Thursday, December 18, 2014

Land of the Dead: Romero's New, Old Zombies

Now that I've finished up work on my Master's Project, co-teaching ENG 490W - Zombie Fictions, I'd like to share my model blog entry for our last film blog assignment of the semester. The assignment was as follows (with my blog entry beginning with the picture of Bub):

            Over the course of this semester, we have seen many different presentations of the zombie figure. For this our 6th and final film blog, I want you to pay particular attention to the depiction of zombies in George A. Romero's Land of the Dead. In what ways do these zombies follow the conventions that we have identified within the zombie fictions that we have looked at over the course of the semester? In what ways do they violate them?
            With these similarities and differences in mind, make ONE argument about the function of zombies within this film; i.e. what are these particular zombies doing? Do they operate symbolically as allegories or metaphors? Are they parodic or satirical?  Of what, and how so? What is George Romero using this iteration of the zombie to tell us about ourselves? 
   Once again, you are required to make ONE explicit critical argument (by explicit, I mean I want you clearly articulate a thesis statement/main argument, and to identify it as your thesis statement by writing in it bold font), and I want you to support that argument with direct and appropriate evidence from the film itself.

            In many ways, the creatures depicted in George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead exemplify the traditional zombie figure, as outlined in his original zombie horror trilogy – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and the wildly underrated Day of the Dead. Unlike many other recent zombie films, 28 Days Later and Zombieland most notably, the zombies found in Land are dead (not infected), slow (not superhuman), and are compelled to eat people (instead of just ripping them apart). However, despite these similarities, the zombies in this film, led by the very impressive Big Daddy, also present a bit of a departure from the previous 3 entries in Romero’s Dead series. Although there is certainly evidence that the zombies in Night and Dawn and Day aren’t completely mindless – a tried car door handle here, an undead Flyboy returning to the hideout there, Bub’s whole zombie prodigy existence – in Land of the Dead, this limited brain activity is taken even further. These zombies not only seem to be capable of basic thought and/or residual instinct, but also appear able to learn, both from each other and from the humans that consistently abuse them. In this horrific vision of a world where the zombies aren’t the worst monsters around, a world where zombies are, in fact, victimized and exploited, Romero presents his viewers with the unsettling notion that the only thing worse than being killed by your enemy is deserving it. 

            The voice-over that begins the movie actually serves to assert the film’s similarities to its predecessors. Unlike many other films, who consider the conventions of zombie fictions to be a given, Land of the Dead spends its first few minutes describing exactly what kind of creatures this film is concerned with. The first words we, “dead people,” don’t tell us very much, but each successive utterance gives us a clearer and clearer picture of the monster we are about to encounter (01:13, all times taken from the Amazon Prime rental version). Using the almost the same verbiage as the newscasters in Night of the Living Dead, the voice over explains that not just dead people, but “the recently departed,” “unburied human corpses” more specifically, “are returning to life and feeding on the living” (01:15; 01:17). Echoing the scientist at the beginning of Dawn, we are told that “everyone who dies will become one of them” and advised that anyone who is bitten “will just become one of them that much sooner” (01:28; 01:30). However, picking up where Bub left off in Day of the Dead, toward the end of the voiceovers, viewers are left with a more dire concern, more dreadful even than the idea of undead creatures that “survive by eating human flesh”: the chance that those creatures could “develop the power to think, to reason, even in the most primitive ways…”  (01:24; 02:07).

      With this awful possibility at the forefront of our imaginations, the film proper begins. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that these zombies are a little more going on upstairs, even in the context of Romero’s relatively-smart-zombie universe. Taking a huge step from using a rock to try to shatter a window (Night), or holding a baseball mitt (Dawn), some of the first zombies shown in Land of the Dead are “playing” instruments, grouped together in a gazebo band (03:14). Now, I wouldn’t run out and sign them up for America’s Got Talent or anything, but two of them were actually getting sound out of their instruments. This is particularly impressive for the zombie tuba player; where does the breath come from???). 

            The most interesting and intelligent zombie of the film, though, and one of the more interesting zombies of zombie fiction period, shows up just moments later after the service bell dings at Big Daddy’s Gas and repairs and Big Daddy’s zombie dutifully answers it (03:33). Initially, there’s very little to suggest that Big Daddy is doing anything beyond acting on residual instinct, no different than Peter’s explanation for what was drawing the zombies to the mall in Dawn of the Dead. Any notion that Big Daddy is just a regular zombie, however, are quickly dispelled when he notices Riley and Mike scouting the area. Unlike pretty much any zombie we’ve seen in a Romero film (and most zombies otherwise), Big Daddy does not simply stop what he is doing and head mindlessly towards the fresh me. Instead, he seems to grunt an order at the young couple zombies meandering nearby, who immediately make their way towards the human observers (04:07).

            This is something completely new. Even in Day, where a zombie salutes, shaves, fires a gun, and flips the bird, there isn’t even a hint of communication between zombies. Bub, for all his genius, is a singularity, alone in his intelligence. Here, though Big Daddy is clearly much more aware than the other zombies (he ignores the sky flowers that transfix the rest, for example), they at least display an ability to be commanded, which puts even the “normal” zombies in Land a level above every zombie not named Bub in a Romero film. Their awareness, their ability to “communicate” (one sided though it may be), and their emotion, make these zombies – not just Big Daddy, but the Couple, the Cheerleader, the Butcher, and the others too – almost human. More human, I would argue, than the not actually dead zombies of 28 Days Later and even the domesticated zombies of Fido. Their humanity, or at least their semblance of humanity, occasions a slight shift in their positions, however, from one of the monsters, to one of the victims. In other zombie texts, we often see human characters that are every bit as horrific as the zombies themselves. But the horror embodied by the humans in those texts is not enough to cancel out the monstrousness of the zombie figures. They are just two different kinds of monsters, usually preying on the same group of survivors. But these zombies, whose human traits serve to further distance them from people like Mr. Kaufman, Cholo, or Chihuahua, are exploited and victimized as well.

Miss America?
          Indeed, the zombies in this film are not only massacred for fun, they have also been commodified to a startling degree. They’ve become sport and entertainment, a game, a spectacle, to shoot paintballs at and have your picture taken with. A safe, neutered thrill. (27:12) But the zombies aren’t the only ones being exploited outside Fiddler’s Green; the lower class humans aren’t treated much better – left hungry and sick, or thrown to zombies for sport (28:17). In Land of the Dead, the zombies are less like the evil humans than those who are aggrieved. This connection is made for viewers very early on by Riley, who contends that humans aren’t much different than the stenches: “Isn’t that what we’re doing, pretending to be alive?” (03:58). When this idea is reinforced at the end of the movie, after Riley decides not to use Dead Reckoning to eliminate the zombie horde that has overrun Fiddler's Green because the zombies are “just looking for a place to go. Same as us,” there is very much the sense that a reckoning has nonetheless occurred (1:27:49). For all the gore and viscera that accompanies Big Daddy’s army’s inexorable march to Fiddler’s Green, the film does not end with a sense of horror, or even ennui, but justice. Though it would be a stretch to say that every human killed by a zombie in Land of the Dead deserves it, they all lived in relative degrees of complacency under a system built upon the outright exploitation and marginalization of others (Others). Once a group of those marginalized “peoples” unites and rises up, it’s hard to mourn the casualties along the way. It’s almost like there’s a lesson to be learned here...

Monday, December 8, 2014

People Killing People: 28 Days Later and the New Zombie

The first "modern" (post-2000) zombie film that we covered in class this year was Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. For this film, I wanted the class to investigate how these zombies differ from the ones we saw in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, and explore what those differences might have to say about our culture. Here is the assignment (my model blog entry follows right after):

This week we will be watching Danny Boyle's 2002 film, 28 Days Later (NOT the sequel, 28 Weeks Later). One of the more interesting things about this movie is the way that it dramatically reimagines the zombie figure. It challenges, in some very overt ways (and some more subtle ones) the rules and conventions that we have become accustomed to in zombie fictions. For this blog, I want you to identify a few of the ways that these "zombies" differ from the ones we've seen in Romero's films. I would rather you pick the one or two differences that most interest you and focus on them, as opposed to attempting to catalog every way that these zombies are different and new. Once you have explored these differences, I want you to make an argument about what this shift in the presentation of the zombie indicates about our culture. Why did the zombie have to change to fit our current sensibilities? What does this new zombie say about us?

In 1968, George Romero presented us with a new vision of horror: the zombie. For almost 35 years, his presentation of the zombie was the standard, some slight deviations aside (“Braaaains!”). The 2002 release of 28 Days Later changed all of that. Indeed, in many ways, Danny Boyle’s new iteration of the zombie acts as an update of sorts, a reimagining of the creature to suit the shifting sensibilities of modern audiences.

At its core, the Romero zombie is a slow-moving, mindless, reanimated corpse that craves human flesh and multiplies by killing its victims, and can only be stopped by a direct attack on its brain. There are a few other traits from Romero’s films that have fallen away in other representations – rudimentary tool use, a fear of fire, eating crickets, etc. – but the traditions that have loosely been followed for over three decades are based on those characteristics explicitly outlined by the “experts” on the news in Night and Dawn.
The “zombies” we encounter in 28 Days Later are decidedly different. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are never identified as “zombies” in the film. These creatures, though in many important ways zombie-like, are never identified as such by the characters in the film. Instead, they are referred to as “the infected.” Unlike in Apocalypse Z, however, where this term is also used (perhaps a little more euphemistically) to describe the monsters that have caused the fall of civilization, here the term is used literally. Whether it is the doctor at the beginning of the film explaining what has been done to the chimps, or Selena giving Jim the worst while-you-were-sleeping talk ever, when viewers are told that what caused this outbreak “was a virus, an infection,” it is meant quite literally (19:44). These “zombies” are not reanimated corpses, they are infected humans. Which is to say, they aren’t dead, they just live differently. Very differently. But they’re still just… people. In 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle confronts his viewers with monsters, infected and not, that are stunning in their very humanity. Although the infected are quite different from those not afflicted by the virus - they cannot communicate, they are basically mindless, are wildly contagious, and multiply at an alarming rate – they might be most frightening in their awful similarities.

In another interesting departure from the conventions established by Romero, the “zombies” of 28 Days Later aren’t much more difficult to kill than an uninfected person. I mean, the infected the zombie figure clearly doesn’t react to pain the same way that people do; even engulfed in flames, they will continue their single minded pursuit of human destruction. They aren’t indestructible, though, and trauma to the brain is hardly the only way to dispatch them. Being riddled with bullets (1:04:19) or hacked up with a machete (28:17) is no less fatal to an infected person than it would be to anyone else. They can be burned, starved, or blown apart by claymores. Their tolerance for pain is higher, sure, even much higher, but there is nothing at all supernatural about these beings. Nothing more than sick, deranged people, these “zombies” are alive like us and die like we die.

Shifting the zombie figure from the nearly invulnerable risen-dead to simply "the infected," living people who have contracted an aggressively contagious virus, reflects what I believe is a growing skepticism of the supernatural at the time. Following the real life horror of 9-11, the world had less and less patience for paranormal ghouls and goblins. An audience that watched thousands of people die in a terrorist attack broadcast live on national TV didn’t need their dead to walk; their living were plenty frightening as is. In 1968, Romero frightened us not by making zombies believable, but by depicting realistic reactions to inconceivable, indeed impossible, events. The interpersonal conflict and the societal collapse of Night of the Living Dead could not but resonate at a time of so much social unrest and upheaval. Boyle is doing something else entirely. While Boyle’s film certainly speaks to a similarly pervasive cultural anxiety and uncertainty, his zombie is perhaps most horrifying because it obeys the laws of the universe as we know them. Doctors do experiment by creating new viruses and diseases. Viruses do mutate, often at an alarming rate. Our world is a very frightening and violent place. When Major West tells his assembled dinner party that what he’s seen in the four weeks since infection is simply “people killing people,” much like they always have, and asserts that this “puts us in a state of normality, right now,” he isn’t just talking about the world within the film; he’s pointing an accusatory finger at our reality as well (1:13:36). This, or something like it, could actually happen. It is this horrible, horrible plausibility that has allowed the zombie to re-take its place as our worst nightmare and preeminent monster.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have seen a LOT of zombie memes. Whether shared by a friend, like this one,

or stumbled upon on my own (my arduous research includes a great deal of time looking for and at zombies on the internet),

the variety and sheer prevalence of zombie themed memes is truly impressive. The extensive popularity of these memes, which has ballooned in recent years just like everything else associated with our favorite undead flesh-eaters, however, is in many ways no less impressive than the apparent universality of memes themselves. There seems to be a meme for everything. I mean everything:

Dog Shampoo

Monster Trucks

Underwater Basket Weaving

For the memes above, I did a Google image search for the first three things that popped into my head (my brain is a special, special place) with the word "meme" and got multiple hits for each one. There are even memes about memes.

Like zombies, the meme seems to be a phenomenon that is particularly well suited (perfectly suited, really) for this specific cultural moment. Given the irrefutable "now-ness" of both forms, the zombie and the meme, perhaps analyzing the ways they intersect can help us gain a better understanding of what it is about each that allows them to resonate so deeply (not that all memes are zombies are all that"deep," but you get my point).

Doesn't believe in god...
or trimming his eyebrows
So, first, what the hell is a meme? I mean, we've all seen them, hundreds of them probably, but what exactly is a meme? This question is only slightly easier to answer than "what is a zombie?" though it provides similar twists, turns, and misappropriations along the way. The word "meme" was apparently coined by Richard Dawkins (yes, the The God Delusion guy) in his book, The Selfish Gene (1976). I say apparently, because some have noted that a suspiciously similar term, both in spelling and usage, "mneme," pre-dates his coinage by about 50 years. There's a striking parallel in the arcs of "meme" and "zombie," from ultimate origin to current iteration. 

- Fun with analogies - 
mneme : Dawkins meme : Internet meme :: nzambi : Haitian zombie : Romero zombie

Moving on: Dawkinsian memes are best defined as the cultural behavioral counterpart of genes. For Dawkins, memes, which can be "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots, or of building arches," in short, any cultural entity, are passed on and replicated from person to person, and brain to brain, in a way that is remarkably similar to the way that genes are propagated via sperm and eggs (The Selfish Gene). Which is to say, the same way that genes are passed on, combined, and modified to create new versions of the genetic material, ideas and behaviors are also passed down, combined, and modified over time to evolve or become extinct over time. This is an oversimplification, to be sure, but I feel like I've conveyed the nuts and bolts of the concept. The idea is to apply the some of the theories of natural selection to the field of cultural evolution. I haven't looked into the field of memetics as much as I would like, but the concept is compelling. It would be interesting to see someone attempt to classify human culture according to memetic (not sure if that usage is appropriate) variations the way the animal kingdom is broken down into family, genus, phylum, species and all that fun stuff.

Anyway, that's where the meme comes from, and certainly, you can see echoes of the internet meme in Dawkins's ideas. But the internet meme is doing something a little different (perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of Richard Dawkins memes out there). Where Dawkins intended for meme to describe the transmission of ideas from person the person verbally or via behavioral cues, Internet memes are mimic-able cultural units - i.e. catchphrases, activities, or bits of media - that are transmitted from person to person via ... 

The Internet.

The manner of transmission, however, while the most obvious, is not the most important difference between Dawkinsian and Internet memes. I could be interpreting Dawkins a little wrong, but his memes seem to more likely to spread via similarity than difference. Even when they combine, evolve, or mutate to create new memes, they are propagated by the points they have in common. For Internet memes, I would argue the opposite is true. Although the base form of any meme will stay largely the same - a socially awkward penguin, Harlem Shake videos, a picture or Keanu Reeves - the meme itself is propagated primarily by the number of variations that can be imposed upon it. These deliberate alterations, are what help an Internet meme spread to a wider audience, who will then, in many cases, make there own version of a given meme. There is an intentionality to the modification and spread of Internet memes that largely seems absent from Dawkins's original concept. And, whereas the reach and durability of Dawkinsian memes seems predicated on how many people think or behave in similar ways, the popularity of Internet memes seems based on how readily they can be adapted to suit the needs of the people using them (as well as how many people the Internet allows these variations to be shared with). Sound familiar?

The rampant popularity of zombies and memes, and even zombie memes, seems to center around the same features: adaptability and personalization. Although individual instances of Internet memes are rarely as open to interpretation as the zombie figure, which, as I've said, can represent nearly any personal or cultural fear or anxiety, the underlying meme forms are often so customizable that their range can be every bit as broad. There is a meme that can say whatever it is that you want to say, whether that happens to be a joke

 or scathing social commentary. 

And if there isn't, you can make one up. 
You're welcome.
Something just occurred to me about zombies and memes, but I need to work through it before I can talk about it. I'll come back to this, whether it's in another post, or as an update to this one.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Talking Heads: Dawn of the Dead and Bad News

We stuck with George Romero for the second film in our Zombie Fictions class. We called the first section of our class "Foundations" and wanted focus on the groundwork laid by Romero in the first two of his genre defining works. We spent a lot of time talking about what a zombie is according to these films, as well as exploring the ways horror can be conveyed in films. For Dawn, however, we wanted to bring attention to the fact that from the beginning the best zombie films were about much much more than just terror and gore: these films were meant to convey larger messages, often in the form of social critique. The assignment asked the class to tease out one of those underlying meanings.

"This week, we will be covering another classic Romero film, the second part of his initial trilogy, Dawn of the Dead. One of the things that sets Dawn apart from Night is how obviously it functions as social commentary (Night certainly does this as well, but in much subtler ways). Clearly, the most blatant critique Romero makes in the film is of the growing consumerism and materialism of the 1970s. For this blog, I want you to identify one other social issue (NOT consumerism) that the film provides commentary on, and explain how the film develops this critique. However you decide to analyze the film - individual scene, character development, setting, thematic elements, etc. - your blog should include direct "textual" support for your claims. This is a close reading exercise, so it is important that you provide evidence from the film to inform your argument. This movie is also widely available on Youtube, so it should not be difficult to post or link to the scenes that you are referencing." My model blog for this assignment begins after the pic.

            It becomes clear very early on in part 2 of George Romero’s classic zombie trilogy that Dawn of the Dead is not going to let up on the critique of the news industry that began in Night of the Living Dead. If anything, the opening scene of Dawn, and the television segments that periodically follow it, depict an even bleaker image of corporate news than the bumbling but well-intentioned incompetence of the newsmen in Night. Where Romero’s first film seems to question how much faith audiences should put into the moving mouths on their televisions and radios, Dawn of the Dead serves as a stinging indictment of the people responsible for bringing the news to air.
Like this jerk
            Despite their inability to provide much in the way of helpful information, “at this point, there is no really authentic way to say who or what to guard yourself against” (33:10) “we don’t know yet what complications could arise from such injuries” (1:01:10); a tendency toward contradiction, “do not venture outside for any reason” (33:55) becomes “look for the name of the rescue station nearest you, and make your way to that location as soon as possible” (57:29); and being the source of bad advice that gets everybody killed, “leave the relatively safe place you’ve found to travel 17 miles through an unfamiliar rural area overrun by flesh-eating undead monsters at night” (I’m paraphrasing…), there is very little reason to question the motivations of the men (exclusively) providing the news in Night of the Living Dead. Professional and coherent, but admittedly ill-informed, the newsmen of Night are trying their best to help, by providing “the facts as [they] know them” (32:30). The critique is less of the news, and more of people like Tom, Ben, and the Coopers, who place all of their faith in TVs and radios instead of thinking critically for themselves.
Dawn of the Dead does something decidedly different (alliteration combo +5!). By opening the film behind the scenes at a news station (WGON-TV), all of the attention is focused on the newsmakers themselves. It’s not a pretty picture. More troubling, though, than the chaos that seems to have overrun the station, or even the bickering that occurs between an apparently knowledgeable scientist guy and a talk show host more interested sound-bites than journalism, is how it is determined which information makes it on the air. Gone is the aspiration to present the “facts,” replaced by a determination to maintain viewers at all costs. Of course, not everybody is so ratings-driven.
Upon finding out that the rescue station list that had been scrolling across the screen was out of date and woefully inaccurate, Francine decides to pull it off of the air until a more up to the minute list can be compiled. This doesn’t go over well with her boss, Givens. His concern, however, is not that Francine has usurped his authority (she has) or that he believes the list is correct (he doesn’t), but rather that if the list is not on the screen, accurate or not, “People won’t watch us; they’ll tune out!” (3:47). Francine is apparently more interested in the well-being of her audience than what station they happen to be watching, though: “Are you willing to murder people by sending them out to stations that have closed down?” (3:49). The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be yes, as Givens responds unequivocally that he wants “that list on the screen every minute that we’re on the air” (3:52). Although the battle between Francine and Givens takes center stage, this is not an even contest: in addition to Givens’s callous unscrupulousness, the conscientious producer must also contend with the indifference of her colleagues, who are more interested in following orders than doing the right thing. Indeed, at least 3 other news workers are complicit in putting the erroneous rescue station list on the air, and keeping it there for at least 12 hours. 
But the TV said...
      With the 1980 launch of the Cable News Network, the concerns illustrated in Dawn of the Dead proved prescient as ratings-driven news became not just a worst-case scenario, but an accepted norm. For those of us that have been raised in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, there has never been any other way. However, in this film, Romero gestures to and bemoans the troubling shift that occurred between Night and Dawn, from news meant “to keep you informed of all developments” (32:26), and news solely designed to keep you watching. The message, more relevant now than ever: tune in at your own risk.

The Haitian Zombie Issue Pt. 3

Finishing up what I started on Part 1 and Part 2 of my thoughts on the relationship between Haitian zombies and Romero zombies (i.e. the multiplying, contagious, mindless, flesh-eating zombies we typically think of when we hear the word "zombie"): Ultimately, I would contend that what most distinguishes Haitian zombies from the figure that has appropriated their name, is that they (the Haitian zombies) are not monsters. They are victims. They are not terrifying; what has happened to them is terrifying. Their mode of existence has become monstrous, but they themselves are not monsters. Although you could certainly contend that Romero zombies become zombies by being the victimized (Night of the Living Dead clearly explains that any recently dead person will become a zombie, but the more common understanding that has arisen since then is that you become a zombie by being bitten by a zombie), with Haitian zombies their monstrousness (if it exists) is situated precisely within their victimhood. If they are monsters, a claim that I think is dubious at best, it is based not on what they currently are or do, but rather on what has been done to them and taken from them.  But if we begin to categorize any victim that frightens or unsettles us as a monster, that would really open the whole field up to an unsustainable degree, don't you think? Were do we draw the line? Are acid attack victims monsters? Or Ronald Poppo, the victim of the Miami cannibal? 
I would argue no. They make us uncomfortable, and we absolutely fear ever going through what has happened to them. Monsters, though? I don't see it. We fear becoming them, the same way we fear becoming Haitian zombies, but we do not fear them. Would they be monstrous if they start beheading people or drinking blood or starting fires with their minds? Now we can talk.
In almost all cases, the horror monster is the violator of the natural order and the perpetrator of heinous acts. The monster is never solely the victim of these acts or violations. The Haitian zombie, as much as it may unsettle us, does not engage in horrific acts or exhibit any degree of dangerous or violent behavior unless they have been explicitly commanded to by the Bokor who created them. Indeed, I would have no trouble acknowledging the Bokor as a monster. It is the Bokor that denies the dignity of death in creating the zombie. It is the Bokor that is the perpetrator the crime that is to be guarded against. It is the Bokor that is reviled and feared, not the powerless and obedient zombie. In the context of post-revolution Haiti, this is not at all surprising (those with power were infinitely more frightening than those without).

My argument here is not that Haitian zombies are not real zombies, or authentic zombies, because of course they are. In fact, they are the truest iteration of the zombie and the origin of the term (though not the more popular figure). Rather, my point is they are not what we have (erroneously, but whatever, it's too late to change it) come to refer to as zombies. It's not so much a matter of being more or less real as it is of being completely different constructs that just happen to be identified by the same word. A Haitian zombie is a real zombie, just not the zombie that has come to dominate our current cultural moment. What's more, they aren't even an earlier or originary version of the flesh-eating walking dead figure that has overwhelmed our popular consciousness. If the Haitian zombie is foundational to the Romero zombie (it's not), it's foundational in the way that ghosts, ghouls, revenants, and vampires are as well. I would actually contend that the Romero zombie owes less to the Haitian zombie than it does to a great many other undead figures (ghouls and vampires chief among them). 

A silly but hopefully instructive analogy: in espionage, a mole is a long-term, undercover operative. In nature, a mole is a small, subterranean mammal. The spy mole clearly takes its name from the creepy blind rat thing. But that's about as far as it goes. Like the mole, if the Haitian zombie is foundational to zombies as we know them, it is only obliquely so.

You're an “underground” spy. Moles live underground. You're a mole. 

You're a monster that comes back from the dead. Zombies “come back from the dead.” You're a zombie. 

There's really nothing more to the relationship than that (there is more to being foundational than tangential similarity; werewolves are generally mindless, they eat flesh, and their condition is transmissible via their bite - more profound similarities than those shared by Haitian zombies and Romero zombies - and yet the werewolf isn't a foundational figure for the zombie either). The Haitian zombie does not inform the conventions of the new zombie any more than little moles help us understand spies. Obviously, there is a species gap between moles and moles that helps defer any confusion between the two. We don't have that between zombies and zombies, both of which derive from human corpses (or "corpses" depending upon your personal understanding of Haitian Voduo practice), so the two become conflated. This is unfortunate, because both constructs are wildly interesting and deserving of our attention and each has much to say about the culture that created them. I feel, however, that attempting to correlate the two beyond their passing similarities and shared name only unnecessarily muddles our understanding of either. 

Agree, disagree, think I'm dumb? Comment below.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Haitian Zombie Issue part 2

Picking up from where we left off yesterday

Design by Javier Ramos Eguiluz
Now that we've gone through and poked holes in their apparent similarities, I want to discuss some of the substantial differences between Haitian zombies and those introduced in Night of the Living Dead. First and foremost, there is a startling discrepancy in appetite. As noted above, the walking dead in Romero's film feast on the flesh of their victims. Haitian zombies... not so much. In "... Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," the zombies diet is described as a pot of millet or plantains seasoned with dried fish and garlic” (Seabrook 43). Not only was the food prepared for the zombie slaves "flavorless and unseasoned," it was decidedly vegetarian (well, pescatarian, I guess, with the dried fish seasoning): “for as everyone knows, the zombies must never be permitted to taste salt or meat” (Seabrook 43 emphasis mine). I read that and I turned into that lady from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. What do you mean they don't eat no MEAT?
However, not only do the zombies from Haiti not consume the human body, they don't rend or tear it either. Theoretically they could, if they were commanded to, but there don't seem to many (or any) Haitian narratives where this is the case. The dismemberment and consumption of the body, ideas so central to the uncanny dread embodied by Romero's monsters, are simply not accounted for, or even gestured to, by their Haitian counterparts. 

Incredible art by Luca Cauchi
Haitian zombies also fail to proliferate in the way that modern zombies do. If Romero's zombies gain their terrifying power from their ever-increasing numbers, from their ability to overwhelm (they certainly don't get it from their agility or intelligence), it is important to acknowledge that the state of Voduo zombification does not spread from the undead to the living. Although the numbers of Haitian zombies can be said to increase, that increase is limited by the level of activity of the bokor. However many zombies he or she can reasonably create and control is how many we have. That's not the case with Romero's zombies. Because every newly dead person will return as a violent and voracious zombie in Romero's films, their numbers increase exponentially. Not only does each newly dead person come back a zombie, but each new zombie kills people and creates new zombies, who then kill people and create new zombies, and so on. 
The fear of the horde or the swarm is, for the most part, not present in the tales of Haitian zombies. Even when there are large numbers of Haitian zombies present, they usually have better (read - more lucrative) things to do than to terrorize the living with their sheer numbers: I mean, that cane isn't going to cut itself, now is it. The fact that Haitian zombies are almost always in the minority with regards to their living counterparts, while the Romero zombies constitute a horrifying and multiplying majority in their fictions, situates the Haitian zombie as a deeply marginalized figure in a way that makes them more analogous to the "survivors" of modern zombie narratives than their monsters.  

Finally, Haitian zombies, though often physically impressive, do not seem to be by any means indestructible (they are similarly as disposable as Romero zombies, but that's something different entirely). I will admit some ignorance as to what it takes to kill a Haitian zombie and how they react to pain (if at all); this issue simply hasn't been raised in any of the Haitian zombie narratives that I am familiar with ("... Dead Men" mentions zombies being beaten, but it does not indicate to what effect). There is nothing that would seem to indicate, though, that they are impervious to bullets or having their fingers mangled the way that the risen corpses from Night of the Living Dead clearly are. Whether your understanding of the Haitian zombie posits them as real corpses or only apparently dead, most of the normal rules of human physiology seem to apply: though in lesser amounts than living humans, they still require some amount of food, water, and rest. Although we know that tasting salt will make them aware of their condition and lead them to march directly back to their graves and fall down, "carrion," we are never given any reason to think that a bullet to the head, or being engulfed in flames, wouldn't work just as well. Much of the fragility of humans seems to be retained by the Haitian zombie figure, in a way that it isn't by the Romero zombie, which again aligns them more with people than with the people eaters.

To be concluded in part 3

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Haitian Zombie Issue

No. No. No.               


Okay, so I’m about half of the way through Doc of the Dead on Netflix (it’s a little too goofy for its own good, but it has some stunning visuals in its interlude pieces and it includes fascinating interviews from some very heavy hitters in the zombie community) and I’m getting really frustrated, so I’m going to take a few minutes to just vent here.

Cool? Good.

Here’s my problem: Haitian zombies aren't zombies. 

There, I said it. They just aren't. 

Although they share a name with the creature introduced and popularized by the works of Romero (a slow moving, mindless, reanimated corpse that craves human flesh, that multiplies by killing victims who then become zombies, and that can only be (re)killed by a direct attack on its brain), the Haitian Vodou zombie should not be confused with zombies as we now think of them (i.e. the zombies this blog is dedicated to). Despite a few obvious similarities, in most observable ways the Haitian zombie and the Romero zombie are two separate constructs and, though linked thematically, should be considered as distinct from one another. Of course, I'm not implying that we should not refer to Haitian zombies as zombies (it is THEIR name, after all), but rather that it is necessary to acknowledge the fundamental differences between the two concepts in order to gain a full understanding of either.

First, though, let's get through the apparent similarities: Haitian zombies are people raised from the dead*, and Haitian zombies are mindless**. That's pretty much where it ends. And, in both cases, the seeming similarity is undermined in some sense (hence, the asterisks).

To begin with, *Haitian zombies are not actually raised from the dead, but rather are raised from the grave. This qualification, of course, is in reference to the fact that our current understanding of the Haitian zombie (and even certain early Haitian understandings), does not identify the zombies as dead but as seemingly dead. This is indicated as early as W.E. Seabrook's "... Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," the short story most responsible for introducing the Haitian zombie to the popular consciousness. At the end of the story, the narrator relates a passage from the official Haitian penal code which seems to offer a non-supernatural explanation for presence of reanimated corpses: "Article 249. Also shall be qualified as attempted murder the employment which may be made against any person of substances which, without causing actual death, produce a lethargic coma more or less prolonged. If, after the administering of such substances, the person has been buried, the act shall be considered murder, no matter what result follows" (Seabrook 49). However, whether working under this seemingly more rational explanation, or the folkloric understanding of the zombie as "a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life [...] a dead body which is made to walk and act and move as if it were alive,” the Haitian zombie is a corpse that "came from the grave" (Seabrook 41). Which, on the surface, is a bit of a nitpicky distinction, but it signifies nonetheless. In both cases, Romero and Haitian, it is the newly dead (or apparent dead) who return. However, in Haiti, it is exclusively corpses that have been buried that are revived while in Night it is exclusively those bodies that have not been buried that return. The latter indicates an interruption of the proper death rites. The former, however, gestures to a willful violation of death itself (more on the Bokor later).

Zonbi, by Wilson Bigaud, 1939
Next, although, for people like zombie connoisseur John Skipp the tragic truth about Haitian zombies is that "they [are] slaves. Either raised from the dead to do some vile master's bidding, or somehow mesmerized into mindless subservience, zombies were the husked-out shells of humanity, whose sole purpose was to do the degrading shit no willful soul would do. In that sense they were the ultimate slaves, in that they had no will of their own," ** Haitian zombies are not actually mindless (Skipp 10). Though the same could be said of the zombies in Night of the Living Dead - who try car door handles, use basic tools, shield their eyes from branches, and demonstrate basic self-preservation skills in avoiding fire - the Haitian zombie is un-mindless in a very different way.
Know what sucks? Doin' this.
Photo: Sean Smith
Not only are they capable of far more intricate tasks (reaping sugar cane is not an easy chore), but they are actually able to follow orders. This indicates a level of receptive communication that the Romero zombies simply lack. This is decidedly not a trivial distinction; the Haitian zombie is defined by its tractability, the Romero zombie by their inability to be controlled. Where the Haitian zombies are literal slaves, the Romero zombie is a slave only to its appetite. These are very clear indications of the stark differences in cultural anxieties between the two societies that created these very distinct monstrous figures. To grossly oversimplify, one fears being controlled, one fears being out of control.

(I just realized that Haitian zombies and Romero's both shamble very similarly in a way that is not readily undermined in any demonstrable way. So there's that linking them, I guess. In the immortal words of Deep Blue Something, "Well, that's the one thing we've got").

To be continued...