.  Zombies are monsters that embody philosophical materialism, a philosophy for which there is no room for moral classification of evil.  Nazis are evil.  Zombies can’t be evil.  There is no such thing as Nazi zombies, only zombies wearing Nazi clothes.

Zombies are monsters that embody philosophical materialism, a philosophy for which there is no room for moral classification of evil. Nazis are evil. Zombies can't be evil. There is no such thing as Nazi zombies, only zombies wearing Nazi clothes.Click To Tweet

Zombies are only hungry, they are not evil.

Nazi zombies break the rule.   When they don Nazi ideology with the uniform, they aren’t true zombies.

The film Dead Snow goes so far as to imbue its zombies in a stereotypical Nazi hatred of, well . . . everybody, and also gives them, if I recall, a revenge narrative.

Perhaps we are not comfortable with a monster that isn’t evil; we cannot face the implications of our own worldviews that the zombie monster interrogates.

But just because we hid under the blanket, doesn’t mean the monsters disappear.

Next Zombie Post: World War Z is not a Zombie Film

Warm Bodies: The Movie

Warm Bodies (2)

Like the book, the movie, as social commentary, suggests the modern-secular self is already largely zombie.  Early in the film, R walks through the airport with a bunch of zombies sitting around or bumping into each other.  He recounts an earlier, better time, when humanity meaningfully interacted with others—the scene shows an airport full of people absorbed by their electronic devices bumping into each other like zombies.

The Need for Connection

Many zombies have gathered at the airport—airports are about waiting, and they are all waiting for something.  R tells us what he’s waiting for: “I just want to connect.”

This desire is reflected in his collection.  R collects a lot of things, and, from what we are shown, everything reflects this craving for connection.  Every slide in the stereoscope shows a boy interacting meaningfully with a girl.  The snow globe he acquires on the same excursion on which he acquires Julie presents lovers holding hands on a footbridge.  And all the songs we hear from his record collection are about missing someone.

The connection issue is shown in the community of the Living as well.  Their major project involves the construction of a huge wall to separate the Living from the Dead.  Lead by Julie’s father, the Living strive for the symbol of division.

Like the figures in the snow globe, R and Julia supply the bridge between the Living and the Dead.

When the zombies see R and Julia holding hands, they are profoundly affected–the cure has begun.   R describes the effect of the gesture when he says, “Julie and I were giving the others hope.”  All this is a lot of fun.  I enjoyed the movie, but, sadly, they resorted to mere convention.

Love Does it Again

This is where, disappointingly, the movie takes a significantly different approach to the cure than does the book.

In the book, romantic love is metonymy; it is one of several things that represents all things transcendent, like beauty, soul, and mystery.  Not so with the movie; here the cure is simply romantic love.   All the indicators of “true love” are present: hand holding, kissing, accelerated pulse, the inability to look away when her shirt is off and taking stupid risks, not to mention a literal balcony scene.

This is not a surprising solution to the zombie problem.  Mainstream movies almost always solve all their problems with romantic love.  It is able to overcome all barriers of social class, age, race and ethnicity, and personal conflicts.  Why not overcome death?

In Warm Bodies, the movie, romantic love is salvation. Not a surprise given it overcomes every other barrier: social class, age, race and ethnicity, and species. Why not overcome death? Click To Tweet

I was a little disappointed at this, for it seems like a cheap solution, especially when the book offered romantic love as one of the means, rather than the end in itself.

In the end, we are asked to put our faith in romantic love, for only this is powerful enough to “exhume the world.”

Where the book hints that we need to recover of a view of reality beyond philosophical materialism, the movie suggests romantic love is the solution to all our problems.  This is not to condemn the film, I actually enjoyed it, it just means it is a romantic comedy — and little more.

Read my review of the book.

Next Zombie post: Nazi Zombies

Warm Bodies: the Book

Warm Bodies

You know you’re an English teacher, if, when a movie is released, you buy the book.

The cover of my version of Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the movie’s poster, but it is better than a silly romance which cover seems to suggest.

The book’s first-person narrator is R — it’s all he remembers of his own name because he’s a zombie.  The undead always have identity issues.

R describes his life as a zombie:

We do what we do, time passes, and no one asks questions . . . . We grunt and groan, we shrug and nod, and sometimes a few words slip out.  It’s not that different from before” (4).

  “It’s not that different from before.”

This is one of the main themes of the novel,  suggesting that, in many ways, people are like zombies long before they become the decomposing brain-eaters.

 R finds himself the protector of Julia–she’s alive and pretty amazing.  She’s unlike any of the Living or the Dead.  Where R’s cognitive abilities are severely compromised, what with being dead and all, Julia is clever in a philosophical sense.  She  explains that the source of the “plague” was not anything like a virus or nuclear contamination, but was from “a deeper place.”  She actually uses the word “sin.”

Its source is not any direct divine judgment per se, but because we’ve “crushed ourselves down over the centuries” (221).

I think we crushed ourselves down over the centuries. Buried ourselves under greed and hate and whatever other sins we could find until our souls finally hit the rock bottom of the universe. And then they scraped a hole through it, into some … darker place.

In the last few centuries, we have crushed ourselves, indeed all of reality, down into the very small container of matter only–material reality is reality.  We have rejected all transcendence: anything beyond the physical.  We have come to believe the world is ruled by immutable and impersonal laws, that humanity is just a bunch of genes trying to get ahead and that time is a mindless and purposeless march toward personal and cosmic oblivion.  This view of the world could be called “Philosophical Materialism.”  It holds that matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, consciousness, and will, can be explained in terms of matter.  The world described by philosophical materialism is closed to the transcendent.

 This idea has crushed us.  We’ve largely lost our sense of mystery and little evokes wonder.   More and more of us believe that everything from mountains to sunsets, from music to love, is a product of physical or chemical processes.  We no longer value things for their own sake, but for how economically useful they are–trees have become lumber and pigs have become pork.  It is just a matter of time when people will be valued only for their utility.  Or has this happened already?

We are Zombies

The book asks, if this is our conception of reality, what then is the difference between being a zombie or one of the Living?  Julie doesn’t see a lot of difference anymore.  While looking at a daisy Julie says, “We don’t even have flowers anymore.  Just crops” (70).

We don’t even have flowers anymore.  Just crops.

Julie believes that human beings are no better than zombies if they lose their sense of wonder — when they cease to see the world and its inhabitants as beautiful in and of themselves.  Her father, only concerned with practical survival is no longer any better than the Dead he hates.  She says of him, “Dad’s dead. He just hasn’t started rotting yet” (202).  Julie believes life is more than physical and that simple survival isn’t enough.  She says, “I mean obviously, staying alive is pretty . . .  important . . . but there’s got to be something beyond that, right?” (71).

“I mean obviously, staying alive is pretty . . .  important . . . but there’s got to be something beyond that, right?”

Julie is a foil to her father’s limited participation in life, but her vitality also provides a more important contrast to the Dead, represented by R.

Julia is less than impressed with R’s stagnant music collection.  He communicates that he isn’t really looking for anything different–that’s the way the Dead are.  She doesn’t accept this as a valid excuse claiming, “Music is life! It’s physical emotion–you can touch it! It’s neon ecto-energy sucked out of spirits and switched into sound waves for your ears to swallow.  Are you telling me, what, that it’s boring? You don’t have time for it?” (54).

The Cure for Zombies

Julie’s love of music, like that for flowers, is rooted in their transcendence–they possess qualities beyond their physical properties.  She is unique in that, unlike her father or the zombie R, she believes that there is more to reality than the physical.

This, it turns out, is salvation for R.

Romantic love is a part of his salvation, but it’s much bigger than love.  It includes flowers and music and everything else that human beings experience.  All the things that are good or true or beautiful, supernatural, spiritual or transcendent things.

Love is the main marker of R’s encounter with a transcendent reality.  Before he meets Julie, R describes the zombie perspective of others, whether Living or Dead; we are all meat–“Nameless, faceless, disposable” (74).  After he falls for Julie, she becomes much more to him than meat, more than a mere physical body.  Consider this passage from near the ends of the story:

 “I look into Julie’s face.  Not just at it, but into it.  Every pore, every freckle, every gossamer hair.  And then the layers beneath them.  The flesh and bones, the blood and brain, all the way down to the unknowable energy that swirls at her core, the life force, the soul, the fiery will that makes her more than meat, coursing through every cell and binding them together in millions to form her.  Her body contains the  history of the universe, remembered in pain, in joy and sadness, hate and hope and bad habits, every thought of God, past-present-future, remembered, felt, and hoped for all at once” (222).

 In Julie’s face, he sees the transcendent and it is inseparable from the physical.

This has always been true of everything, he just forgot–this is the essence of the zombie.

Somewhere in the last few centuries, we have separated the soul from the body and then ditched the soul because we couldn’t weigh it.  We lost the enchantment in life.  The novel’s thesis is that if you live long enough in a disenchanted world, you will eventually become little more than a zombie.  It offers a solution too; this story suggests that the first step toward the cure of the zombie curse is the re-enchantment of the world.

In the book Warm Bodies, the zombie, R is representative of all materialists, living and undead. He finds salvation, not a result of romantic love, but in encounters with embodied transcendence in music, flowers, and Julia.Click To Tweet

The movie made one significant change to the story.

Next Zombie Post:  Warm Bodies (The Movie)

  

Want more zombie articles? Start with this one: A New Kind of Monster

Zombies (22) The Crisis of the Modern Identity

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

The zombie functions as a monstrous other, transgressing boundary and unsettling the modern identity, as monsters have always done.

But, it goes beyond the scope of traditional monsters in that it also holds a mirror up to the secular self, and suggests to us that without the transcendent, we may be nothing more than animated corpses, or worse.

The zombie film further deprives us of the security of civilization, exposing human beings as Hobbesian brutes.

The cumulative effect of these functions brings us to a crisis of identity and meaning.

External to Internal

In the pre-modern past, the self was a part of a cosmos seen as a “totality of existence because it [contained] the sense of ordered whole” (A Secular Age 60), and in this order held meaning for all things.

In modern society, with the loss of the transcendent, any external referent by which we might understand the self has been removed and the modern self’s construction became an entirely interior process—reality is solely in the mind–“in the sense that things only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us” (A Secular Age 31).

With this move from cosmic meaning to meaning residing only in the mind, the modern identity, then, can be understood largely by what it is not—by the things of which it has been emptied.  It no longer has a place in a cosmic hierarchy of meaning, nor does it interact with spiritual forces or charged objects in an enchanted world.

Defined by Absence

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.  Much has been lost in the turn away from the transcendent into ourselves.  The zombie brings us face to face with who we are in the context of this loss.

The zombie is the embodiment of this emptiness, for one of the key characteristics of the zombie is that it is “a body which has been hollowed out, emptied of selfhood” (Warner 357).  It is essentially a “description of human existential diminishment” (367) that has been diminished one step further than has the ordinary resident of modernity.

The zombie evokes despair and dread because it presents Modern, secular selves with the potential of being absent from oneself.  This is part of the horror of the zombie, especially in the early twentieth century; it terrorizes the rationalist understanding of selfhood by exposing the fragility of subjectivity.

The destruction of subjectivity is still a significant part of the horror of the zombie, but the events of the mid-twentieth century changed the conception of the self and therefore the monster that threatened it.

After the horrors of the Holocaust and the use of the atomic bomb, faith in reason and the authority of science was abandoned, as had been faith in God in previous generations.  This left humanity without any external authority.

Existential Agent

Sartre’s understanding of the self as existential agent is representative of the post-WWII identity.  Because “it is impossible for man to transcend human subjectivity,”  the new authority was the self.  He believed that unlike the objective world, the existence of the self precedes its essence; “subjectivity must be the starting point.”  Thus, we are completely free to choose our own purpose, our own meaning.

Additionally, ideals or beliefs are not reality; action is the only reality, for the only way to determine the value of ideals or beliefs is to perform an act which confirms or defines it” (Sartre in “Existentialism is a Humanism”).

Putting these ideas together, we can claim that, in the post-nuclear world we understand the self as existential agent.

Kevin Boon suggests that human action “in the absence of any external locus of truth—that is, in the absence of a reliable ‘other’ in whom/which faith can be placed—must face the threat of engulfment by the world.”  For the existential agent, the greatest fear, then, is that “it will be absorbed by the other and thus be irretrievably lost” (Boon [in Better off Dead] 55-56).

The Modern secular self faces engulfment by the hostile immanent universe.

Many of the deaths presented in zombie films are of a single screaming protagonist being pulled by countless cadaverous hands into the mass of the undead horde.  This visually symbolizes the engulfment of the existential agent by the indifferent universe.  Romero’s zombies are the embodiment of the challenge to the modern identity.  When one becomes a zombie, one of many within the horde, the subjective self is annihilated and the existential agent is engulfed by a malicious world.

Next Zombie post: Warm Bodies (The Book)

 

Zombies (21): Authority and Hobbes

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Zombie films evoke the fear of how people would respond if there were no authorities to keep the baser appetites in check.  I must admit, for me this is the source of zombie terror for me.  Without the authority represented by the government or any transcendent moral authority, human beings turn on each other.

This fear of others—indeed, of one’s neighbours—is the basis of Hobbes’ analysis in Leviathan published in 1651.

Hobbes’ Leviathan

For Hobbes, the natural state of man, which exists outside the context of society, is one of war.  According to Hobbes, all men are essentially equal in their vulnerability and weakness.  Our natural equality and our conflicting desires result in a state of constant war with our fellow man.  He also argues that competition, diffidence, and desire for glory are in our nature, as we seek gain, safety, and reputation.  We, therefore, live in constant fear because we realize that at any moment we can have everything taken from us, including our life.  This is a reasonable fear, for Hobbes says that we have a natural right to everything, “even to one another’s body,” but to avoid the constant state of war that would ensue, we create contracts in which we mutually transfer these rights.   To ensure that the contracts are performed, a society needs a sovereign who will compel adherence to the contracts through force or through institutional constraints.  We willingly subject ourselves to this authority because it protects us from the state of constant war with others.  The zombie invasion returns us to a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death, [in which] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Click To Tweet the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. #Zombies” quote=”The zombie invasion returns us to a state of “continual fear and danger of violent death, [in which] the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.””]

Zombies and Loss of Authority

The zombies usher in a world where the Monstrous Humans invoke their natural right “even to one another’s body,” and they can do this because there is no longer a “sovereign” to enforce the contracts that Hobbes describes.

The loss of authority is central to zombie narratives.  Zombies are certainly horrifying in and of themselves, but, as Bishop points out,  “such monsters would not pose much of a threat if actualized in the modern-day world; most probably police or military could quickly exterminate these aberrations” (22).

Zombie narratives are almost always set during (or shortly after) the collapse of civilization, and whatever remains of the police or military, or any other governmental organization, is completely ineffectual and more often, nonexistent.  Zombie movies, then, “offer a worst-case scenario of the collapse of all American social and governmental structures.  Once people start to die at an uncontrollable rate, panic rages through all levels of the government and the military—a literal ‘dog eat dog’” world” (Bishop 23).

At the end of Night of the Living Dead, the zombies have been contained and are in the process of being eliminated; by the end of Dawn of the Dead, they have apparently overrun everything.  Government, military and all other forms of civil authority evaporate.

According to Hobbes, the sovereign is supposed to establish “security and order, enforcing our agreements with others, resolving disputes, and imposing punishment.  Hobbes’ sovereign also determines the ideology of the state (what is right and wrong, just and unjust).  Under his authority, good and evil are absolute” (Fahy [The Philosophy of Terror] 65).

In the absence of such authority, there is no absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil.’  Because culture has reverted to a raw state of nature, only desire and aversion exist.

In the absence of such authority, there is no absolute ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ Because culture has reverted to a raw state of nature, only desire and aversion exist. Click To Tweet

In the absence of “good” and “evil,” each individual determines his or her own morality.  We desire what is good and have an aversion to what is bad.  But individual desires and aversions are pursued at the expense of those of others.  This is the role that the other, monstrous, humans play in zombie narratives.

The biker gang in Dawn of the Dead invades the mall to pillage it, and they will kill anyone—living or undead–to have their way.  Because the living and the undead are both driven by almost equally base desires to “consume” the other, the zombie holds up a mirror to man, revealing what he is in a world without authority.

The line between monster and human is blurred.

Next zombie post: Zombies and the Crisis of the Modern Identity

Zombies (20): The Human Monster

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Characters in zombie movies fall into just three categories:

  1. the zombies
  2.  the would-be-survivors
  3. the other people who are very bad

In almost every zombie narrative, the boundaries between the human and the monster are blurred.  One of the most significant of these boundaries is between the monsters and the monstrous behavior of the living.

The zombies certainly represent a serious external menace, but they cease to be much of a danger once the living humans have taken up a defensive position and fortified it.  Then everything should be fine, except for one thing.

Internal Threats: The Monster Within

The real threat comes from the other human survivors on the inside of the barricades—“those who still think, plot, and act” (Bishop 39).   As Dillard points out, “The living people are dangerous to each other . . . because they are human with all of the ordinary human failings.”  Because “emotions such as fear, anger, hatred, and jealousy . . . are expressed only by the living,” these things come to seem “quintessentially human” ([American Horror] 22).

In his films, Romero clearly asserts that “the living have a certain propensity for murderous violence, territorialism, and irrationality—qualities that immediately surface during a crisis” (Waller 281).  The zombies do not exhibit these negative human characteristics, but they always rise to the surface within the survival group.  While the zombies attempt to consume the living, the flaws within human nature threaten to do the same from within the barricades.

External Threat: The Monstrous Human

The threat of the living is not only from within the survivor group but outside it as well.  Besides the zombie and the “hero”—the monster and the human, Romero’s movies include a third group—the monstrous human.  In these characters, we see the worst and most inhuman behavior—again showing that the living are not that much different from the undead.

In Night of the Living Dead, this group is McClelland and his posse.  Although engaged in a grizzly task, they do so with a heartless carelessness that ends in the unintentional murder of Ben.  In Dawn of the Dead, the survival group is beset by lawless renegades on motorcycles, for whom “the only real sport left is slavery, torture, rape, and murder, the enactment of base appetites.”  The zombies are shown to be less of a threat since they “don’t think or plan or scheme, they are mere animals to be avoided; other survivors, however, are more calculating and dangerous” (Bishop 24).  Romero is showing us that “the true monster threatening civilization [is] humanity itself” (95).

In AMC’s The Walking Dead, we’ve had all sorts of monstrous humans.  The Governor and Negan were are the two major threats to Rick and his group of would-be-survivors, but there were many more.

The Presence of Evil

An important

Next zombie post: Absence of Authority: Zombies and Hobbes

 

 

Zombies (19): Consumer Culture

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Zombies are unique in the monster pantheon.  Not only do they represent the monstrous other, but they also represent the monstrous self; they are a reflection of us—modern selves.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

That the zombie is a reflections of modern man is apparent in Romero’s second installment of his zombie narratives, Dawn of the Dead, where he “offers us a glimpse of a universe in which all spiritual values have been replaced by our awareness of the material realities of the corporeal and consumerism” (Russel 94-95).

We've sloughed off the transcendent, and the inadequacy of living only in the immanent has driven us to the mall.Click To Tweet

In the beginning of Dawn of the Dead, heavily armed police are unable to evacuate residents and remove zombies from an apartment complex.  It is clear that government authority is breaking down along with all other social institutions.  In the face of complete social breakdown, the would-be-survivors seek solace in the modern spiritual temple—the shopping mall.

They find the mall occupied by animated corpses, the ultimate consumers, wandering aimlessly from shop to shop, apparently as unaware of each other as the crowds of shoppers on a normal day.  One puzzled survivor asks, “What are they doing?  Where are they going?”  These questions underscore the otherness of the zombies, but the reply from another survivor shatters the barrier between the self and the other: “They’re us” (Dawn).   The undead are just doing what they used to do.

Romero is explicit; consumer culture is a culture of zombies.

So strong is the consumer impulse in the protagonists that, after clearing the mall of the undead, the survivors attempt to recreate and inhabit a pre-zombie world of consumerism.  They take advantage of all the material pleasures that the shopping mall offers.   Gradually, the ideal suburban home that they have created—including a TV that stays on, although it broadcasts only static—becomes not just a “safe haven,” but a “gilded cage” (Murphy 88); the material boon “is underwritten by emptiness as they lapse into frustration, bickering, anxiety and dissatisfaction” (Botting 49).

After deconstructing all sources of fullness in Night of the Living Dead, in Dawn of the Dead, Romero turns his critical lens on the consumerism on which society relies to cope with the lack of meaning in modern society.  The line between zombie and human is blurred as the undead are shown to be caricatures of the living.

Zombie as Caricature of Consumerism

Zombies are consumers.  Actually, that’s pretty much all they are.  They are continuously on the move with one motivation–to consume.

The consumption of living flesh does nothing for the zombie–it gains no nutritive benefit from eating a thigh, it doesn’t extend its life by eating a brain, it doesn’t slow the process of decomposition through the consumption of a liver.  It is pure consumption–without purpose.  Isn’t this the case for so much of the consumption in the wealthy West?

In the absence of the transcendent, we’ve lost all other purposes.  What is left?  Consumption.  Zombies ask us: is that really all you are?

Next zombie post: The Human Monster

 

Zombies (18): The Death of Herosim

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

I love superhero movies.  I’ve seen all of the Marvel movies, most of them in the theatre.  I like the heroes of literature too–Beowulf, Van Helsing and Aragorn.  I think it’s an essential character trait of every hero that he or she is usually concerned for the wellbeing of others–often to the point of death.

Zombie movies don’t have heroes like that.

Our heroes have changed because we have.

Literary heroes represent ideals and ideas that are valued by a society– self-sacrifice is often one of these ideals, but certainly not the only one.  Like monsters, heroes change to reflect their contemporary cultural context.

The Immanent Hero

Like all heroes, the heroes in zombie films “face crisis situations in which they must assume extraordinary personal responsibility and make exceedingly difficult choices” (Robinson [Fear] 23).  The modern hero has to make these choices in a modern world and that means there is no transcendent ideal to guide these decisions.  Their choices are often between some moral principle and their survival.  The focus in these moments of crisis is on the agony of the choice, rather than on the sacrificial nature of the hero. And despite the agony, the choice is almost always in favor of survival.

Thus, in zombie narratives, it is not really appropriate to call any of the protagonists heroes.  For with the emphasis on survival, and without transcendent ideals, it is more accurate to call them “would-be survivors.”

Simon Pegg points out that “the protagonists of zombie invasion movies are not superheroes or professional monster slayers like Van Helsing – they are common, average folk forced to ‘step up’ and defend themselves” (Bishop 117).  So, just as the zombie is an immanent monster, the hero in the zombie narrative is an immanent hero.

Heroism in Night of the Living Dead

In Night of the Living Dead, the fate of the character Ben reveals the demise of the traditional hero.  Despite his failings, Ben is “the closest any of the human beings in Night of the Living Dead come [sic] . . . to being the sort of hero that is found in previous monster narratives” (Waller 295-96).  For lack of any better place to put it, the audience puts their faith in Ben.

This faith is regularly challenged, however.  Ben is protective of Barbara, but only somewhat so. When Barbara first enters the farmhouse, she discovers a partially consumed corpse and flees.  Ben, having just arrived in a pickup truck, intercepts Barbara, and with a tire iron gallantly dispatches several lurching men, who are becoming numerous, and finally leads the hysterical Barbara back into the house.

Ben is a hero defined, not by knowledge or depth of belief, but by his actions (Waller 284).  As soon as he arrives at the farmhouse and discovers Barbara, he gets to work barricading the doors and windows.  His heroism is rooted in a material and practical—the immanent domain.

After the others are discovered in the cellar, he seems to expect they “will prove to be as competent as he has proven and that help will come to those who help themselves” (Waller 285).  He does not see himself as one who supersedes the others in ability.  Whatever capacity he has, he expects it to be present in everyone else as well.

The radio reports widespread attacks by people seemingly in a trance; later there are reports of widespread mass murders and cannibalism. The situation is stressful, and Ben does not always deal with it very well. He obviously lacks leadership skill,  For example: he engages in bickering with Harry; he overreacts in anger on several occasions, the last of which results in his shooting of Harry with the rifle.

It is further obvious that he is not a traditional hero when he fails to save Barbara or any of the other temporary residents of the besieged farmhouse. He merely survives the night.

The Death of Heroism

In the morning, a posse, which has been killing the remaining zombies, approaches the house. Hearing them, Ben cautiously goes up the cellar stairs into the living room and is mistakenly shot dead by a posse member who takes him for a zombie.  His body is carried from the house and burned with the zombie corpses.

Rather than standing next to the vanquished foe, or at least honoured by the survivors for his sacrificial victory, the hero instead lies, undistinguished, on a pile of dead monsters.

In Night of the Living Dead, the action is bookended between two scenes that “intimate that the zombie-human distinction is not that easily made” (Cooke 167).  In the first sequence, a zombie is mistaken for a man, and, at the end, a man is mistaken for a zombie, and shot and burned as one.

Thus, the movie gives its viewers a picture of a flattened world, for in the death of each character, we see the death of every previously-held source of fullness or meaning.  In Ben’s death, we see the utter meaninglessness of everything in a world without the transcendent.

The immanent “hero” of this film burns like the great hero Beowulf, but this is no funeral pyre, but a garbage fire.  There is little difference between hero and monster, given that Ben is laid upon a bonfire to be burned.

Waller’s explanation of the action around the final bonfire reinforces the absence of any meaning that we can take from the film.  The men in the posse have no idea they have misinterpreted the situation in shooting Ben; the movie audience alone is privy to this information.

McClelland orders a deputy to burn the grisly heaps of the formerly undead.  Because McClelland is the final human being we see in the film, Waller calls him the survivor.  As such, we can look to him, and his fire, for those things that endure.  He is “unemotional and almost cynically mater-of-fact.  He is concerned not with explanations, but only with getting his job done.  The work he is engaged in is just work and not a mission, much less a holy crusade” (Waller 297).

Ben suffers exactly the same fate as the monsters, and the tragedy the night before is nothing more than a day’s work for McClelland and his men.  McClelland’s attitude is what is required of secular man in the flattened world.  The death of the thoroughly immanent hero symbolizes this symptom of the modern identity “whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it” (A Secular Age 303). 

In Night of the Living Dead, “every convention of heroism is overturned by Romero’s script” (Russell 68).

Ben, the “hero” of #NightoftheLivingDead burns like the great hero Beowulf, but this is no funeral pyre, but a garbage fire instead. In the zombie film, there is little difference between hero and monster. Click To Tweet

Zombies and The Modern Malaise

In its treatment of the hero, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead reflects what Charles Taylor called the modern malaise.  One of the effects of modernity is a malaise in which we get the sense that our lives “have been flattened or narrowed” (Malaise 4).  The movie clearly illustrates the loss of the “heroic dimension of life,” at least of a sense of what we might call a higher purpose, “of something worth dying for” (Malaise 4).

Taylor says that this sense of loss is inevitable given the “eclipse of the transcendent” (307).  He distinguishes three forms that “the malaise of immanence may take.” First, is a “sense of the ‘fragility of meaning,’” the search for an over-arching significance; second, is the felt flatness of special moments in life; and lastly, is “the utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary” (309).  He suggests that this everyday lack can be the most painful and seems most significant for “people of some leisure and culture.”

This malaise is, then, particularly acute for those who live in a consumer culture, who “feel [the] emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape” (309).  The malaise of immanence that is felt so deeply in consumer culture is exploited in Romero’s second movie about the undead.

Next zombie post: Consumer Culture

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