The Thrill of It All

Michael Newton

  • Zombies: A Cultural History by Roger Luckhurst
    Reaktion, 224 pp, £16.00, August 2015, ISBN 978 1 78023 528 8

In Brussels in 2008 I stumbled on my first zombie apocalypse. I was with some friends when we came across a large assembly of the amateur undead lurching up the boulevard towards us. My friends’ toddler staggered towards the zombies; the zombies staggered towards him. Soon they were among us. Blood congealed around eye sockets; cuts slashed down cheeks; eyes whited out. One cadaverous Belgian lurched towards me, unfastening his jaws as if to take a mouthful. I wondered how far the play-acting would go. What if this man really thinks he’s a zombie? He snapped out a faux-bite, gnashed for a bit near my shoulder, and tottered off. We laughed nervously, while the toddler gazed wide-eyed at the retreating backs of the zombie herd, heading off to terrorise the Grand Place.

‘I Walked with a Zombie’
‘I Walked with a Zombie’

I’ve come across a couple of zombie invasions since then. There’s aggression in the ugliness, a confrontational indecorousness and it’s hard to know how to respond to it. Should bystanders laugh and enjoy the spectacle? Admire the effort put into the faked injuries and signs of death? Run for cover? Out on the street, the zombie is a baffling manifestation. Yet in another sense there’s nothing puzzling about this fashion for the zombie. They’re everywhere because, allegorically speaking, they stand in for almost anything. In his new cultural history of the zombie, Roger Luckhurst’s problem – and now it’s become mine – is that we always already believe we know what ‘zombie’ means. Zombies are a monster whose subtext is the text, and there’s seemingly little for the critic to disinter: they’re liminal characters; they’re slaves, they’re factory workers; they’re plague victims; they’re Nazis, they’re the ‘Muselmänner’ of Auschwitz; they’re Korean War era Chinese troops, they’re the brainwashed American prisoners of war those Chinese troops captured; they’re consumers, they’re manipulated citizens, they’re us. In mapping these connections, Luckhurst offers a mindful exploration of mindless violence. He is thoroughly well informed, and his writing proves lively and critically astute. It’s hard to imagine a significantly better book on the zombie phenomenon. More than that, however, he exposes just how much we don’t know about zombies, just how unstable and multifarious they are. Luckhurst convincingly demonstrates that, as with its spectral cousin and opposite, the ghost, the zombie exceeds the possibility of interpretation. Very likely both the ghost and the zombie are forces summoned up to allow us to explore something of the mystery of death. Both terrors hover either side of the boundary between fiction and actual belief. Both express the thought that at death some remnant of ourselves is left unaccounted for. In the case of the ghost, it’s something that might be thought to be the equivalent of the soul or the spirit, or simply the memory of the life that’s gone. With the more modish zombie, nothing remains but human remains.

Luckhurst shows that the contemporary zombie always implicitly returns us to the monster’s beginnings among the complex belief-systems of the populations of Haiti and the Antilles. There in ‘the zombi’ (the final ‘e’ was added in the transition to the USA), this creature finds its roots. Luckhurst suggests that its deep origin lies in the experience of slavery, and (in the early 20th century) the return in Haiti to a kind of enslavement signalled by renewed colonial control. From here, Luckhurst traces the path by which the zombi becomes a zombie, and then becomes the lurching cannibal-monster of whom we’re all supposed to be so fond. The original zombi is a necromantic property, the multivalent product of a syncretic religion. Controlled by others, Haitian zombis worked hard – in doing so, they resembled the slaves who once populated the island, experiencing an enchanted version of the compelled work that their ancestors had lived in reality. Zombie films from the 1930s and 1940s, among them Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943), the genre’s eerie, poetic masterpiece, readily display their indebtedness to these island origins.

This local sensation, a part of the economy of beliefs circulating in Haiti and the Antilles, reached the wider world through the intervention of a number of bohemian writers and pulp fiction hacks, such as Lafcadio Hearn and William Seabrook, out to acquire exotic copy and local colour. Their tales are interestingly poised between genres, part Gothic, part anthropological reflection, part travel narrative with colonial pretensions. As part of a book deal, Seabrook touristically set out to sample human flesh with a cannibal cult. Though frustrated in his attempts to do so on site (they only ate monkeys), he finally settled down to his anthropophagous dinner in Paris, with the aid of a friendly, or easily bribed, mortician. The savagery imagined to be out there at the margins of empire had in fact turned out to be an urban European pastime. Via Hearn and Seabrook, the zombie started to appear in the pulp magazines dedicated to horror, unease and thrills. Though the zombies’ heritage may derive from the Caribbean, they have certainly long since ‘gone global’: the film series Resident Evil, one of the most popular manifestations of the zombie, began life as a Japanese video game; the grisliest films in the field are Italian; and there’s now a Bollywood zombie film.

In all these works, the individual’s enemy is the undistinguishable mass, and indeed ever since George Romero it’s en masse that the zombies have come. The zombie has turned into the Malthusian monster, a symbol of over-population and our promised ‘extinction event’, something that will take us from being the swarm overrunning the planet back to the wandering enclosedness of the nomadic tribe. Faced by these defaced creatures, those who wall themselves in come to a sticky end. Beyond the urban sphere the zombie apocalypse promises to take us back to nature; it’s what America’s survivalists are secretly in training for – not least because the post-apocalyptic world may yet seem to them more all-American, more John Wayne, than the current state of the nation.

The zombie genre immerses you in a world of unending threat, where the only human contact is collaboration without closeness, where random cruelty is the rule, and life closes down on you as an experience not only defined by mortality, but overwhelmed by it. There are shades of the Holocaust here, and of the American genocide. The recompense the genre offers for this bleakness is the thrill of it all, the running, the gore, the licensed killing. It would appear that we also like to see everything destroyed, Philadelphia overrun by a zombie army, Atlanta’s skyscrapers burned-out. Anything seems better than a thousand years of Tescos. (Supermarkets loom large in the genre.) That excitement is a powerful thing, but in the end it empties out, leaving you with nothing but the taste of bleakness. Luckhurst argues that in Night of the Living Dead (1968), ‘courage, love and sacrifice – all the noble human virtues – are stamped on and destroyed.’ At the end of that film, the least gruesome but the most uncompromising of Romero’s movies, all the besieged have been slaughtered.

In part the genre’s nihilism springs from what it implicitly understands humanity to be. Zombie movies insinuate that people are just ‘meat machines’, to borrow Marvin Minsky’s phrase about the brain. In the ongoing TV series The Walking Dead, the community of human cannibals learn the mantra, ‘You’re either the butcher or the cattle.’ Why are there no counterparts to Twilight’s ethical vampire, Edward Cullen? Why are there no vegetarian zombies? (Well, undoubtedly there are some somewhere, but if so, they’ve never caught on.) Many zombies don’t merely want food, they want flesh – in the earlier films, human flesh, and lately any kind of flesh. Why, in fact, do zombies eat at all? It can’t be for sustenance, since they’re dead. Is it memory that drives them? If so, it’s a deep, Freudian race-memory, and not a recollection of dinners at The Ivy. It’s never clear if greed compels the zombies, or simple murderousness. They’re more than just hungry, they’re savagely so, snarling, furious, frenzied. Cannibalism is central to the genre because it’s gross, it’s a taboo, it’s a fear and, in some dark, hidden way, it’s a desire. Sometimes, when I watch the more lurid of the zombie films, it seems as though I’ve come vertiginously close to seeing the Dionysiac frenzy embodied, the god torn and rent apart, and consumed by the chorus of revellers. It is crucial somehow that the victims remain conscious as they are torn to bits or chewed up; the death must be as distressing as possible.

Oswald Spengler said, indeed insisted that ‘man is a beast of prey’, adding: ‘I never tire of saying that.’ Zombie movies never tire of it either, plainly enjoying the terror of that insight. The moral message is that it’s, so to speak, a dog eat dog world. The dramatic struggle arises from trying to survive at all, while attempting still to survive as a human being, staying a mensch in a world that has slipped back into the state of nature. To an outsider to the genre, the single most striking element in the zombie movie is its gutsy violence. In particular, the Italian zombie horror movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s (such films as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters of 1979) were works of extravagant nihilism, and soon enough became embroiled in the ‘video nasty’ panic of the period. According to Luckhurst, the Italian horror films derive their ethos from the writing of the American anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who, extrapolating from his work with the Yanomamo, was supposed to have shown that human beings are in essence violent. This thought strikes the vitalising spark in most zombie films. In Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s film 28 Days Later (2002), Christopher Eccleston’s quietly deranged army officer argues that there’s nothing new about the epidemic of rage that has brought Britain down: it’s ‘just people killing people’.

How are we to understand this violence and its effects on us? There are moments of brutality in any zombie film where to identify with the victims on screen becomes excessively agonising; we have to cut our connection to them. We have to choose whether to empathise and suffer our distress in full, or to draw back and tell ourselves it’s only a movie. Naturally enough, this is the perspective of the filmmakers themselves, or so it would seem from my experience of watching the DVD commentaries to these movies. They see the disembowelments, the beheadings, the gougings etc as triumphs of the sculptor’s art, a technical feat on the level of the conjuror’s trick. Yet I cannot help but see it as also something of a regrettable disillusionment. Either we look away, and stop watching altogether, or we watch, but stoically, as though the whole thing were an endurance test we were being put through – hence those ‘I survived The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ badges of the 1970s. We may even simply enjoy the violence as violence, not caring who performs it, just so long as it’s extreme and gory, taking the film as an adrenalin rush, a rollercoaster ride of carnage. We may empathise with the victim self-destructively, enjoying his and our own distress. Or we may switch allegiances, and side not with the victim, but with the killer who (apparently) suffers nothing. It’s a feature of undergraduate essays on film that they routinely celebrate whoever is ‘strongest’ in a film, no matter how wicked or vile that person otherwise is.

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Questions of empathy seem central to the genre. In Day of the Dead (1985), Romero offers us ‘Bub’, a thinking, feeling zombie, moved by listening to Beethoven’s Ninth (surely with reference to little Alex’s musical preferences in A Clockwork Orange); he is without doubt the most engaging character in the film, the character with whom we are most likely to empathise. Indeed at times, the movie turns into a reworking of Truffaut’s L’Enfant sauvage, with a teacher (and scientist) trying to summon up the submerged human being in Bub. Empathy happens through the eyes and ears. First, zombies don’t discourse, they growl. Also one essential piece of zombie make-up is the contact lens: zombies have eyes that give nothing back. In Christoph Behl’s The Desert (2013), the human survivors endeavour to persuade ‘Pythagoras’, their chained-up zombie captive, to return their gaze. Certainly there is much violence directed against the eyes in zombie films (and in most kinds of horror film), the punishment for those who are curious to look, and cease to care what exactly they are looking at. In 28 Days Later, Cillian Murphy’s first ‘infected’ victim is a young boy. As he pins the raging lad down, the boy spits out, ‘I hate you,’ voicing that adolescent contempt that all parents sometimes hear. That single line of dialogue is a clear infringement of the genre rules, but an intriguing one. If the boy speaks, then he’s still a self, and killing him (as our hero soon will) becomes not euthanasia, but murder, even though in self-defence.

It often seems that where consciousness and language begin, the zombie ends. Yet, in fact, zombies have been the heroes of various first-person narratives for decades. The video game Stubbs the Zombie (2005) allows its players to put themselves in the place of a vengeful zombie, Stubbs. The identification solicited in that game as well as these movies takes us back to those ‘zombie parades’. Clearly people want to be zombies, they want to put themselves in that place. There’s something comic, and comically easy to impersonate (the Daleks had the same appeal), about a zombie. Like Frank Spencer back in the 1970s, it’s the one impersonation that everyone can convincingly pull off. There’s a pleasure in pretending to be dumb – the Forrest Gump-ification of America done darkly. The parades also allow people to put ugliness on show. In a world of plastic beauty and constant sexualisation, these made-up zombies happily render the body both real (what is more real than death and its ravages) and empty of the erotic. In a strange way, this is a further instance of the puritan revulsion running through the zombie genre. To display decay is to dissent from the beauty myth.

Possessed by so much evidence of mortality, love and closeness seep away. In Romero’s films in particular, they always seemed compromised states of feeling anyway, made unbelievable by the lack of convincing affect in most of the actors. Death, that ultimate loneliness, consumes love. When lovers return, they no longer recognise anything in each other beyond the chance of a decent lunch. These are films where the urge to eat has altogether ousted the desire for sex. Sex is remarkably absent in most zombie films, as though the obsession with a dark orality precludes other, more pleasurable uses for the mouth. Even their feasting looks revolting. Instead of kisses, there are bites, but they have none of the vampire’s murky eroticism: these are anaphrodisiac movies. Kisses play with the flesh that embodies us and separates us, while the zombie’s oral attack enacts an incorporation of the victim, a shredding of boundaries between inside and outside, self and other. In devouring you, in gnawing off a chunk of you, the zombie absorbs you, and in taking a bite the disease takes possession.

There are, naturally, other, more benign pleasures at work. Zombies are both profoundly scary and reassuringly inept – one swift blow with a baseball bat and they’re gone. Being dead already, and being so stupid, the zombies themselves don’t fear death. The worst has already happened to them, and there they are still shuffling about, indomitable and thick. And killing them is guiltless pleasure – homicide without consequences; after all, you cannot murder someone who’s already dead, and, as monsters, they deserve all that’s coming to them.

There are gags too, though the humour in Dawn of the Dead is heavy-handed to say the least, a finesse-free silent comedy of ordinary people enjoying the mall. I hate being in a mall, but still I find myself crying out at the screen in defence of Middle America: ‘but we all have to go shopping!’ More recently, with memories of the Westgate shopping mall attack still in our minds, the supposedly delightful transgressive energies at work here have shifted the balance back towards the genuinely disturbing. But there may be something affirming here too. It’s a gross-out, slapstick humour, a comedy of the body in a genre devoted to its haplessness. The running gag about farting in Shaun of the Dead is perhaps not so throwaway as we may first think. The film puts a stink on screen, and the combined response of disgust and laughter implies an acceptance of the feckless body.

As a kind of antidote to all those zombie movies, I decided to watch Cocteau’s Orphée (1950). Both Night of the Living Dead and Cocteau’s film imagine death coming for us in the guise of a person. In the 18 years between these films, there is a decline (a rapid one) in the imagining of death. Romero offers a strange medievalisation of our image of mortality, as opposed to the delicate and poetic Hellenic form, the enchanted uncanniness of Cocteau’s vision. Here we encounter two faces of death: Maria Casarès’s commanding vulnerability versus the corpse’s glare of the nameless zombie extra. The zombie movie scrawls a cartoon across the face of death.