[Stokes and Fenzel kick off Halloween Week 2009 by engaging in a spirited debate about the morals of Zombie Atrocity. Note: Spoilers for Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead follow.]
Resolved: In most zombie movies, the characters are undone when they become more zombielike (i.e. betray each other selfishly).
Fenzel: Have you gone off your nut? Zombies betray people all the time! They just don’t think of it as betrayal because loyalty has become meaningless. When a parent tries to eat their kid, that’s betrayal from one perspective – and lunchtime from the other.
Stokes: This is just typical misguided attempt by my opponent to drag zombies into a moral system that has no place for them. There’s a certain ghoulishness to the scenario you describe, sure, but – as zombie movies have told us SO many times – “She’s not your mother anymore!” Which means you aren’t her child, which means she is not betraying you. Also, let’s focus in on that other word: “selfishly.” I submit it to you that a zombie cannot behave selfishly, because a zombie does not have a sense of self.
Fenzel: Again, you insist on seeing it from the perspective of the zombie. Why this stubbornness? Why this lack of sympathy? Will no one consider the victim? From the perspective of the person being attacked by the husk of their best friend, it’s quite different.
I hate to spoil the secret ingredient, but zombies are MADE OUT OF PEOPLE!!! THEY’RE PEOPLE!!!
As such, even as their internal agency and motivations have changed, what they outwardly symbolize, especially from the perspective of the victim, retains some of its original associations.
And if people yell “She’s not your mother anymore!” in every movie, it’s not for s’s and g’s. It’s because they have to, because people assume the opposite. The victim never believes it either – the victim continues to see a mother coming on violently and chompingly. That image is indelible – one of the burning images near the beginning of most zombie movies, which means that zombie as betrayer is always part of the collective subconscious of the helpless populace. (I swear, it’s like I’m talking to a child, a child about to get eaten by her mother, ‘natch!)
Granted, the betrayal is largely symbolic. It’s symbolic to the people in the movie, who see their loved ones try to kill them and feel betrayed, even though there’s no intent behind it. It’s also symbolic for us, as we see the people who are not zombies lose track of the proper governance of their own intentions and turn on each other.
But art imitates life imitates art, and people becoming zombielike by imitating the symbolic actions of zombies is semantically close to those same people imitating the zombies themselves, because the zombies are so symbolic. It’s the same action, you just move the benchmark points around a little.
Stokes: I don’t see it from the perspective of the zombies, you ass, I see it from the perspective of an audience member. While it’s true that seeing a zombified father chomp into his daughter gives us a little extra frisson, it never makes us think “How could he do such a thing to his own child?!” We know exactly how: he’s a zombie, and that’s what they do. That’s nearly ALL they do. On the other hand, when we see the non-zombified people in zombie movies turning on each other, we do see it as a betrayal… almost as a kind of class-betrayal, which is kind of revealing. “Don’t you people realize that there’s a greater enemy to be fought, here?”
It’s true that the people in zombie movies act like zombies, but not when they turn on eachother. And acting like a zombie doesn’t necessarily get them killed. One guy in Dawn of the Dead dies when he gets so caught up in the thrill on zombie killing that they forget to treat it like serious, dangerous business. Zombies never get caught up in the thrill of anything. (They do attack without regard for self-preservation, but the difference is that a zombie doesn’t care if it gets killed, whereas this guy thought he was invincible.) The other big catastrophe is when the yuppie guy gets so angry at the idea of a biker gang taking away his stuff that he breaks cover and starts shooting at them. Zombies don’t have a concept of private property. Oh, sure, they want to have more delicious braains than Mr. and Mrs. Jones-zombie next door, but while you see two zombies playing the ol’ entrail tug of war you never, ever see one of them actually try to destroy the other so that it can have all the entrails for itself.
When do the characters in Dawn of the Dead act like zombies? When they decide to go to the mall in the first place. And, in a more metaphorical sense, when they try to keep going through the motions of pre-zombie life (having a classy dinner party, embarking on romantic adventures, what-have-you) for no other reason but the fact that these are the things that one does. The truly radical notion in the film is the suggestion that acts like proposing marriage to the woman who is carrying your child can be a zombie-like, if done for the wrong reasons. But this is not what gets them killed.
Fenzel: The first claim in your Marxist rant betrays a lack of response to basic human emotion. Perhaps when you and your friends in the Kremlin see a father devouring his child, you think “from each according to his work, to each according to his need.” But I, and most right-thinking people, will find the image of a father cannibalizing his daughter can still be morally shocking, even if the father is undead at the time.
But more important than accepting the programming of a Communist zombie, you have become too programmed by the Zombie zombies – too familiar and comfortable with what they do. Of course, you are not the only one.
A lot hinges on how genre-aware of the movie an audience is – getting more familiar with the rules and expectations in any genre can desensitize you to the symbolism in its core verbal, visual, or formal vocabularies. Dracula the novel reads quite a bit differently from the movies they make these days that are based on it. One example is Transylvania – Transylvania is of course a real place that had specific resonances in the culture of 19th century England and Ireland that are very present in the original Dracula – and are still present in contemporary Dracula stories, but only in association with the original work. The audience and even the practitioners can be blinded by familiarity of the subject matter to a lot of what it means.
It’s like when people think it’s awesome that the folks in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon can fly, but don’t recognize the Buddhist symbolism in that classic sort of depiction. It’s still there, operating under the surface diachronically, even people are so comfortable with the material that they choose to only perceive it subconsciously.
Zombies are not normal. The fact that the rules they abide by are so often taken for granted is extremely strange – and, I think, obscures but does not lesson a stress in the interpretation. Just because the Enterprise can go from planet to planet instantly and without difficulty does not eliminate the sense that these places are set as different planets to imply a new world, distant and foreign from the one before. The zombie rules – the head shots, the bite virulence, fast zombies vs. slow zombies – seem very familiar to us, but I think that familiarity maybe blinds us to some of how they function in stories. We register it subconsciously, and it matters, but we let it slide too often when we talk about it. And by we, I mean you. Because you smell.
Stokes: Oh, so it’s a historical argument, is it? Well if you want to talk about history, then settle back and listen up. Zombie movies have to be divided into two classes, pre- and post-Night of the Living Dead. Pre-NOTLD zombie movies are about race. Zombies don’t hunger for brains, they are mindless slaves who occasionally (and “horrifically,” although it tends to feel triumphant to a modern viewer) turn on their masters, who they typically strangle (if they kill them at all), and certainly never eat. There are moments where the protagonists act zombie-like, but only when the witch-doctor has actually zombified them, and the horror here is not that they are becoming monstrous, but that they have been reduced to the condition of black people. (These are not, uh… not very nice movies, for the most part.)
Post-NOTLD zombie movies are always satires, and usually satires of conformity. Here the nature of the zombies changes drastically. Zombies hunger for human flesh, true, but there’s a difference between a zombie movie and a straight-up cannibal movie. What makes them zombies is that they lack agency and individuality, i.e. that they suffer from an excess of conformity. Contrast this to the pre-NOTLD zombie movie, where the zombies suffer from an excess of melanin. This is why you could not make a movie with only one zombie and really call it a zombie movie: if there isn’t a horde for them to be subsumed into, they don’t do the cinematic work that zombies must do. Pre-NOTLD zombie movies don’t need the horde: “I Walked With a Zombie” (probably the best of the subgenre), has exactly two.
Anyway. NOTLD is also where the trope of a zombie devouring a family member comes from. Specifically, we see a brother turning on a sister, and a young child turning on her mother. In this film, there’s quite a bit of moral horror to it. Significantly, the child zombie kills her mother with a knife, which implies a lot more consciousness and agency than a Romero zombie usually has. But NOTLD is a little unusual in that it’s not a social satire: it’s a satire of cinematic heroism. The characters in NOTLD start off by trying to be the sort of fearsomely competent do-your-part-and-know-your-place adventure heroes that you find in a Howard Hawks film, like the original Thing from Another World or any number of westerns that I could name. The first two acts of the film are built around them trying to execute heroic last-ditch plans to defeat the zombie horde… and failing, over and over again. It plays sort of like a version of Die Hard where John McClane just ends up getting himself and a bunch of the hostages killed in the first twenty minutes. There are scenes where they start planning, and one person volunteers to run the zombie gauntlet in the backyard so that he can pull his pickup truck around to the front of the house and evacuate everyone. And everyone says “That’s crazy! You’ll never make it!” And he turns to them, all gritty and manly, and says “I’ll make it. I’ve got to.” And then he doesn’t make it.
So in a sense, acts one and two are about driving home the message that the gloves are off: that movie-hero behavior will not save the day in this situation. Act three is about showing us just how horrible a monster movie with the gloves off would really be. At this point, the gore – which up until now had mostly been pretty restrained, gets ramped up to absurd proportions thanks to the use of actual butcher-shop entrails for the human guts. The music, which was standard monster movie organ and diminished 7ths stuff, turns into aleatoric synthesizer bleeps. And here’s where both of the zombie-on-erstwhile-family-member killings come in. In this context, they are not there to convince us that the nature of the zombie is betrayal. Rather, the moral horror of family violence is used as an index of just how badly f____’ed the characters are.
Post-NOTLD movies, starting with Dawn of the Dead (which is really the most influential zombie movie out there, even though NOTLD came first), are social satires. While you still see people dying because of pure incompetence, you very rarely see an important character dying this way. Instead, the important characters die because of their own flaws. And the most common flaw of all is trying to maintain the pre-zombocalypse social structure. When you see the zombie-on-family kill in these movies, the family member in question usually has ample time to escape or shoot the zombie, but refuses to act because they don’t believe that their mother/nephew/infant will kill them. What does this mean? Well, if post-NOTLD deaths usually have a moral message, and are usually caused by the human’s own behavior, and there’s a general theme that traditional social structures cannot be maintained, then what’s happening here is that the killees are being punished for their faith in the traditional social structure of family. So do we think “Oh, you treacherous zombie, she was your sister!” No, we think “Oh you stupid person-who-just-got-eaten, don’t you realize that family isn’t important anymore?” Just like we might think “Oh, you stupid yuppie, don’t you realize that property rights aren’t important anymore?” when he opens fire on the bikers.
Yes, there is always moral horror in family violence. But historically, this is used simply because it is horrifying. So it feels like a real stretch to claim that there’s a hidden message about the nature of zombies that overrides the explicit surface message about the nature of zombie victims.
Fenzel: Anyway, to close this out, one of the trickiest things to ascertain in a zombie movie is what the moral standpoint of the movie is on whether something is good or bad, recommended or not recommended, trivial or vital. Sometimes something previously vital becomes trivial (like property). Sometimes something previously trivial becomes vital (like physical fitness). Sometimes something previously vital remains vital (like the bonds of family) – sometimes the character involved upholds this thing, and sometimes this this is betrayed, and how that plays out says a lot about whether the movie is optimistic or pessimistic about the human condition, or whether that person is normative or pragmatic about human behavior – should we aspire to be better than we are, or are we stuck being as we are.
One of easiest things to ascertain is that you are a toolbag.
[Can a Zombie be held accountable for its actions, or are they not guilty by reason of permanent insanity? Is Marzipan delicious, or is it basically just edible and easy to sculpt? Should Think/Counter-Think become a recurring feature, or do we file this one under E for “Experiments, Poorly Advised?” Sound off, as usual, in the comments!]