Zombie!: A Monster for the Masses, or: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Brother, Because the Revolution Will Be… Dead(?).1
I. Fear of the Other is Fear of Yourself.
The telos is perhaps fate’s greatest joke on the human condition. We only seem finally and totally to become ourselves, to achieve an absolute and stable identity, in retrospect of the end of selfhood, in life’s loneliest moment—the hour of our death. In death we are finalized, defined, eulogized, our lives read like a book; in death we are open for revision, but are usually without sequel. Only in death do we finally, totally, and unarguably become exactly who we are (were?), carved in stone—a headstone that is. Artistically speaking, a perfected and stable identity may be what lures the Gothic imagination to all of the various forms of the undead: ghosts, vampires, mummies, and, most importantly for our purposes here, zombies.
Zombies are the dead themselves, live and in person, and therefore complete, so totally who they are (once were?) that the films about them have to remind us: “These are not your loved ones. They will not respond as such.”2 Because zombies are both dead (not like us) and walking around (just like us), zombies may be the best imaginative projection of our cultural encounter with death and death’s role in our feelings about who we are. Zombies represent a bare minimum of our humanity as well as its completeness, the utter lack of excess, the thrifty economy of death. Zombies also hint at death’s other truth, at its total inimical alterity to life as well as to the living. A glassy-eyed zombie lumbering past may even tap into the deepest human dread of all, the fear that the dead might not give a tinker’s cuss about us, the living. My God, they might even mistake us for food! Zombies, however, are a late Gothic invention. So let’s go back to the beginnings of the Gothic tradition to see how individuality, anxiety, and death finally came to stalk the silver screen in the form of a gray-faced extra from Pittsburgh, PA. Then we’ll return to now, and see just how it is that “the revolution” turned into the conformity of death.
Considering the conundrum of identity’s solidity resting mainly upon death, it’s no wonder that the literary Gothic, the poetics most concerned with death and the macabre, should also be full of duplicitous and transformative myths of identity—doubles, transformations, changelings, deviants, deformities, ant-like super conformists, veils, mutilations, masks, and genetic mutations of all shapes, sizes and various levels of permeability, and, of course, the various forms of the living dead. Even the straight men (mostly female) of Gothic productions often measure their own pubescent transformations against these mutating bogeymen (occasionally women and, in film particularly, often simply things) and therefore Gothic plots usually deal metaphorically with the adolescent’s terrifying transformation into the semi-monstrous state of adulthood.
In the earliest Gothic romances the process of transformation usually began with abandonment and/or betrayal when our protagonist was orphaned and then kidnapped or sent away to school—usually due to the cruelty or stupidity of an importunate aunt or stepmother. During the course of her adventures, the Gothic heroine learns to measure her sexuality, her individuality, and a newfound, forced independence, against the larger-than-life corrupt noblemen, oversexed clergy, or wicked stepmothers that populate a pseudo-medieval world of sublime landscapes and underground passages which constantly threaten her virginity and/or her life. Indeed, as has been pointed out ad nauseum by critics, what Moers and Williams3 have dubbed “the female Gothic romance” does indeed look like an interesting if fairly pedestrian set of Freudian indicators waffling between the terror of incest and the forbidden desires of the Electra complex.4
The eighteenth century literary enterprise known as the Gothic romance leads us directly to (what else) that dastardly, late Victorian figure of living death, the vampire. His monstrosity is an elaboration of everything that the eighteenth century Gothic romance promised, feared, and deferred: he is male, foreign, noble, oversexed, powerful and, in line with the ever more intense movement of Gothic into greater morbidity and terror, he’s dead too. The vampire is therefore completely him- or herself, a total identity, an id without a superego, desire in its purest state: “I vahnt to suck your blud.” Although Bela Lugosi never actually said any such thing on celluloid, all vampire movies scream this message loud enough through six reels for us to hear that mittle-European lilt loud and clear.
“I vahnt to suck your blud.” We’re afraid that he will, but we also have to wonder what it would be like—he’s rich after all—and maybe we even want him to try. Maybe, just maybe, we’d enjoy having our blood sucked. Percy Shelley called this attraction/repulsion “the tempestuous loveliness of terror” and this particularly macabre mixing of fear and desire is where the Gothic romance as a form (a hybrid somewhere between the realistic novel and the fantastic medieval romance), the ubiquitous lovey-dovey romance of its hero and heroine, and the Romantic Movement in literature converge. Eighteenth century Gothic romances featured all three of these aspects of the word “romance,” the episodic form of a romance narrative, a love story, and the passion, morbidity, and exoticism of the English Romantic movement in literature.
The run-of-the-mill romance narrative presents an episodic tale of lovers separated and journeying through various adventures in order to be reunited at their tale’s end. Romances, in focusing on a couple, show us two individualities during the key moment of pubescent transformation and the eventual coupling that prefaces both a new family unit and the end of their story as the adolescent characters of a Romance. In so doing romances create an individualistic, even elitist narrative, which dissipates when the characters come together to form a social unit, a family. (Mutual consent may be ideal in actual relationships, but it lacks the conflict necessary for a good story—and anyway, no monsters.) The original Gothic romance is therefore individualistic, as are post-Romantic Gothic texts like the novel Frankenstein or Edgar Allan Poe’s tales. These later, second generation, and more fallo-centric nineteenth-century Gothic productions, emphasize the plight of certain damned loners such as mad scientists or hemophiliac nobleman—the products of too much education and the moral decadence and sometimes incestuous breeding habits of their class—but the logic of transformation remains the same: late Gothic anti-heroes always manage to create monstrous doubles of themselves, hyperbolic representations of their own individuality and difference. The monstrous doublings of Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Roderick Usher perhaps also suggest that romantic coupling itself—what the heroes and heroines of early Gothic romances do in order to survive, and what the teenagers in slasher films do to deserve their slaughter—is also a strange kind of pubescent doubling, an important way of mirroring ourselves as we transform into adults.
The original monstrous loners and later classic horror film heavies such as Count Dracula are born out of a transformative adolescent imagination and the anxieties of the age in which they were created: the violence of the French and American revolutions, the coalescing of the English national identity, the triumph of Protestantism and the demonization of Catholicism, the strict moral codes of Edwardian and Victorian sexual comportment in England and their libidinous backlash in the form of prostitution and the syphilis epidemic of the late nineteenth century. The monsters of Gothic romances are therefore feudal noblemen, Italian, Spanish, Greek or Rumanian, often Monks or mother superiors, always reprobate and often downright nasty. Rising out of the bourgeois milieu of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the original Gothic romance (and later novel) feared all that was outside of its own political, social, religious and moral norms and seemed progressive in its attack on the older feudal and Catholic norms of Latinate continental Europe. If the heavies in these romances were retrograde demons from the past, the Gothic heroes’ victories also represented the triumphs of England’s own progressive forms of law, state, etiquette, morality, and religion.
It’s no wonder that, in a later stage of Gothic writing, as the industrial revolution and England’s colonization/violent domination of a good portion of the globe became the new cultural norms, a new series of monsters rose from the anxieties of the Victorian Bourgeoisie to populate the imaginary Gothic world. These late Victorian monsters represented a fear not of the past, but the return of another kind of repression. Monsters such as the manimals of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, science and good breeding’s beastly twin Mr. Hyde, Svengali and a whole host of his filmic brethren (mesmerists from the turbaned east), rose in the Gothic genre to represent the beastly working classes or the subjugated world of England’s eastern colonies to further lower the standards of egalitarian Gothic mythologies. Finally this dark literary poetics turned again to death itself in order to create a monster of, for, and by the people. If Dracula—king of the vampires—had once represented the pure postmortem desire of all that nineteenth century English bourgeois culture had feared from the once noble past that it had overthrown (killed off) with its modernization, what did it fear from below as it hypocritically divided the world up into colors and re-justified the outmoded political economy of slavery and exploitation?
The answer (in the form of a monster) came, appropriately enough, from Haiti. This is appropriate because Haiti has a unique status as the first European colony featuring slavery as its primary economic system to see its slaves rise up in rebellion and win both their freedom and independence for their state. If Gothic productions are about anxiety and difference, what better reverse mirror-image could the nineteenth century European nation-state cast than an independent Caribbean slave-dependent ex-colony become their nominal equal, a sovereign state with a black African face? The Haitian zombie also rises out of the very dialectic of slavery, the power struggle between the will of the master and the will of the slave. Who else is the perfect slave, if not a worker without desire or a will of his or her own? …Or those who, through the ritual of burial, have lost that so-recently perfected identity created by life’s completion, the soulless zombie who follows the zombie master’s will and works in the sugar refinery for nothing, not even food?5
The most mysterious and confounding axiom of Gothic poetics has always been how its figures of difference and anxiety grown large are, at the same time, our own familiar mirror images. It seems that what we fear most always turns out to be ourselves—or at least what we secretly, perhaps guiltily, aspire to become. Perhaps this is because we fear our own role in creating our individuality in the form of a fixed identity, our own self-fashioned telos—for, once created, surely we cannot change it (that is, ourselves). We want to be so many things that being any one of them might effectively thwart other, as yet unformulated desires. What progressive nineteenth century English Church of England bourgeois parliamentarian bank clerk did not secretly wish to be a despotic Medieval Italian Catholic nobleman turned adventurer, murdering and raping his way through hard times as a bandito?
Despite such an axiom applied to Imperial Great Britain, the UK never fully embraced the Haitian ex-slave colony as an important cultural other as far as I know. Apparently, Haiti just wasn’t familiar enough to be a perfect other for the Europeans who tended, in literature particularly, to differentiate themselves from their own colonists.6 But another, newly independent European colony, the Unites States of America, has certainly felt the pull of the Haitian zombie as our horrific twin and its own monstrously dead other self.
II. Dead If You Do, Dead If You Don’t.
Beyond the telos’ role in the formation of the identities to which we so self-righteously cling, the second biggest joke on our philosophies, Horatio, is our conception of ourselves as Americans. The willful surrender of our individuality to the state, to a subculture, to a political identity, to a concept of race or a religious sect is, in and of itself, transformative and therefore monstrous. If Gothic teaches us anything, it is this: the combined desire of any collective seeks to subsume all individuality or difference into the collective or to violently dominate and destroy all that which it cannot assimilate. This logic lies behind the modern cinematic zombie, the logic of the collective and the revolutionary urge, which is nothing other than a new attempt at a kind of radical reorganization of homogeneity. Give me liberty or give me (un-)death!7
“What are they?” asks the beleaguered, machine-gun toting heroine of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). “They’re us—only dead” is the reply provided her and us as the camera pans across a crowd of zombies pounding on the glass doors of a shopping mall in a futile effort to get inside. We the people: that is to say, us perfected. The zombie plague film which Romero’s Night of the Living Dead initiates, therefore, throws us back at ourselves as finalized identities, as walking fashion statements without the power of reason or speech, our clothes hollowly displaying our self-conceptualizations as nun, weekend ballplayer, white-sweatered suburban dad, Hari Krishna, nurse—in Dawn all of these identities and more are reduced to grey-faced flesh-eating mall rats.
Since the 1950’s these uniforms of collective and assimilated individual identities have provided the image of the American cinematic zombie.8 Dawn’s shuffling suburban undead are “we the people of the United States of America” in the form of our own imaginary collectivity, in a fixed plurality of sameness—shoppers, workers, invaders, carnivores, and, above all, conformists. The cinematic zombie represents our culture’s fear of itself as a culture, a culture of conformity, or at least our fear of the conformity necessary in order to form a culture—as well as the violent all-consuming nature of adopting a collective identity. The dead, as Romero discovered in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead MUST eat the living. They have to destroy the living in order to insure their new and absolutely homogeneous plurality—as well as the living’s annoying habit of slipping out of collective identities and actually reconstructing themselves as individuals within the flexibility of time.
Finally making the dialectic of conformity and collectivity an explicit part of a zombie opus, Romero’s latest, Land of the Dead (previously and perhaps better titled Dead Reckoning—although Land of the Dead nicely echoes America’s new favorite self-definition from “America the Beautiful” as “land of the free”), opens with small town or suburban America in all of its familiar aspects except that the inhabitants are rotting. Significantly, it’s also night-time, rather than the traditional small-town summer Sunday afternoon, late nineteenth century. A gas station attendant mans the pumps, a teenage couple strolls hand in hand, and old geezers set up under a gazebo and play boring music. The above-mentioned conversation from Dawn of the Dead is reprised as two living marauders from “the city” marvel at the zombies’ attempts to “act like us,” to be our mirror.
No wonder that our American soil has been the most fecund for the zombie film; the USA is a land obsessed with individuality and collectivity, and often a kind of bizarre individuality-in(?) or individuality-of conformity. This, I believe, is the great American assumption: we seem to believe that our conformity to the collectivity stems from and even protects our constitutionally assured right to be individuals—exactly what we often sacrifice in order to protect the idea of our collective identity as “free” Americans inhabiting the land of the dead (uh, land of the free). Like its more affluent undead kinsman, the vampire, zombies in movies operate on the level of collective rather than individual desire and seek mainly to eliminate all difference (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”) in favor of total assimilation and conformity to the purest of all collective identities, that of being dead. They not only want to kill us, but eat us as well.9
In Land of the Dead, however, the new twist is that the dead, in their tender, child-like aping of the day-to-day business of living, are suddenly somehow sympathetic. While the living heroes and villains of the film follow their typically filmic paths of heroism, egotism, wrong, revenge and counter-revenge, the zombies, with far more dignity, simply are. They walk. They’re coming. They eat whoever gets in their way—and we’re usually thankful: one less annoyingly delusional living character. And, ah-ha(!), these delusional characters are rather familiar. There’s the rich one who lives in a concrete/ivory tower, runs everything, and declares, “We do not negotiate with terrorists.” There’s the terrorist who’s learned his métier by working (killing) for the guy in charge. He only really wants to get an apartment in the tower. Rejected entry into the club, he threatens to “Whip a Jihad on” the rich guy. Fun stuff—almost as simple-minded, wrong, and funny as actual political rhetoric.
And the punch line is… The surprise ending is… We’ve been waiting all this time for the American Revolution and it’s been dogging us day in and day out for some time. It wasn’t a violent revolution for economic, political, racial, or even gender equality. It wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t televised either (well, perhaps it was, in a way), and now, finally, George Romero has revealed its inner truth to us. The revolution happens whenever we give ourselves over absolutely to a political ideal. I believe that, willfully or not, we have already done so. The American Revolution, I’m sorry to say—and I do think that this is going to hurt so sit down—the American Revolution (like so many other revolutions) has turned out to be mere conformity. It’s not pretty. It stinks. That’s why the living characters call the dead ones “stenches” throughout Land of the Dead. The film’s zombies are rotting in their simple individuality-less American-ness, their hollow gestures, their sheer numbers. Their only desire is to eat everything that is not what they are.
The only people in this film worse than the endless, glassy-eyed and personality-less zombies who still manage to be sympathetic(!) and who seem only to want to be left alone, are the living characters. In the midst of a zombie plague of overwhelming proportions they’re still playing at ambition, domination, war, and revenge. Like most politically-minded people, the living fall into the ubiquitous delusion that to achieve anything of value one must win the game. These particular games—politics, war, banking, business, insurance—are evil because their very frivolity deprives so many of us of our means and our lives through bureaucratic alienation, exploitation, and institutionalized forms of violence such as policing and warfare. For somebody to win, somebody MUST lose. This is the Gothic double-bind of monstrous identity all over again and the dead end that Romero’s fabulous zombie tetrology has finally reached.
III. After the cataclysm, an uneasy equality of difference.
Land concludes with two marches: the living trudge out of their invaded city to who knows where and the zombies just trudge. It looks like a military conquest, the conquered refugees leaving a decimated city, the nervous conquerors awkward, afraid, far from home, unsure of their right to dominate, taking out their frustrations on the conquered, and the non-living dead lying around uselessly. The hero of the film, the only character to defend human life and individual worth throughout, faced with this moving tableau, abruptly decides to stop killing zombies. The real revolution perhaps lies in this gesture, in giving up on the game, in learning that the means condition the ends—that to achieve anything through bloodshed leaves it bloodstained and loaded with the potential for continued institutional violence: guerrilla warfare, prison abuse, terrorism, the never-ending racist bureaucratic and legal exploitation of the conquered, etc. etc.
Romero has said that the concept of Dead Reckoning (his original script for Land) was “Ignoring the problem.” When I first heard this statement, well before the film was released, I assumed that he meant to present a group of living characters who were attempting to ignore the zombie plague outside of their city. And, while this is partially the set-up of Land, (yeah, they do live in an ivory tower—well, the rich ones do) there’s a deeper conundrum here that complicates a theme present in many of Romero’s films. This reoccurring theme is the difficulty in getting a group of people to subsume their various individualities (beliefs, interests, desires, etc.) into a group when dealing with the crisis of a sudden and deadly external threat. This theme is present in Night of the Living Dead, The Crazies, Dawn of the Dead,Knightriders (to a lesser extent), as well as Day of the Dead. Land, however, seems to focus more pointedly on the flipside of this problem: Romero here presents the disturbing fact that those who do successfully subsume their identities in order to achieve the goal of survival in a crisis situation, the revolutionaries, seem only capable of erecting another, even more virulent, and considerably blander, status quo. Just as the original Gothic monsters pointed to the double-bind of individuality by portraying it as a form of monstrosity which is both seductively powerful but also totally alienating, so Romero’s flesh-eating zombies show us the true horror of our collectivity as well as the evil of those who exploit national, racial, and class collectivities for personal gain. And revolution? Conformity to a collective ideological ideal? Apparently, we’re dead if we do and dead if we don’t.
1. With apologies to Gil Scott-Heron, one of America’s greatest poets.
2. If memory serves, I believe this line is spoken by a scientist being interviewed on TV in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, 1978.
3. Ellen Moers coined the phrase in LiteraryWomen (W. H. Allen, 1977) and Anne Williams defined and explored it wonderfully in Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Univ. of Chicago P., 1995).
4. The tradition of Electra/fear-of-incest Gothic begins with Gothic literature itself in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, even though the text is written by a male author; comes to full fruition in the fine romances of Ann Radcliffe; and enters the realm of the truly sublime with Jane Eyre.
5. Romero had hoped to exploit the similarity between zombies and soldiers in his original script for Day of the Dead in which the living organized the zombies into armies. Budgetary constrains forced him to scrap these scenes although the themes of training zombies to do what we want them to do and the horrors of immoral militarism are certainly still in the finished film.
6. The only classic text that I can think of that makes use of zombification as a motif is Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, a novel which criticizes English literature’s skirting around imperialism as well as the marginalization of European colonists within traditional English society.
7. Pierre Clastres argues in The Archeology of Violence that the formation of such an imaginary collective homogeneity lies at the root of both our political formulation of the modern nation state and provides the basis for our particularly human, institutionalized forms of violence such as correction, slavery, and war.
8. The visual tradition of the everyman zombie begins with the aliens-resurrecting-the-dead-to-form-a-cheap-army sub-genre of the 1950’s sci-fi invasion film. Invisible Invaders, Plan Nine from Outer Space and even Invasion of the Body Snatchers feature zombies of this type.
9. Cannibalism often seems to stem from a logic of post-mortem societal integration. The Tafur, for example, a notorious sect of radical Christian warriors, ate many Muslims prisoners who refused to be converted in the Holy Land during the first crusade. They seem to have believed that they could posthumously convert the Muslims to the Christian faith in a kind of de-symbolized reverse re-enactment of the Eucharist.