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Zombies Represent the Crisis of the Modern Idenity

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2013 at 5:25 am

Zombie - id crisisThe zombie functions as a monstrous other, transgressing boundaries 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, without the transcendent, we may 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 collective effect of these functions brings us to a crisis of identity and meaning.

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).   To be a buffered subject, Taylor says, is to have “closed up the porous boundary between inside (thought) and outside (nature, the physical)” (A Secular Age 300).  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.

The zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.  Much has been lost in the anthropocentric turn away from the transcendent, and 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 buffered 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 zombie, too, is defined by what is absent.

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.  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 and act which confirms or defines it” (“Existentialism is a Humanism”).

Putting these ideas together, we can claim that, in the post-nuclear world we understand the self as existential agent.  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).  Taylor’s modern identity was buffered against anything transcendent, but now the 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.

For a simple summary of this series of zombie posts visit: http://www.squidoo.com/the-meaning-of-zombies2

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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 –
] 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 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.

Zombie Posts:

The Horror of the Body

In Uncategorized on February 18, 2013 at 5:22 am

zombies body horrorPrevious Zombie Posts:

The zombies are an abject horror in themselves, but what they do to their victims is even more horrifying.  Zombie movies contain scenes with spurting blood and biting of flesh; they also show us the ingestion of slippery entrails and bloody organs.  The zombie is a monster for our time in that it exploits the fear that, in the absence of any transcendent meaning, we are nothing but vulnerable, and soon to be dead, flesh.

Stephan Asma describes how modern horror focuses on “the subjective revulsion and terror of the flesh” because, in the absence of the transcendent, there is a terror in “all things biological” (198).  The bodily violence in the zombie films exploits the vulnerability we feel as biological beings by objectifying our bodies.  In his analysis of Night of the Living Dead, Russell emphasizes how “Romero never lets us forget that this is a film about the body.  Or to be more accurate, the horror of the body” (67):

Romero demonstrates the essential frailty of human flesh, repeatedly showing the violent capacities fingernails, teeth, knives, and bullets have to reduce living tissue to bleeding inert flesh.  By objectifying the human body in such a graphic manner, Romero relentlessly dissolves the boundaries between the living and the dead, the human and the zombie, and the living beings and intimate products. (Russell 138)

The violence done to bodies, both of the living and the undead, forces modern residents of the closed immanent frame to consider the possibility that the human body may be “nothing more than meat, aligning human beings unapologetically with stockyard animals and game” (133).

This is a scarey idea, indeed.

Next zombie post: Death ain’t what it used to be.

Why are zombie movies disgusting?

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2013 at 5:32 am

zombie abjectPrevious Zombie Posts:

Zombies are disgusting–open wounds, fluids running out of their orifices, and what’s that stuck in his teeth, a piece of Barbara?

Acording to the theorists, identity–that which is me–is understood in relationship to the Other–that which is not me.  The boundaries between the two are important in understanding the self.  These boundaries are clarrified by challenges.  That’s where monsters come in.  They cross these lines as if to ask, “Where do I end and the ‘not I’–the Other–begin?”  The Victorian wolfman, for example, transgressed the boundaries between human and animal to clarrify the boundary between these categories.  This was at a time when questions were very much a concern, what with Darwin’s book and all.

There is a category of things that disgust us because they occupy the space between the self and the other–bodily fluids for instance.  We find these revolting is because they transgress this boundary–they are inbetween what is clearly me and what is clearly not.  Because zombies leak bodily fluids all over the place, they are an embodiment of this sort of revultion.  Kristeva puts vomit and pus and that sort of thing in a category that she labels the abject and suggests that, because the abject challenges boundaries between self and other, our idenities are formulated against it.

Because the abject challenges boundaries between self and other, our idenities are formulated against it.

Julia Kristeva describes the abject as being “neither inside nor outside, neither subject nor object, neither self nor other, troubling identity and order with the instability of boundaries, borders, and limits” (Zakin).  In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva describes the process by which identity is constituted.  Identity formation is a process involving the establishing of boundaries between that which is the self and that which is not the self.  Although this process does involve “conceptual positioning in the symbolic order” (Lennon), it doesn’t begin there.  It was first a bodily process in which the individual begins to make a distinction between the self and the maternal body.  For this to happen, “there is a rejection, a pushing away of that which is not me” (Lennon).  Anything that is between myself and the other, that is both me and not me, falls into the category of the abject.  These things include an open wound, excrement, nail clippings, pus, blood, sweat, even the skin on the top of milk.  The abject often evokes the physical reaction of nausea because it reminds us of the fragility of the boundaries that constitute the self.  Thus, the abject is “horrifying, repellent, but also fascinating; it is strange but familiar” (Zakin).

Zombies generate revulsion in the viewing audience because they evoke the fear of the abject; they challenge identity in the same way the abject does.

Zombies generate revulsion in the viewing audience because they evoke the fear of the abject.

Two things are necessary for this to happen.  First, in order to inhabit the liminal space between that which is the self and also not the self, they need to have a strong association to the self.  This is an easy task for the zombie, because it looks just like us; it is the most human of monsters.  Secondly, they must be not the self.  This is accomplished by their state of decay and the bodily fluids they ooze and spew.  The zombie can be classified as Kristeva’s abject because it “disturbs identity, system, [and] order. [It] does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4).

As monsters, zombies help us understand who we are, by challenging the boundary between us and what we aren’t.  The abject does this as well.  In the zombie we have a convergence of monster and abject.  That’s why zombie movies are disgusting.  I would like to underscore once again, that the abject, like the zombie, challenges physical (or immanent) categories for, to the modern secular self, there is nothing else.

Next zombie post: Horror of the Body

Also Cited:

Lennon, Kathleen. “Feminist Perspectives on the Body.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 28 June 2010. Web. 19 Sept. 2012.

Zakin, Emily. “Psychoanalytic Feminism.” Summer 2011. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 9 April 2012.

Zombies as the Monstrous Other: Challenging Modern Boundaries

In Uncategorized on February 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Zombie boundariesPrevious Zombie Posts:

Zombies are physical monsters, there is nothing in them that is spiritual or supernatureal or even superhuman.  We can therefore call the zombie an immanent monster.  In the immanence of the monster, in the ordinariness of the setting, and in the ambiguity surrounding the presence of the horde, the zombie film reflects reality as it is understood by modern man: one bereft of transcendence.  Ideally suited to shamble through a purely physical world (the closed immanent frame), the zombies terrorize the residents of this world–that’s us, modern secular humanity.

Monsters basically do two things that worry us.  First, they make us dead.  Second, they always transgress boundaries.  People have an idea about what’s good and what’s bad, what’s “us” and what’s “them.”  Monsters challenge these categories reminding us that they are pretty flimsy.  According to Kearney, monsters evoke fear because they transgress “the conventional frontiers,” and in doing so they remind us “that we don’t know who we are” (Strangers 117).

Like all monsters, the zombie kills victims and transgresses boundaries.  Its uniqueness lies in the particular boundaries that it blurs, the nature of the death it brings and in its presentation as a horde; each of these is a particular horror for the modern secular identity.

Ideally suited to shamble through the closed immanent frame, the zombies terrorize the residents of this world.

The monsters of old transgressed the ordered wholeness of the cosmos by transgressing boundaries between categories that ensured order and held meaning.  The monsters, through supernatural means, transgressed boundaries between human and nonhuman and between living and dead.  These monsters were demons, ghosts and witches.

Later, post-Enlightenment monsters lost the spiritual dimension that the monsters of Christian mythologies possessed.  Asma says these more natural monsters “came under the new umbrella of a mechanistic worldview, and spiritual monsters (e.g., demons and devils) were sent packing, along with diviners, priests, and theologians, never to return in any significant way to the pages of the natural philosophers” (149).

As modern monsters, zombies occupy the space between immanent categories.

The modern monsters still transgress boundaries, but rather than supernatural ones, they transgress natural or immanent categories—often animal and man—and “usually possess the worst but most potent qualities of both species: brute strength, diabolical intellect, deceit, lechery, lust for power, and savage disregard for life” (Paffenroth 7).  As the idea of the mechanistic universe strengthened at the expense of the old cosmos, the monsters lost much of their transcendence but were still superhuman. Frankenstein’s creation, the wolf-man and Count Dracula are such monsters.

But in the zombie we see the absence or irrelevance of the transcendent.  Monsters threaten identity because they transgress boundaries, and as modern monsters zombies occupy the space between immanent categories.  Immanent categories would include individual/group, humourous/horrific, self/other, conscious/unconscious, consumer/consumed, human/not human and most significantly, life/death.  Zombies are monsters, but they are a very different kind of monster.

Next zombie post: Why are zombies are so disgusting?

“Mommy, where do zombies come from?”

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2013 at 4:26 am

zombies causePrevious Zombie Posts:

Zombies are our monsters; they scare us.  We are modern and we are secular, so our monsters will be just the sort of creature that would be scary to a modern, secular audience.    Because they terrorize the closed immanent frame, zombies can’t suggest any transcendent meaning because we really don’t go for that sort of thing.  One of the features of movies in the zombie genre is that they are not very clear as to the cause of the zombie infestation.  I believe the reason is that to offer a cause would be a step toward attributing a meaning to the disaster.  This ambiguity as to cause, protects the immanent nature of the world of the zombie film.

This motif was established in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and it is true of almost all the stories of the undead that follow.  Various theories as to why corpses have re-animated are sometimes suggested: “human error might be the cause, so might the space program, extra-terrestrial forces, ‘natural’ conditions in outer space, and so on” (Waller 275-6).  But the cause is almost never certain.

To offer some rational cause for the walking dead would give meaning to the calamity.

It is not important, nor is the plausibility of that cause, since the movies are really always about the effects, not the causes, of the zombie infestation.

Zani and Meaux analyze this lack of clarity surrounding the cause of the zombie horde in the films of Italian director Lucio Fulci, whom they describe as the “quintessential director of zombie gore horror.” One of the most fascinating qualities of his films is that Fulci is “not afraid to throw aside logic or narrative” (Zani [Better off Dead] 108).  In his film Zombie 2, for instance, the cause of the zombie infestation changes from a pagan curse early in the story to some form of contagious disease later in the film.   This disregard for consistency shows that “the central concern of zombie films has nothing to do with . . . discovering the ultimate cause of the catastrophe.”

To offer some rational cause for the walking dead would give meaning to the calamity.  The search for the cause would end up being a search for the meaning of the zombie within the context of the film, and this is precisely what the zombie film will not do—the lack of meaning is at the heart of zombie narratives.

A consistent ambiguity surrounding the cause of the zombie infestation, both within or between movies of this genre, places the attention on the immanent struggle of the human protagonists and away from a cause for which transcendent explanations would have to be too seriously considered.

Next zombie post: Challenging Modern Boundaries

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?