CategoryZombies

Zombies (18): The Death of Herosim

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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

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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

 

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.

Zombies (12): Invasion of Privacy

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The type of death one can expect from a zombie is nothing if not intimate.  They use no secondary object, like a knife or even a rock.  They use only their own teeth and hands.  Victims are frequently shown having their abdomens violated by a group of zombies who proceed to then put the vitals into their mouths.  Like I said—intimate.

In our culture we resist intimacy.  There was a time when servants would bathe and dress their betters, but nowadays we have a hard time carrying on a conversation with someone standing next to us at the urinal.

Charles Taylor observes that our culture is characterized by a “withdrawal from certain modes of intimacy, as well as taking a distance from certain bodily functions” (Taylor 137).  Taylor cites the work of Norbert Elias in his book, The Civilizing Process, where he describes a shift involving a “steady raising of the threshold of embarrassment, one might even say, disgust” (Taylor 138).  Where once people were advised not to blow one’s nose in the tablecloth, we now insist on leaving the table to perform the same act.

We are uncomfortable with intimate connections to others.  It is the convention that bodily functions are not even mentioned.  How much more offensive is the disembowelment and consumption of entrails witnessed regularly in a zombie film.

Clearly, this is a monstrous affront to our modern sensibilities.

 

Next zombie post: Zombies are Funny

 

Zombies (11): Modern Monster, Modern Death

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Jaime Russell claims that the ultimate meaning of the zombie is as “a symbol of mankind’s most primitive anxiety: the fear of death” (8).

Well, our primitive fear is our modern fear and the zombie forces the modern self to face it.

Death is persistent and there is nothing we can do to stop it from getting us eventually.  One of the strategies of we modern people to deal with the fact of death is to just not think about it.  But we are also fascinated by it in zombie movies.

The persistence of the zombie personifies the inevitability of death and thus augments our fear of mortality.Click To Tweet

Simon Pegg, co-writer, director and actor of Shaun of the Dead, explains that zombies

are death and they will get you in the end. We could all be in a room now with one and quite happily walk round and round the room and he’d never get you because he’d just be stumbling along. But eventually you’d have to go to sleep and when you did, he’d eat you. There’s just something really eerie about that (Russell 183).

Death’s persistence has always been with us, so this characteristic of the zombie isn’t what makes it a uniquely a modern monster.  Almost all monsters kill us, it’s like their thing, but it’s just not the killing bit that is the problem these days—it’s the death.

Death in the Modern Sense

Zombies do not just deliver death, but they also embody death as we understand death in the modern world.

Like all monsters in the history of human storytelling, the zombie kills its victims, but the threat of death’s inevitability is more significant when one lives in a reality without the transcendent. In this context, life is equivalent to biological life.

Without any future beyond this world, the zombie horde represents to modern man an “ambulatory mass grave” and as such is “both a reminder of the inevitability of death and an affront to [modern man’s] belief in its finality” (Russell 69).

Unlike preceding centuries, in the modern materialist universe, death is final. It is not, as in the past, a transition through which one passes, but a permanent state of non-being.

Like all monsters in the history of human storytelling, the zombie kills its victims, but the threat of death’s inevitability is more significant when one lives in a reality without the transcendent.  In this context, life is equivalent to biological life.

Without any future beyond this world, the zombie horde represents to modern man an “ambulatory mass grave” and as such is “both a reminder of the inevitability of death and an affront to [modern man’s] belief in its finality” (Russell 69).  Unlike preceding centuries, in the modern materialist universe, death is final. It is not, as in the past, a transition through which one passes, but a permanent state of non-being.

The zombie articulates a profound—and profoundly modern—shift from older cultural attitudes about death: “the process of dying no longer means the conveyance of our eternally unchanging soul to another, more timeless realm; rather, death becomes a state we inhabit within our own earthly vessels, something we become rather than somewhere we go” (Muntean 83).

In the zombie narrative, the undead are the agents and the bodily representation of this “becoming.”

Next zombie post: Zombies and Intimacy

Zombies (10): The Horror of the Body

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The zombies are an abject horror in themselves, but what they do to their victims is even more horrifying.  Spurting blood and biting of flesh, and the ingestion of slippery entrails and bloody organs, are staples of the zombie genre.   The zombie film exploits the fear that, in the absence of any transcendent meaning, we are nothing but vulnerable, and soon to be dead, flesh.

The zombie film exploits the fear that, in the absence of any transcendent meaning, we are nothing but vulnerable, and soon to be dead, flesh.Click To Tweet

Stephan Asma describes how modern horror focuses on “the subjective revulsion and terror of the flesh.” 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.  In his analysis of Night of the Living Dead, Jaime Russell explains 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 viewers 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 scary idea, indeed.

Next Zombie post: Modern Monster. Modern Death

Zombies (9): Why are zombies so disgusting?

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

According to the theorists, identity–that which is us–is understood in relation to the Other–that which is not us.  The boundaries between the two are important in understanding the self.  These boundaries are clarified through challenges.  That’s where monsters come in.  They cross these lines as if to us to ask, “Where do I end and where does the Other begin?”

The Victorian wolfman, for example, transgressed the boundaries between human and animal in order challenge and perhaps clarify the boundary between these categories.  At that time, one of the challenges to the collective identity came from the ideas in books like Darwin’s Origin of the Species.  What is a human being?

The Abject–Julia Kristeva

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 because they transgress the boundary between the self and other–they are in between 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 revulsion.

Julia 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 identities 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 establishment of boundaries between that which is the self and that which is not the self.  It starts with the individual beginning to a distinction between the self and the body of her mother.  For this to happen, the person pushes away from the other.

Anything that is between the self 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 are disgusting--open wounds, fluids running out of their orifices, and what’s that stuck in his teeth, a piece of Barbara? Zombies generate revulsion in the viewing audience because they evoke the fear of the abject.Click To Tweet

Zombies are Abject

Two things are necessary for zombies to elicit revulsion as falling under the category of the abject.

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 with 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 them being dead, and by their resultant state of decay and the bodily fluids they ooze and spew.  Thus, the zombie “disturbs identity, system, [and] order. [It] does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4).  The zombie is, therefore, abject.

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.

The Modern secular self assumes it is simply physical.  The zombie forces us to face the implications of this belief.  It is purely physical, purely biological–and totally disgusting.  This is unsettling.  This is what monsters do.

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.

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