Nights of the Celluloid Dead:
A History of the Zombie Film
Part Four: The Meaning of the Dead
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?