MonthApril 2013

Zombies (20): The Human Monster

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Characters in zombie movies fall into just three categories:

  1. the zombies
  2.  the would-be-survivors
  3. the other people who are very bad

In almost every zombie narrative, the boundaries between the human and the monster are blurred.  One of the most significant of these boundaries is between the monsters and the monstrous behavior of the living.

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.  Then everything should be fine, except for one thing.

Internal Threats: The Monster Within

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.

External Threat: The Monstrous Human

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—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).

In AMC’s The Walking Dead, we’ve had all sorts of monstrous humans.  The Governor and Negan were are the two major threats to Rick and his group of would-be-survivors, but there were many more.

The Presence of Evil

An important

Next zombie post: Absence of Authority: Zombies and Hobbes

 

 

Zombies (19): Consumer Culture

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Zombies are unique in the monster pantheon.  Not only do they represent the monstrous other, but they also represent the monstrous self; they are a reflection of us—modern selves.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

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

We've sloughed off the transcendent, and the inadequacy of living only in the immanent has driven us to the mall.Click To Tweet

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.

Romero is explicit; consumer culture is a culture of zombies.

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.

Zombie as Caricature of Consumerism

Zombies are consumers.  Actually, that’s pretty much all they are.  They are continuously on the move with one motivation–to consume.

The consumption of living flesh does nothing for the zombie–it gains no nutritive benefit from eating a thigh, it doesn’t extend its life by eating a brain, it doesn’t slow the process of decomposition through the consumption of a liver.  It is pure consumption–without purpose.  Isn’t this the case for so much of the consumption in the wealthy West?

In the absence of the transcendent, we’ve lost all other purposes.  What is left?  Consumption.  Zombies ask us: is that really all you are?

Next zombie post: The Human Monster

 

Zombies (18): The Death of Herosim

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

I love superhero movies.  I’ve seen all of the Marvel movies, most of them in the theatre.  I like the heroes of literature too–Beowulf, Van Helsing and Aragorn.  I think it’s an essential character trait of every hero that he or she is usually concerned for the wellbeing of others–often to the point of death.

Zombie movies don’t have heroes like that.

Our heroes have changed because we have.

Literary heroes represent ideals and ideas that are valued by a society– self-sacrifice is often one of these ideals, but certainly not the only one.  Like monsters, heroes change to reflect their contemporary cultural context.

The Immanent Hero

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 any of 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.

Heroism in Night of the Living Dead

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: he engages in bickering with Harry; 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.

The Death of Heroism

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).

Ben, the “hero” of #NightoftheLivingDead burns like the great hero Beowulf, but this is no funeral pyre, but a garbage fire instead. In the zombie film, there is little difference between hero and monster. Click To Tweet

Zombies and The Modern Malaise

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: Consumer Culture

Zombies (17): Traditional Values and the Zombie Horde

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

Not only is it difficult to attribute the term “evil” to this most modern of monsters, but 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.

“Night of the Living Dead” and Traditional Values

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.

Religion

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 than ensure 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.

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.

Collective Action

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

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 accidentally 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).

Family Values

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.

In Night of the Living Dead, each character offers a gesture toward a traditional value, but each is shown to be meaningless. As each character falls into the clutching hands of the undead, so too does the value he or she embodies. Click To Tweet

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: The Death of Heroism

 

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