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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?