MonthMarch 2013

Zombies (16): Loss of Fullness

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Experiences of Fullness

I 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.

It’s called “fullness”–a sense that life is “fuller, richer, deeper more worthwhile, more admirable, more than what it should be”

(Charles Taylor, Secular Age 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.

Sources of Fullness

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).

Zombies call “Bulls**t” on fullness

Zombies movies have three basic characters.  The zombies, bad guys, the would-be survivors.

Zombies don’t experience fullness because they lack consciousness.  In one sense, zombies are a mirror image of humanity if the material secularists are right.  Taylor says, that even if they are right, fullness still might be experienced within immanence.  Romero’s zombies call bullshit on that.

Well, what about the living?  Can’t they experience it?

I doubt if the bad guys experience fullness, it is never presented because the point of view is from the perspective of the would-be survivors.   This is the only place where we might glimpse it.  Some zombie narratives soften the zombie apocalypse be delivering meaningful moments celebrating family or friendship or loyalty or courage, but these are not necessarily fullness.  And George Romero doesn’t even give us these.  He rejects any source of fullness, whether immanent or transcendent; he denies fullness altogether.

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 and the Zombie Horde

Zombies (15): Not evil, just hungry

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Zombies function in many ways like a traditional monster in that they represent otherness–they are the opposite of how we like to think of ourselves.  They are also monsters in that they interrogate boundaries by challenging the categories we take as certain and sure.

Unlike many monsters on our literary past, the zombie is not evil.

Traditional movies in the horror genre present a fairly simple morality.  Often it is the monster that embodies evil.  Other times, the monster is a creation of an evil scientist or sorcerer, but the representative of evil is pretty clear, as is that of the good.

Unlike many monsters on our literary past, the zombie is not evil.Click To Tweet

If evil is no longer a thing . . .

In zombie narratives, as in Modern secularism, because there is no transcendent source of morality, the categories of good and evil are not as clearly defined as they were in the past.  The monsters are not evil in the traditional sense, nor does the hero represent an ideal to which we can aspire.

The zombie monster is hard to classify morally.  It is difficult to say that zombies are evil because they lack the conscious will we usually require for the attribution of the term.  Film critic, Robin Wood points out that one of the main differences between zombies and the monsters in the horror genre that preceded them is that they are “not burdened with those actively negative connotations (‘evil incarnate,’ etc.)” (102).  To bear such a label would link it to some transcendent category.

In the zombie films of the voodoo era, there was a clear source of evil, but it wasn’t the undead.  In these films, the zombies were mere tools in the hands of an evil sorcerer, but since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, one of the defining characteristics of the zombie horde is that it has no leader.  There is no authority or power, no longer any villain bent on some evil purpose who controls them.

In his book Heroes and Villains, Mike Alsford says that villains “generally seek a law unto themselves. They usually have as their primary goal, power over others, world domination, control of the entire universe or, in some really ambitious instances, godhood (96).

This was very much the model for villainy in the pre-Romero zombie films like White Zombie, in which the evil Legendre turns corpses into zombies to work in his sugar mill, and worse, zombifies another man’s fiancé so as so as to possess her, body and soul.

But in modern zombie films, there is no villain that fits Alsford’s description.  In The Night of the Living Dead “the diseased, instinct-driven automatons walk the earth without a leader.  They need no master to seduce new recruits or to direct their assault on normality” (Waller 280).

Zombies are not evil

The zombies are leaderless, but they are also, more or less, motiveless.

Frankenstien’s monster sought inclusion in community, Count Dracula was driven by conquest, but the zombie’s motivation is far baser.

Alsford says that villains are motivated by “the desire to dominate, to subsume the other within the individual self and that without compunction. . . .  The villain uses the world and the people in it from a distance, as pure resource” (Alsford 120).

Although this characterization of true villainy seems to describe the zombie horde, the word “desire” is too strong for the undead found in Night of the Living Dead, where we find more of a compulsion than desire; desire implies a self with at least an emotional if not spiritual longing.

Zombies are not driven by any such motive—not revenge or the quest for power, not even the desire to destroy for the sake of destruction—but by the most immanent of motives: hunger. The living dead simply

“eat warm flesh, a fact that Romero graphically records and never allows us to forget. . . .   Romero’s living dead tear at their food and devour it like starving animals to whom all of existence is only a matter of hunting for food and eating” (Waller 276).

Zombies are thus not evil in the same sense that monsters always have been.  They reveal that without the transcendent, there is no longer room for evil as a motivating force—these monsters are simply hungry, and who can fault them for that?  The monsters are, again, a reflection of modern selves, for in neither the monster, nor the modern self can we clearly identify the source of evil–it is a category we no longer recognize.

Next Zombie post: Zombie Films and a Loss of Fullness

 

Zombie (14): The Horde

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An individual zombie is almost no threat to any healthy adult. It can be easily outrun or dispatched by a decent blow to the head. What makes zombies a threat is that there are so many of them and their bite results in the absorption of their victims into the horde.

This is a super monstrous way to go for the Modern self.  This is because we are so incredibly individualistic.  We are so individualistic, we have no idea how individualistic we are.

Isn’t Individualism normal?

Individualism is the idea that the individual’s life belongs to him He can live it as he sees fit.  The individual is sovereign, an end in himself.  We assume our individuality, but we didn’t always think this way.

The groups to which we belonged used to have something to say about how we lived our lives.  Collectivism is the idea that the individual is a member of a community and he must sacrifice his values and goals for the group’s “greater good.” In collectivism, the group is the end.

Before the Enlightenment, people were concerned with the idea of honour–and not individual honour, for honour was usually conferred collectively.  A shift occurred in the Enlightenment when ideas of honour were replaced with notions of the dignity of all human beings. Dignity replaced honour.

In the late-eighteenth century, the idea of universal dignity was complemented with the idea that each of us has a particular way of being human.   Do you see the germ of individualism there?  Thus, it became “important to find and live out one’s own [humanity], as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or previous generations, or religious or political authority” (475).

The 1960s as the “hinge moment” (476) where this individuation became mainstream. Significantly, it was in this decade that the first modern zombie movie was released. Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead(1968) are monstrous in that they attack this new understanding of the individual.

The basic thing here is that Individualism and Collectivism are two points on a continuum.  Cultures fall in between them somewhere.  Our culture is a long way down the Individualism end of the continuum and is moving closer all the time.

Our collective Modern identity is that we are a group composed of autonomous individuals.  As we became more individualistic, our monsters have become more collective.

Historically, our monsters have usually been solitary: Grendel, Satan, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dracula, Injun Joe. This changed in the 20th century, especially after Second World War. Click To Tweet

“I’m out of ammo . . .”

The zombie horde absorbs the individual into a mindless collective.

This characteristic of the zombie makes it ideally suited to terrorize our contemporary society. They attack in large numbers and overwhelm their victims by sheer weight of numbers. The horde absorbs individuality.

Significantly, it was in this decade that the first modern zombie movie was released. Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968) are monstrous in that they attack this new understanding of the individual.

The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context.Click To Tweet

In an age when the dignity of all human beings translates into the importance to being true to oneself, a zombie’s bite obliterates that unique self. The zombie horde is a mass in which all individuality has been eradicated; it is an ironic caricature of the “mass phenomenon” of modern individualism.

There are small differences between zombies, like clothing or “degree of putrefaction,” but these “only exacerbate their similarity, since they are markers which refer to the state of their corpse when they died, not anything that has been chosen to create individuality since reanimation” (Cooke 167).

We are committed to radical individualism, but zombies question that commitment.

The bite of the zombie means an imposed conformity that bases identity, not on uniqueness, but on context. This is yet another source of horror that the zombie horde embodies for the modern self, who considers itself, above all things, autonomous.

Next Zombie Post: Not Evil, Just Hungry

Zombies (13): Are Funny

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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)

Funny Ha Ha

Zombies are funny because they “lack coordination and intelligence,” so they are frequently victims of “simple slapstick, physical gags” (Paffenroth 14).

How often have we seen “funny” zombie scenes in AMC’s The Waling Dead?

  • The Hanging Zombie:  A guy commits suicide by hanging himself from a tree.  He even leaves a suicide not: “Got bit. Fever hit. World gone to Shit. Might as well quit.” His reanimated corpse dangles from the tree futilely attempting to get at Andrea.
  • Screwdriver Zombie (I have the bobblehead of this guy)–walks around with a screwdriver protruding from his eye socket.
  • Well Zombie–you know what I’m talking about.  GROSS!
  • It’s raining zombies! — zombies drop through the ceiling of a supermarket’s rotted roof.

  • Play Doh Fun Factory Zombie — a zombie is pressed against the chain link fence by a massive horde–I don’t need to describe the effect.

Ironically Funny

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.

Gallows Humour

The humour inherent in zombie narratives enables a distancing between ourselves and a reality that would perhaps be too much to bear.Click To Tweet

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.

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