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A note on zombies

A zombie is a functioning mass of meat, bone and digestive tract with no purpose other than its own physical being and with no need for any purpose other than this. It is perfectly autotelic. It has no need for meaning, or interpretation or narrative or decision. It just is. It is raw physical existence from which ego, sentience, thought have been expelled and radically obliterated. The zombie is in a sense the human Real – the brute material reality of our being before it is carved up by language. The zombie achieves a complete wholeness and unity that the living cannot attain. It is a human body fully reconciled with the world around it and at one with it, knowing no separation or distance from it. This is why we’re so fascinated by the undead – it’s because, secretly, we envy them.

At least that’s part of it. The other part of the fascination of course is anxiety. But this is the other side of the same coin. The zombie myth reveals the repressed truth of our existence – which is that the sentient, conscious part of us (the ‘I’) is at most the mere tip of the iceberg of our full being (in fact the ego is probably more ephemeral than that and possibly a fiction). The figure of the zombie represents our terror of ourselves. Our fear of that part of us that sleepwalks, that drives on autopilot, that breathes, digests, repairs, grows, degenerates without any conscious decision or supervision. It symbolises our estrangement from our unknowable shadow self over which we have little or no control and which is also most of what we are. Who can look into a mirror for more than a minute without a nagging sense of the uncanny? Who and what is this that stares back, familiar and strange? This form onto which we project a name and a history and an ‘I’. This mass of skin and flesh and skull. You and I are zombies who dream that we are not.


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Some Preliminary Notes on the Zombie Horror Genre

Some preliminary notes for a forthcoming conference paper on the Zombie horror genre.

Initial thoughts on zombies

  • The zombie is a walking contradiction – expressed in the oxymoron: living-dead. Thus it is a dialectical monster. It is (paradoxically?) a creative, fertile sort of monster in this sense – site of tensions, representative of other paradoxes, contradictions?
  • The zombie is a deeply ambivalent monster. It is human/not human.  It elicits ambivalent feelings in us (disgust, fascination, pity, contempt, violence, ridicule, fear, identification, disavowal)
  • The zombie is not evil. Evil becomes meaningless in the world of the zombie. It just is.
  • Part of the horror of the zombie trope is the dissolution of good and evil. There are no just deserts. There is just bad luck. Morality and judgement are meaningless – there is just an elemental struggle for survival (as opposed to the un-survival of zombie un-life).
  • The zombie is a kind of gratuitous assertion. It is sui generis. It dissolves reason, explanation. It just exists. It is pure existence. In this sense zombie fiction rejects the moralism which is constitutive of many other kinds of narrative.
  •  It is an object of disgust – it violates basic either/or conceptual categories (life/death) and so dissolves basic oppositions with which we orient ourselves in relation to the world. It is neither one thing nor the other.
  • It is neither thing nor person.
  • The zombie is the object of a singularly perverse fascination in the viewer (repulsion/attraction – this is another violation of basic categories)– it is not sexual fascination/disgust (vampire). It is morbid fascination/disgust. It is not about feelings, urges, emotions, desires (vampires) – it is purely physical, bodily fascination/disgust. In fact the zombie is a human body emptied of tormented feelings, emotions etc.
  • The zombie represents death of course – but it is also allows us to project death onto a monstrous other that can be defeated (and killed, un-unkilled). It allows us to work out repressed fears – to confront death (literally) and destroy it (repress it again).
  • Are zombie films cathartic like this? – we peek at something we repress to give it an airing only to repress it again (this time more firmly?). We both acknowledge (even enjoy?) and disavow knowledge of our own mortality.
  • Like a vampire the zombie is a revenant – return of the repressed.
  • The zombie is unclean. Rot – primitive kind of disgust. In-built instinct to avoid rotten flesh.
  • The zombie is not a freak or an individual. It appears to have no subjectivity or individual identity. It is the (un)death of identity. The zombie congregates in groups – it is a mass monster. It is a democratic monster. It is not an elitist monster (aristocratic vampire). It exists in cities, family homes, tenement blocks etc.
  • The dividing line between the zombie monster and the living is particularly thin – anyone can become a zombie. ‘They are us’. Other kinds of monsters are more elusive, elitist, exotic, different.
  • The zombie represents the fear we have of the other within us – our reptilian core. The unknowable shadow self from who we are always separated but who is also a constituent part of us.
  • Fear of sleepwalking – the uncanny. Fear of losing control. Fear of the unconscious.
  • Zombies are the unconscious. They are also the unconscious. (They represent the unconscious and are also literally unconscious as creatures).
  • The zombie exists outside of the symbolic order (language). It is in touch with the Real. It is the Real.
  • The zombie is a peculiarly physical monster. All monsters (most?) are physical in some sense and most have some sort of physical grotesqueness about them in which much of their horrific effect is founded. But the zombie is simply matter – it is simply a body (corpse). It is a very material horror.
  • The zombie literally transports (un) death into the presence of the living. It is death that refuses to be suppressed (hidden away) disavowed. They violate a modern taboo – don’t mention or look at death.
  • At the same time the zombie destroys death. It is the death of death.
  • The zombie represents a rotten system that refuses to die.
  • The zombie allows us to indulge fantasies of violence, power, cruelty without guilt. The zombie is a human body (and only a human body) that may be attacked, slashed, shot, dismembered etc without bad conscience. Mass killing without moral consequences.
  • Is part of the horror of the zombie the way in which they bring out gratuitous violence in us?
  • Clear link between modern zombie and Vietnam – Romero, Savini (Night of the Living Dead 1968. Savini makes this connection explicitly.)
  • We feel contemptuous superiority to zombies (another cathartic effect?) – but this is undermined by the knowledge that we may become one of them quite easily in the world of the zombie plague – this infuriating knowledge heightens our violent fear and loathing of them. One must constantly prove one’s contemptuous superiority through the violent demonstration of this superiority. It is not effortless superiority…
  • The zombie is a projection of fears onto an other which is not quite an other (from whom we are not quite distinct ourselves – see above) – but it is an other with whom we are also complicit. Sneaking identification with the zombies.
  • The zombie is a rotten resurrection.
  •  In this sense the zombie plague represents Judgement Day resurrection for a disenchanted world. It is a black parody.
  • The zombie is a resurrected shell – the bodily form – rather than the spirit (which disappears). It is an inverse sort of eternal life in this sense. Eternal life of the body, not soul – but it is also not life.
  • The horror of the zombie is also to be found in the relentlessness of its determination. It slowly overwhelms and tires out its prey. This is one reason why the slow shuffling zombie is really more horrifying than running ones – who are too human. Modern running zombies fail to maintain the proper dialectical tension between living and dead, human and not human.
  • The zombie is peculiarly comic. It is comic-pathetic in a way that few other monsters are.
  • Does the zombie represent fears of social embarrassment (relaxing/forgetting of social rules and etiquette) – they are slack jawed, drooling, snotty, clumsy, stupid things. Things we (fear we) are and do not want others to see. Another projection here.
  • The zombie represents infinite desire (Freud – see Eagleton) or Drive (Lacan). Its desire for human flesh cannot be sated and also serves no purpose. It is driven by pure desire (drive). It is sui generis. The zombie consumes for consumption’s sake. Parallel with accumulation for accumulation’s sake.
  • There is a simplicity to the zombie that is horrifying but which is also enviable.
  • The zombie is a being and only a being. It just is. Just exists. Fear of being emptied of subjectivity. But also fear that they may represent the truth of what we are – that our subjectivity is imaginary, an exaggeration. Fear that our being is really just being.
  • The zombie is super-natural and yet not supernatural. It is a revenant from beyond the grave and yet is only physical.
  • The zombie is usually explained in (pseudo) rational terms (it is hinted that there are rational explanations for the plague in most zombie narratives – infection, radiation etc). This contrasts with the ghost trope and most examples of the vampire trope which retain an element of the supernatural – something mystical, spiritual, theological.
  • From this perspective the zombie is a plausible monster in that it lends itself to scientific rational explanation.
  • There is something intuitively plausible about a zombie which there isn’t about a ghost.
  • Yet the ghost is a more believable kind of horror. No one (aside from the voodoo form) believes in zombies as actually existing creatures – lots of people believe in ghosts.
  • Yet the zombie is more frightening.
  • The vampire has been tamed. It is no longer a frightening monster (True Blood, Twilight). It is hard to imagine the zombie myth being tamed in this way. Even comedy zombies (Sean of the Dead) are still scary.
  • Zombies are often taken as symbols of alienation. But the zombie is anything but alienated. If anything it is at one with the world in a kind of simple state of being. It exists in the world of the Real. It is the living who live at one remove from the world – separated by self-reflexivity and the Symbolic etc.

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