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Nights of the Celluloid Dead:
A History of the Zombie Film

Part Four: The Meaning of the Dead

by Robert Hood

First published in Bloodsongs#6, 1995; ed. Steve Proposch.

Having trampled through living dead territory (up to our armpits in viscera) over the last few parts, we can perhaps start to identify the sorts of thematic elements that play into the zombie film.

The sub-genre contains, of course, many and varied themes, depending for their existence and effectiveness on the individual filmmaker. Zombies have provided symbols encapulating the desire for and consequences of revenge; adolescent angst; puritanism and, equally, sexual excess; the frustration of ambition; the futility or the triumph of violence; the desire for immortality; consumerism; scientific irresponsibility; grief; suburban malaise; the transcendence of love ... and many more.

Within these themes, however, I would isolate four major threads (which are, of course, related):

1. Images of control.

Control and related themes of power and exploitation are basic to the voodoo zombie and its alien-invasion/chemical/mind-control relatives.

For example, scenes in White Zombie such as the one in which Frazer comes to Legendre in his mill give a chilling dimension to the theme of exploitation that underlies the film. Zombies work incessantly to turn the Metropolis-like machinery and the groaning of the wheels provides an unnerving background to discussion over the fate of the desired Madeline's soul. "They work faithfully and are not worried about long hours," says zombie master Legendre of his creatures, in justification of the capitalist organisation represent by his mill. The black-and-white photography and angled shots, often placing the players behind or against foreground structures or the shuffling legs of the living dead, help to create many potent moments and emphasis the theme -- a theme extended eventually to the 'capturing' of Madeline herself as an unwilling object of desire.

Inevitably, such control destroys life, turning humanity into mindless automatons or violent engines of destruction.

2. The erosion of meaningful human qualities of life.

If the mill scene in White Zombie provides an image of industrial exploitation, the central story of Madeline and her 'suitors' can function as a metaphor for the dehumanisation caused by exploitation -- the willingness to deny choice to the object of love. In this context, the physical person is seen as more important than their mind and spirit, and the result is emptiness. Madeline's physical beauty remains once she is 'dead', but the landowner who orchestrated her death in order to win her comes to realise that devoid of will she is merely a shell. Though he has gained her body, he has in reality lost the better part of her, perhaps destroyed it forever.

In Romero's zombie trilogy, the flesh-eating dead represent a society lost to the true qualities of living -- whether the source of that loss be violence, hate, bureaucracy or stupidity. The media, the military, science, philosophy are all helpless to provide an answer. The violence and spiritual void of human society feeds upon itself and the result is an apocalypse of the dead.

Clive Barker has commented that, since organised religion is losing its ability to popularly explain the world, Romero's living dead represent the only immortality possible. They are the tyranny of flesh, immortality without a spiritual dimension. And they are implacable. In extreme cases, nothing will stop them, certainly not our usual bulwarks of law, order, love, sex and reason. Zombies, Barker reckons, are the archetypal monster for the latter part of the twentieth century.

3. The tyranny of the past.

I Walked With a Zombie is an intelligent and evocative essay into the use of the zombie as a symbol of the past haunting the present -- an emotional barrenness and a guilt that will not lie still. From the early sequence in which Tom Conway (as the husband) seeks to destroy Dee's romantic innocence with the words "There is no beauty--only death and decay", to the final revelations of love and hate, the film exerts a gentle if irresistible influence over the viewer which has not been replicated as powerfully elsewhere in the zombie sub-genre. The zombified wife, an expressionless white phantom, becomes a powerful image of emotional emptiness, as the jealousy and bitterness that lies in the past is slowly revealed.

More obviously, such films as Shock Waves and Ossorio's Blind Dead films show the evils of the past returning to haunt the living. Even the common image of chemically induced zombieism apparent in Return of the Living Dead, C.H.U.D. and many more -- films granting pollution or greed the central role in resurrecting the dead to an inevitably vicious pseudo-life -- belongs here. What we do now, to our society and our world, will return to haunt us in the future.

4. Issues of mortality.

The sort of de-hexing of mortality identified in the discussion of Braindead, hidden under a variety of guises, is perhaps what the zombie film as a sub-genre does most of all. Underlying the variety apparent in zombie-film lore is this 'sub-text': Halperin's voodoo zombies, Romero's living dead, Jackson's blood-splattered travesties, all show us the downside of immortality. This is what the natural human desire to transcend the laws of our own biology leads to, and, as Pet Semetary would have it, "Sometimes dead is better".

Yet, the modern zombie also represents the insatiable tyranny of mortality, its rotting face and shuffling implacability a potent symbol for the horror (as distinct from the transcendence) of death. Its unspeakable appetite warns us of the fragility of life when faced by the reality of death, and its violence is the revenge of a past which demands guilt and fear of us because we live on in a world it has been denied.

On the other hand, the filmic existence of these living dead also allows us to fight back at death, in our imaginations at least-- to mock it, shoot it in the head or grind it into a mess of blood and bone with our lawnmowers. You can thumb your nose at Death, even as you shudder!

And we can achieve this cathartic release between doing the dishes after dinner and heading off to bed for the night. What more could you ask for?


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