Cinema: the three ages of the zombie

Popular literature rarely wants to say anything about the world. When she wants it, it is most often at her expense. Demonstrations and pleas are bad material for the station novel or genre cinema. With a few rare exceptions, those who have tried to tell the world in this way have only wasted paper or film..

However, that doesn’t mean that popular culture doesn’t say anything about the world. Only, she says it as if by accident. It is only a secondary consequence of the meeting between the taste of the author and that of the public. If the first is intelligent, he cannot prevent himself from witnessing the Zeitgeist, even if it is involuntarily; if the second is not stupid, he may even understand it unconsciously.

Horror and society

Horror cinema offers an excellent illustration of these general laws. The case of zombie films is particularly interesting, for example, from the point of view of the evolution of relations between orders or between classes. To highlight this, it is necessary to start from the representation of the zombie.

Among the classic characters of horror cinema, the zombie is one of those who have undergone the most drastic changes. Dracula, the famous vampire has certainly mutated, to arrive at the pitiful androgyne of modern productions, but the economy of the character remains globally the same. It is very different with the zombie and of these variations we can say a lot.

To end submission

In 1932, the Halperin brothers produced White Zombie with Bela Lugosi (Legend). The Haitian zombie, which has just been brought to the attention of the Anglo-Saxon public by the accounts of American travellers, is quite correctly described there. It is a living man, but deprived of will and obedient to the one who plunged them into this state.

In white zombie, Legendre keeps the sugar cane mill running thanks to such zombies. The metaphor of slavery and wage labor is transparent. It is all the more so since Seabrook, one of these visitors from Haiti, brought back from his stay a story whose resemblance is striking.

A metaphor for slavery and wage labor, both indeed, because if, of course, these zombies in Halperin’s film are black, it happens that it takes place in a time after the ‘abolition of slavery. As in Seabrook’s story, a man offers cheap labor and in return receives a salary which he is supposed to distribute among his employees. But, in both cases, the goal is to keep everything to yourself.

However, white zombie would be badly named if there were no white zombies. In this case, it is a woman that Legendre reduces to this state in order to abuse her. This situation will be taken up, from a completely different angle, in the marvelous I walked with a zombie de Tourneur a few years later. We thus see, in turn, denouncing the oppression of the black by the white, of the worker by the boss and of the woman by the man. What else tendency ?

To put an end to consumption

George Romero is responsible for a radical change in the nature of the zombie as a horror film character. Night of the Living Dead, in 1968, laid the foundations for this new design. The zombie is no longer a living being drugged and deprived of will, a kind of living being whose spirit seems dead, but a dead person who animates what is most primitive and most intrinsically linked to life in a spirit: the search for food and the will to reproduce.

Because the modern zombie is contagious. It kills, feeds and transforms its prey into another itself. The act of devouring is a quasi-sexual act. The zombie is therefore no longer a victim to be saved from exploitation, but a machine for killing and reproducing identically.

This film, Night of the Living Dead, made with few means, was not satisfactory for its author. He took up the same story again fresh to tell it from a completely different angle, but with more resources and more thought. Dawn of the Dead, in 1978, therefore gives a better picture of what Romero’s zombie reveals, even if it comes at the cost of a certain heaviness. The director certainly wanted to do too much.

First of all, the main place of action is a mall. The question of consumption is thus placed in the most obvious way – too obvious – at the heart of the film. The zombies that haunt the store shelves seem unable, even beyond death, to tear themselves away from this place. The zombie is, in a way, the supreme consumer, the one who destroys by feeding without creating anything other than another himself.

The zombie freed from labor and domination becomes the monomaniac consumer, the incarnation in putrefied flesh of the economic impulses of a society that wants to take full advantage of the illusory freedom that abundance gives it. Dawn of the Dead is therefore not so much a somewhat clumsy charge (even more clumsy in its version intended for the European market) against the consumer society as a perfidious and involuntary contestation of the very idea of ​​freedom of desire. The economy of demand, a mimetic demand for the flesh of the living, now becomes a possible source of horror fiction.

To end civilization

From the oppressed who must be liberated to the consumer who must be defended, the zombie has undergone a final mutation with the series The Walking Dead. The location of the action is no longer a plantation on a lost island or a mallbut, at the time of the Wal-Martization of the world, the world itself. Zombies are everywhere. They are the heirs of those of Romero, but they also differ in certain aspects.

They have lost all traces of human behavior. They no longer even ape the consumer that they were still alive. Among them, moreover, there is no longer even the drive to reproduce through contamination, because everyone is a healthy carrier, until death, of the zombification virus. They are nothing more than bellies that no longer digest and jaws that serve only to tear and destroy.

These zombies have all faces, all ages, are of all professions, are in all possible states of putrefaction – the make-up artists, aided by the CGI, have outdone themselves. The only thing they have in common is a desire to destroy life. They are both the ultimate consumers and the freest creatures there are, because they only obey, can only obey, their own will.

They are freed from the masters mentioned in white zombiebut also the material consumption habits of Dawn of the Deadbecause what counts from now on for them is no longer the flesh they consume, which contributed to their reproduction, but their tension towards the gratuitous and useless devouring of the flesh of the living.

To end the zombie

The zombie of The walking dead is being freed from all constraints, from all conventions, from all necessities. Neither decency, nor property, nor need, nor logic should or can oppose him. Nothing matters to his glassy eyes except his immediate desire, and his immediate desire is an imperious master. His teeth and nails are there to prevent anyone from forbidding him anything without smashing his skull with a tomahawk or buckshot.

It remains to ask terrible questions. Don’t survivors of modern or post-modern zombie movies pay, ultimately, the generosity of their predecessors? Isn’t the consuming then destructive zombie the same zombie yesterday submissive and pitiful and now free and terrifying? And, by the way, is this survivor sure to be worth more than the zombies he kills to survive?

Source : Pretty Reel

Cinema: the three ages of the zombie – Manice