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The Human Monster

In Uncategorized on April 28, 2013 at 3:00 am

Zombie - human monsterIn Dawn of the Dead, the zombies are caricatures of the living in their spiritlessness, but in almost every zombie narrative, another boundary between the human and the monster is blurred—the living are frequently shown to be more monstrous than the walking dead.

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.  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.

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 in his films—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).

Next zombie post: Absence of Authority: Zombies and Hobbes

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Zombies and Consumer culture

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Zombie consumerThat the zombie is a reflections of modern man is apparent in Romero’s second installment of his zombie narratives, Dawn of the Dead (1978), 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).

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 in an important place in their lives, directed by the residues of memory and instinct.”  Romero is explicit; consumer culture is a culture of zombies.  Botting points out that the zombie/consumer “identification is reinforced by shots of survivors exchanging looks with zombies through shop windows, one group the mirror of another (Botting [in Gothic Science Fiction 1980 –
2010
] 48). 

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.

Next zombie post: The Human Monster

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Heroism ain’t what it used to be

In Uncategorized on April 11, 2013 at 11:51 pm

Zombie HeroBeowulf and Achilles,  now those were heroes.  Even more recent literature has guys like Van Helsing and Aragorn.  In his treatment of the hero, Alsford says that a hero is “fundamentally oriented towards the other”; the hero “gives him or herself to the world” (29).  Zombie movies don’t have heroes like that.  Our heroes have changed, because we have.

Wherever we find monsters, there, too, we also find heroes (Asma 23).

We hate monsters because they embody otherness–what we are not.  Literary heroes represent ideals and ideas that are valued by a society.  Like monsters, heroes change to reflect their contemporary cultural context.

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 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.

Like monsters, heroes change to reflect their contemporary cultural context.

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 when he engages in bickering with Harry, or when 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.  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).

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: Zombies ‘R Us

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Zombies Ain’t Got No Soul

In Uncategorized on January 19, 2013 at 12:45 pm

zombies immanentPrevious Zombie Posts:

The horror story in general, turns fear, “whether personal or social, into a specific type of monster; and seeks to contain and destroy it” (Worland 17).  As a very popular figure in modern narratives, the zombie is the embodiment of the fears of modern man.  Because modern man is secular man, the zombie represents fears that have come as a result of secularization on the human identity.

Romero’s Night of the Living Dead took zombie narratives in a whole new direction from the voodoo zombie films, a direction consonant with the cultural texture of secular modernity: one which no longer recognized the relevance, and even the presence of transcendent reality (by which I mean anything beyond the material, or immanent reality).   For this reason, it is called the first modern zombie film.

The zombie represents fears that have come as a result of secularization on the human identity.

Much of American society had come to terms with the death of God, as declared by Nietzsche, by transferring its faith to a new master and savior: technology and science.  But with the events of the Second World War, most particularly the Holocaust, the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the Cold War that followed, American culture found its new gods inadequate.  The zombie that Romero’s presented in Night of the Living Dead still represented the loss of subjectivity, but more importantly, and more horrifyingly, it also represented a humanity experiencing the loss of the transcendent.  This loss occurred through the spread of secularization.

The process of secularization and its effects are described by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age.  In his exploration of belief, he describes the “shift in background” (13), that is, in the interpretive context or framework in which all beliefs are tacitly held.  In the pre-modern past, reality encompassed both transcendence and physical realities; the immanent frame was understood to be open: open to the transcendent.  Modern man believes reality is “a ‘natural’ order, to be contrasted with a ‘supernatural’ one, an ‘immanent’ world, over against a rejected ‘transcendent’ one” (542).   Because it does not allow for any supernatural explanations, Taylor calls this stance the “closed immanent frame” (5).

The absence of the transcendent is apparent in the modern zombie film, most particularly in the monster itself.  In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the walking dead, except for the fact that they are walking, are very ordinary.  Some of them “are fully dressed; one of them is rather fat and dressed only in jockey shorts; one of them, a young woman, is naked. They look vulnerable, and they are vulnerable, to a blow to the head and to fire” (Dillard 21).  Interestingly, “they were cast from local citizens of Pittsburgh . . . becoming extras in a story . . . and in many senses playing themselves” (Warner 366).  There is very little difference between the zombies and one’s neighbours.

As a modern monster, like a werewolf, a vampire or a ghoul, the zombie has no supernatural qualities, but unlike them has no superhuman qualities either.

As a modern monster, like a werewolf, a vampire or a ghoul, the zombie has no supernatural qualities, but unlike them has no superhuman qualities either: “they cannot fly, they cannot turn into vapor, bat, or wolf; they are not possessed of superhuman strength; they don’t have fangs” (Paffenroth 8).  Without transcendence or superhuman qualities, they are “just pale skin, gaping wounds, and noticeable decay” (Bishop 117).  Unlike the spirits of distant generations, “a zombie is embodied and material, [it] walks and bleeds and sweats” (Warner 358).  The thoroughly immanent zombie, then, is a suitable terror for the closed, immanent frame.

As the zombie is unremarkable; so too is the world through which it shambles.  In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the ordinariness of the setting reflects a thoroughly immanent world.  The “dully commonplace settings” of Night of the Living Dead reflect the flatness of a universe in a way than do the more fantastic settings of almost all of the American horror films that preceded it.  The graveyard in the opening scenes has no painted background or ominous lighting, but is “flatly lit and unretouched.”  The house where the rest of the film takes place is an ordinary farmhouse, not a gothic “castle overlooking the perpetually befogged forest” (Dillard 17).  The setting of this film in relation to those of other American horror films, like Frankenstein (1931), illustrates the shift from a cosmos enchanted by the transcendent, to a disenchanted universe.  The world of Night of the Living Dead is a wholly immanent one.

Next zombie post: Where Do Zombies Come From?

Zombies: A Whole New Kind of Monster

In Books, Movies and Television on January 10, 2013 at 5:01 am

Zombie 1“Apocalypse” (Ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation.”  In popular culture we often equate the word apocalypse with zombies.  “The zombie apocalypse” actually means “that which zombies reveal.”  Zombies reveal some very interesting things about us, our society, and how we understand ourselves and our society.

This has always been the case with  monsters.  They always tell us about the people in whose stories they appear.

Richard Kearney says that “monsters scare the hell out of us and remind us that we don’t know who we are (Strangers 117). What he means is, the monsters that haunt, creep and conjure in our stories have something to do with our identity–that is, the identity of the people who tell and hear (and view) the stories.  Monsters help us to clarify who we are.

When Kearney says that, “[m]ost ideas of identity . . . have been constructed in relation to some notion of alterity” (66), he means that we understand who we are, through facing what we are not.  Monsters are an embodiment of what we are not–alterity.  Our monsters function as “negative mirror image of ourselves which we project onto a fantasy world. Flawed beings, scapegoats, the enemy, the unknown, and the damned must all be willed into being as foils to our own inherent beauty, virtue, integrity and truth” (118).

This is why monsters, even as they threaten identity, tell us a lot about ourselves as a society.

Monsters are often an important component of our stories, whether told around a campfire, in a novel or on the movie screen.  As such, they play an important role in the creation of our collective identity.  Literary critic, Stephen Greenblatt, understands culture to be a system of constraints where cultural beliefs and practices are “enforced by particular literary acts of praising and blaming” (226). In narratives where the central conflict is between hero and monster, these figures are the recipients of praise and blame respectively. As the embodiment of that which is praiseworthy, the hero serves to establish and sustain a culture’s ideals of self-identity.

So back to the zombies….

The idea of the dead walking among the living has been around for a long time. In Inferno, Dante meets Fra Albergio who tells him of traitors like himself who are dead before their bodies die. Dante is horrified; he has seen one of these men the friar describes, one that “eats, and drinks, and sleeps, and puts on clothes” (33.141) but is, nevertheless, dead. In Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors walks Dr. Pinch, who is described as “a living dead man” (5.1.241). Both Dante and Shakespeare conceived of the zombie, but it never caught on as a monster, “at least not the pervasive and successful one that we have seen in the modern era” (Zani [in Better Off Dead] 100).

For contemporary culture, it is the zombie that threatens our collective identity and thus leads modern secular man toward self-knowledge. The zombie is one of the most popular monsters of the last century. Four hundred zombie movies have been made and almost half of these since 2000 (see Wikipedia, “List of Zombie Films” and do the math). The popularity of the zombie monster suggests that it is representative of that which menaces our contemporary collective identity.

George Romero’s in Night of the Living Dead (1968) presents us with the “modern” zombie. He changed earlier ideas of the undead and the transformation embodies exactly what scares the crap out of the modern identity. What is this modern identity?

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the modern identity as a “buffered self” living in a “closed immanent frame.”  He means, in essence, that the modern identity does not understand itself in terms of the transcendent—the supernatural.  The modern zombie threatens this modern identity in the same way that monsters have always done, as a monstrous other. But zombies are more than just a monstrous other. They also pose a threat to collective identity in their monstrous sameness, for the zombie is a horrifying reflection of the modern self in a world without transcendence—it is a monster for our time.

Next zombie post: A Brief History of the Zombie