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Warm Bodies: The Movie

In Books, Movies and Television on June 19, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Warm Bodies (2)I finally watched the movie Warm Bodies “On Demand”?

Like the book, the movie, as social commentary, suggests the modern-secular self is already largely zombie.  Early in the story, 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.

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 foot bridge.  And all the songs we hear from his record collection are about missing someone.

The connection issue is shown in 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, the young people 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.

This is where I think the movie takes a significantly different approach to the cure than does the book.  In the book, romantic love is metonymy; it 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 surprising in that Hollywood movies usually 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 over come death?  I was a little disappointed at this, for it seems like a cheap solution, especially when the book offered romantic love as metonymy, rather than the end in itself.

There was the baptism scene, which might have been a part of a larger whole, but I didn’t see it.

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

Matthew Arnold said as much in his poem, “Dover Beach” (1867).

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

I don’t think Arnold’s answer was any more satisfying then, than it is now.  It is not mere romantic love that will save us.

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.

Warm Bodies: the Book

In Books, Movies and Television on June 11, 2013 at 10:08 am

Warm BodiesYou 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 the it is better than a silly romance which cover seems to suggests.

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 are  zombies.

 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.”

 Besides by our own sin, she thinks the zombie “curse” was a result of “crush[ing] ourselves down over the centuries” (221).   In the last few centuries we have crushed ourselves, indeed all of reality, down into the very small container of the material.  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 an 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?

 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 any more.  While looking at a daisy Julie says, “We don’t even have flowers anymore.  Just crops”  (70).

 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).

Julie 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).

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 it of this salvation, but it’s much bigger than love.  It includes flowers and music and everything else that in which human beings experience something that is good or true or beautiful, something supernatural, spiritual or transcendent.

 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.  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.

The movie made one significant change to the story.  Read my review of the movie.

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

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

Previous zombie posts:

Absence of Authority: Zombies and Hobbes

In Uncategorized on May 3, 2013 at 4:53 am

Zombie - hobbesZombie 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 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.

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.”

The zombies usher in a world where this third group invokes 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).  But 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 “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

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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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Zombies ‘R Us

In Uncategorized on April 17, 2013 at 6:40 am

Zombie r usHopefully, I have made the case that the modern zombie is a monster for our time.  Like all monsters, they challenge cultural identity, but these are our monsters—our identity.

They are completely immanent; they possess no transcendent ability or power; they transgress immanent categories including between the self and the abject.  They rip our bodies apart, reminding us of our own immanence, and they kill us, which in the modern understanding of death is annihilation.

They have no cause that gives them meaning; in fact, they pretty much chew up all traditional valuesThey don’t really represent evil any more than the heroes of Romero’s zombie narratives represent good.  Further, they terrorize our individuality by annihilating it through absorption into the horde.

Zombies are unique in the monster pantheon.  They not only represent the monstrous other.  They also represent the monstrous self; they are a reflection of us—modern selves.

 

Next zombie post: Zombies and Consumer Culture

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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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Traditional Values: Consumed by the Zombie Horde

In Uncategorized on April 4, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Zombie Values goneNot only is it difficult to attribute the term “evil” to this most modern of monsters, it is also difficult to attribute the term “good” to the “heroes” of the zombie movie.  In fact, the primary victim of the zombie horde, is not the humans that battle the undead for survival; the primary victim is “Good” itself.  In Night of the Living Dead, each character seems to offer some gesture toward a source of fullness or a transcendent value, but these are ultimately shown to be meaningless, for in each case the virtue does nothing to improve the condition or survivability of the protagonist.  As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies.

All transcendent values and ambitions are consumed by the zombie horde.

The first victim: religion (and its opposite).  The film begins with siblings Johnny and Barbra making the annual trek to visit their father’s grave. Barbara’s religious devotion and respect for the dead is apparent as she kneels and prays at the graveside.  Her reverence is contrasted by the cynicism and selfishness of Johnny, who complains and mocks his sister’s observance of religious ritual.  A man lurches toward the pair and attacks Barbara.  Johnny defends her but is seemingly killed in the struggle when his head strikes a gravestone.  That Johnny is the first victim “could be taken as a dispensation of justice: Johnny pays for being a self-centered, materialistic, cynical non-believer.”  But Barbara’s initial survival does little more that insure she “will face a much more horrible and ironic fate at the hands of the undead” (Waller 282).  In the meantime, Barbara flees, pursued by the strange man, to a nearby farmhouse where she will eventually be killed.  Christian faith and devotion, then, are clearly shown to be no greater help than mocking disbelief.

As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies.

Christianity and religion are not the only traditional values that fall victim to the undead; the values of collective action, romantic love and the nuclear family are also useless. These traditional values are represented by characters who emerge from the cellar of the farmhouse later in the film.  Tom and Judy, a young couple, represent “sticking together” and romantic love respectively.  Tom’s advocacy for collective action in combating the creatures begins immediately.  When the two other men are heatedly debating their plans for survival, Tom says, “We’d be a lot better off if all three of us were working together” (Night).  His views are shown to be naïve and idealistic, for in the one attempt to work together he is killed and the only hope for escape, the truck, goes up in literal flames.  Romantic love suffers the same fate.  Judy, Tom’s girlfriend, cannot be without her love and runs to be with him as he attempts to fuel the pickup truck.  One of the torches used to hold off the zombies accidently gets into contact with some of the fuel Tom spills.  Tom attempts to move the truck to safety, but it is clear that it is too late.  He jumps free from the vehicle, but Judy’s jacket gets caught.  He jumps back into the truck to rescue her just as it explodes and both are killed.  Rather than being a powerful force of salvation, romantic love leads instead to the death of the young lovers who embody it.  These deaths “serve no purpose,” once again showing that “the real horror of Night of the Living Dead is that there is nothing we can do that will make any difference at all” (Dillard [in American Horrors] 28).

Whatever the living do in the film . . . the result is the same: death.

The Coopers represent the nuclear family.  The Coopers, Harry and Helen and their daughter, Karen, had been hiding in the cellar of the farmhouse with Tom and Judy.  The little girl Karen has been bitten by one of the undead and is feverish and weak.  Barbara, whom the audience associates with a traditional heroine or damsel, saves Helen from the clutches of the undead only to be dragged out the window by her re-animated brother, Johnny.  The family violence continues as Helen stumbles into the cellar only to see her daughter, who has become a zombie, eating her slain husband.  She is defenseless as the little girl attacks and kills her with a cement trowel.

Romero shows that “whatever the living do in the film, whether they are brave or cowardly, rational or hysterical, in love or embittered, the result is the same: death” (Cooke 168).  As a matter of fact, Dillard asserts that “those virtues that have been the mainstay of our civilized history seem to lead to defeat in this film even more surely than the traditional vices” (23).

The monsters aren’t really evil, and values and virtues are really of no good; the next post is about the hero of the zombie narrative.

Next zombie post: Heroism–Not What It Used To Be

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Zombie Films Loss of Fullness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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