” Like the titular beasts in Hitchcock’s The Birds, the zombies invade the home, the city, the culture, but even more importantly in Night, they invade the self, like a disease, an infection that takes root in us and undoes us from the inside out. In this, the story of the zombie is a story of colonization — reverse colonization to be exact, a story where the Other finally has its day.”
My work attempts to rescue the zombie from its conventional metaphorical trappings, offering up the zombie as a postmodern force to be reckoned with, a deconstructive figure that encourages a deep reconsideration of our basic humanness. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is an invasion narrative, as are most zombie films. In this regard, the film is heavily influenced by The Birds (1963). Like the titular beasts in Hitchcock’s film, the zombies invade the home, the city, the culture, but even more importantly in Night, they invade the self, like a disease, an infection that takes root in us and undoes us from the inside out. In this, the story of the zombie is a story of colonization — reverse colonization to be exact, a story where the Other finally has its day.
Achille Mbembe asks in On the Postcolony, “If one is not a human being, what is one?” (174). In the colony, as Mbembe figures it, there are no individuals. There are only “things.” Thus, he talks about “the being-a-thing of the colonized” and, while he mostly limits his discussion of thingification to the colonized, he also describes the colonizer as a “long-fingered thing” (239).1 The colony, for Mbembe, is a locale without human subjects — or at least without live ones. For Mbembe, the human in the colony is always already fading — always already extinguishing or being extinguished. And being depends, in Mbembe’s vision, on unbeing.2 “If one is not a human being, what is one?,” Mbemebe asks, and I will take a stab at an answer, nervously aware that my fingers are beginning their dance: “then, one is a human being undone.” It is this figure, the human being undone, and the mode of their undoing that is the subject of On the Postcolony.3And it is this figure I turn to here.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
Numerous critics read Night of the Living Dead as a film about politics and 1960s America. Much of this critical work uses Romero’s film as a means to an end in making larger sociopolitical arguments about gender, capitalism, war, etc. Tony Williams argues in The Cinema of George A. Romero that the film “thematically interrogate(s) the dysfunctional mechanisms of a deeply disturbed society. It explicitly presented the image of an America in which the old values were now harmful and obsolete, leading to a chaos very few would survive unless some drastic personal, political and social change would follow” (32). It’s telling that Williams uses the past tense when describing the film, suggesting that it did (and no longer does) its political work — that the film is contextually dead to us. However, like all the best literary texts, Night speaks to us in the perpetual present. Thus, my work offers a still relevant theoretical account of the film and of the zombie, as opposed to a purely historical one. That work has been thoroughly (and exceptionally) done by Williams and the many treatments of the zombie that trace its evolution from early Caribbean travel literature to its first appearance on film in Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) to the birth of the contemporary zombie in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
About 10 minutes into the film, Barbara carefully investigates the house where she’s taken shelter after her initial zombie encounter. Throughout the scene, she seems resourceful even if also somewhat maladroit, stumbling in a slowly-creeping panic. She wades through shadows, darts in and out of a doorway, and then digs through a kitchen drawer to find a butcher knife that she hugs briefly to her chest. She hesitates as she enters another room, surprised by a series of random objects strewn about the floor, which she cautiously steps over as though they’re land mines. We see more shots of doorways, a total of 12 doors or doorways altogether in the three-minute scene. Barbara nervously peeks through one, hesitating at the threshold, her fingertips scraping the doorframe. The various framings also highlight the house’s many windows, thresholds its human denizens spend much of the film barricading and defending against the zombie onslaught. As Barbara moves around the house, she pulls back curtains and looks out two different windows, watching the zombies stumble about outside. She takes an active, investigative gaze throughout the scene, suggesting that she isn’t the quivering damsel many critics of the film make her out to be. While she certainly becomes more passive over the course of the film, I would argue that she is merely biding her time, waiting for just the right moment to pounce, like the plethora of taxidermy animals that adorn the walls of the farmhouse, empty and unmoving shells with a sudden menace when the camera approaches them from just the right angle.
We see Barbara framed with these taxidermy animals in several shots, and her character also becomes associated with windows and doorways (the car window that is smashed in the early scenes, the doors and windows inside the house, and the doorway she is pulled out of at the end of the film). Both associations establish and illustrate the role she plays for much of the film, a liminal character caught between the world of the living and the world of the dead. She begins the film as a mourner, paying respect at a cemetery to her dead father, and later mourns the death of her brother, killed by a zombie in the first scene. In America, we are reluctant to let go of our dead — reluctant to let them stay dead, being caught up instead with a desire to reconstruct and adorn their flesh as though it were still living. Barbara’s answer is to become deader and deader (and then undead) herself as the film proceeds.
After five minutes of rummaging about the house, Barbara encounters a corpse on the stairs of the farmhouse, the rare body in the film that is totally unmoving and assuredly dead. She climbs tentatively, one hand clutching the railing while the other presses firmly against the wall. Shadows from the banister criss-cross the frame. Barbara’s own shadow is doubled on the wall behind and in front of her, suggesting a self beginning to fracture. As Barbara comes upon the corpse, the film cuts to a close-up of her face in chiaroscuro. There is a non-diegetic scream on the soundtrack, a short burst, distorted and out of sync with the image, as if the cinematic apparatus itself screams and not Barbara. The next cut could be described as a “shock cut,” though this designation isn’t technically accurate. We’re still in the same house, and continuity suggests that the body lies at the top of the stairs directly in front of Barbara, and yet there is something unusual and otherworldly about the image of this corpse, as though we’ve left the reality of the film and are looking at something altogether more visceral and less fantastic than the cartoon-like zombies that menace Barbara elsewhere in the film.
The flesh hangs; the teeth are jagged and bloody; and the top of the face is framed by a thick layer of shiny, black goo that creeps across what’s left of the skin. The black substance fades into the shadows, which consume nearly half the frame. The one eye of the corpse gazes unblinking at Barbara, a single bead of light reflected in its eye. The shot is a fairly clear allusion to Hitchcock’s depiction of the body of Marion Crane in Psycho (1960), another corpse that does an inordinate amount of looking even after it’s dead. Like Marion, the body in Night performs its deadness, aware there are cameras about, although for this corpse the performance is a mockery. The teeth gape in an absurd lipless grin but don’t pose any real danger to Barbara, at least not any physical danger. This body doesn’t threaten to climb toward her, but the one eye beckons, a coy seduction, a provocation that Barbara might climb toward it. This is a turning point for Barbara, in which she forgets self-preservation and begins her descent into catatonia and hysteria. The shot is about the thingness of flesh — about the gross fact of death and the carnage that resides in us, oozing just beneath a thin layer of skin.
It might be more apropos, then, to describe this sequence as a “shot/reverse-shot,” an intimate interaction between Barbara and this bizarre figure she happens upon. For much of the film, Barbara is essentially a pod person, a mindless slave to the will of the group. At the outset, her hair is neatly coiffed, her outfit meticulously put together, and her skin coated to the point of being nearly reflective. She verbally spars with her brother in the opening scene, but her familial obedience suggests that she isn’t exactly willful. After coming across this body in the farmhouse, though, she becomes increasingly disheveled and slowly falls out of sync with the rest of the characters around her. With its one-eyed ogling, absurd grin, and dripping putty for skin, the dead face offers Barbara an alternative. In the shot/reverse-shot sequence, her impenetrability is set in contrast to the literal and figurative porousness of the dead flesh before her. Whereas Barbara resembles an embalmed cadaver with her monochromatic skin and sterilely powdered lids, the dead body is markedly uncured, textured, heterogenous, inviting her (and us all) to fray at the edges. Whereas Barbara’s character presents a stereotype, a signifier with just one oversimple signified, the damsel in distress, the corpse is complexly polyvalent, a signifier with so many signifieds that it fails to neatly signify anything.
Ben Hervey uses quite vivid language to describe this sequence in the BFI Film Classics edition on Night of the Living Dead: “That alien squall sounds again,” he writes, referring to the sound effect that stands in for Barbara’s scream, “and a savagely abrupt zoom pushes our face into a corpse’s. We’re realising that Night means to confront us with death more starkly than a horror film should. The face is hideously incomplete, raw and seeping. In this light, it’s hard to tell: has rot set in, or has someone torn the lips from those grinning teeth, peeled the lids from those eyes?” (41). Like the victims in early slasher films, such as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), this is an image of the body in pieces, a body that is dead but remains somehow lively. Hervey calls attention to this through his use of words like “seeping” and “grinning,” active present participles suggesting that, no matter how dead it might be, the head is still animate.
Barbara attempts to run from the house after her encounter with the body on the stairs, but her escape is interrupted as Ben, the film’s other main protagonist, arrives on the scene, not exactly the benevolent rescuer he seems. After being ushered back into the house by Ben’s threatening tire iron, Barbara is drawn immediately back to the stairs, seemingly hypnotized by the lurking presence of the corpse. The thingness of its flesh whispers a siren’s call, and she moves back toward it, with eyes fixed and mouth agape. Ben’s flurry of questions goes unanswered. “Do you live here?” She doesn’t. She continues to clutch the knife, now pressing the blade closer to her chest. Ben sees her looking at something, sees the body himself, and turns away from it instantly. “Jesus,” he exclaims. And, still, it beckons. Barbara at first seems almost to forget the body, but she hesitates again. Her gaze rakes sharply upward as one hand reaches out, a look of curiosity and longing coming across her face. She hears something dripping and looks down at the pool of blood near her feet, eyes still transfixed. There are two more abrupt zooms, the music swells, and several blood droplets hit Barbara’s hands. She runs from the stairs wiping at her hand vigorously, then brushing it against her coat, before finally rubbing her hands against her hair and face, all with a disgust that looks more like ecstasy.
After Ben kills several zombies in and around the house, Barbara is captivated by another body, this time a zombie laid flat on the living room rug, the victim of a recent pummeling from Ben’s tire iron. Hovering again in a doorway, Barbara moves toward the body on the rug as though a zombie herself, slack-jawed with halting footsteps and unblinking eyes. Shot in close-up, the dying zombie’s face is surrounded by a densely woven and intricately patterned carpet. The pattern looks almost like a topographical map, or like a series of chalk outlines, drawn one on top of the next, suggesting that more than just one body has died here — that our very geography as humans is constituted by layers upon layers of the dead. For Barbara, the body is a mystery she yearns to unravel, a puzzle, like Henry James’s figure in the carpet.4 Here, there is another shot/reverse-shot sequence between her and the zombie. The zombie’s eyes move slightly, and a look of acknowledgment comes across Barbara’s face. Ben shouts, “Don’t look at it!” But she continues to follow the body with her gaze as Ben drags it violently from the room. Hervey writes, “Barbara has seen too much. It’s not some medusan ugliness that makes looking at these ‘things’ dangerous: it’s because they’re too like us” (47). He calls Barbara’s encounter with the zombie “dangerous”; however, in The Cinematic Apparatus, Steven Shaviro figures it in much more positive terms: “We cannot in a conventional sense ‘identify’ with the zombies,” because they have no identity to speak of, “but we are increasingly seduced by them, drawn into proximity with them” (96-97).5 When Barbara looks, she feels pity but also attraction and recognition.
In “When the Woman Looks,” Linda Williams refers to “the often vindictive destruction of the monster in the horror film and the fact that this destruction generates the frequent sympathy of the women characters, who seem to sense the extent to which the monster’s death is an exorcism of the power of their own sexuality” (24). Thus, the monster’s “freakishness” is revealed to be “similar to [the woman’s] own difference” (21). In “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine,” Barbara Creed writes, “The horror film brings about a confrontation with the abject (the corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous-feminine) in order, finally, to eject the abject and redraw the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman” (46). Barbara’s look at the monster in Night has exactly this quality of disrupting the boundary between the human and the nonhuman, between the monstrous and the mundane. The film, though, doesn’t let the viewer off the hook by “redraw[ing]” these boundaries once they’ve been disrupted.
The monstrous body is a distorted body, with a certain (and demanding) to-be-looked-at-ness, much like the body of the woman as it is figured in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey’s analysis of the way film functions within patriarchal culture. In this essay, Mulvey is less interested in specific films (offering only cursory analyses) and more interested in the way the medium of film itself works to undermine female agency. She writes, “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (33). According to Mulvey, the woman in film is a bearer of meaning, not a maker of meaning. She is pure signifier, all dressed-up for maximum erotic impact. She is spoken of but does not speak. She is an object of the gaze but does not look. Mulvey flirts with the idea of a female spectator in the final paragraph of the essay, but she never fully appears.
In “Women and Representation: Can we Enjoy Alternative Pleasure,” Jane Gaines critiques Mulvey’s failure to allow women a spectatorial position: “The very questions that Mulvey did not address have become the most compelling: Is the spectator restricted to viewing the female body on the screen from the male point of view? Is narrative pleasure always male pleasure?” (84). Thus, Gaines figures the subject position of film as not invariably male, and while women are frequently objects of the gaze, they are not its only object.6 Belying Mulvey’s notion of the objectifying male gaze, Barbara’s look at the monster has its own order. The dead body and the zombie force us to reconsider the limits of our humanness — force us to reconsider the binary oppositions that fail to predetermine us. Barbara’s gaze gnashes and bites but does not eat, devours but does not digest. It is not a gaze at all but a look, a recognition, an acknowledgment of the monster — and of the many figures in the carpet.
REMAINDER / rɪˈmeɪndər / n.
Finally, I wander back to Mbembe’s question from On the Postcolony, “if one is not a human being, what is one?” I answered this question provisionally once before, and now I will take another stab at an answer: “if one is not a human being, one is a remainder.” Mbembe writes, “So the body is destroyed. It does not necessarily give way to nothingness; it makes way for the remainder. Then, for this remainder, there opens a time after death” (205). In the process of being made not human, the colonized body ultimately becomes the waste product of the dehumanizing project. This “remainder,” like the zombie, goes on after death, and assumes its sire’s insatiable hunger for flesh. Julia Kristeva also plays with this idea of the remainder in The Powers of Horror: “Remainders are residues of something but especially of someone. They pollute on account of incompleteness” (76). For Kristeva, this “residue” finds its way into all the nooks and crannies of our bodies, slowly turning us in upon ourselves. There is liberation in monstrosity, for Kristeva and Mbembe, and certainly for Romero, and not of the conventional sort (using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house would be an exercise in futility — i.e., zombies eating zombies). Instead, the vision of monstrosity here involves a liberation of the self — a movement from the rhetoric of rape to the rape of rhetoric (not using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house but using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s tools). Are we to believe, then, that the monstrous is evolution — that zombification is evolution? Yes, indeed, a (de)evolution.
- In describing colonial reason, Mbembe draws further attention to the thingness of the colonizer. He writes, “From the standpoint of so-called objective thought — as from the standpoint of colonial reason — the answer is simple. I have to project myself intentionally outwards and treat what is not myself in a certain way: in the terms of opposition, by distancing myself from it and, if need be, projecting against this non-I an inhuman gaze” (191). Here Mbembe puts himself in the position of the colonizer, offering up a sort of speculative ventriloquism. Mbembe, though does not explicitly identify or acknowledge his own thingness and the inevitable thingness of theory. [↩]
- Here, I would distinguish between “unbeing” and “nonbeing.” “Nonbeing” is the opposite of being while “unbeing” is a slow process or movement toward the removal or obliteration of being — not a simple negation or destruction but a methodical undoing. [↩]
- This argumentative leap from Mbembe to zombies is not haphazard. In fact, the zombie is a figure in Mbembe’s work, even if only an implicit one. For Mbembe, the Colony is a place of the grotesque, a “meta-text . . . about the beast,” and a “site of the strange and monstrous” (1). He writes, “Colonial language thus advances, deaf to its silent vibrations and endlessly repeating itself” (178). The colonizer (with his language and rhetoric in tow) “advances” like the zombie toward its prey, grasping and biting randomly, “deaf” but hypnotized by the sweet smell of live flesh. Like the zombie, the colonizer also feeds, for “above all, there is the relationship between death, body, and meat” (200). However, in Mbembe’s vision, the colonizer’s cannibalism may seem slightly more epicurean than the zombie’s. The colonizer, after all, has “recipe[s]” (197) and serves up his meat “on a platter of gold and silver” with “champagne” (201). Nevertheless, Mbembe makes plain that “power, in the postcolony, is carnivorous” (201). And, after being devoured, the colonized become zombies themselves, further perpetuating the project of colonization. [↩]
- In “The Figure in the Carpet,” James writes in the voice of his character, himself also an author, “‘There’s an idea in my work without which I wouldn’t have given a straw for the whole job. It’s the finest fullest intention of the lot, and the application of it has been, I think, a triumph of patience, of ingenuity. I ought to leave that to somebody else to say; but that nobody does say it is precisely what we’re talking about. It stretches, this little trick of mine, from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it. So it’s naturally the thing for the critic to look for. It strikes me,’ my visitor added, smiling, ‘even as the thing for the critic to find'” (20). Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the rest of his Dead films are filled with just this sort of “trick,” which James describes, moments that pass with barely a notice but reveal themselves to be intricate and layered on closer inspection. In interviews, Romero is often rather coy about the social and philosophical significance of his films, insisting that many aspects were entirely unintentional, realized only after the fact. These comments, though, are generally said with a wry glimmer in his eye and a laugh, suggesting that he is and has been more aware of potential interpretations of his films than he lets on. [↩]
- Tony Williams also offers a relatively positive account of Barbara’s look at the zombie: “This is the first appearance of a compelling gaze between humans and zombies, which will occur throughout the trilogy. Despite the barriers separating both species, the looks often exchanged between hunters and hunted hint at some deep, unconscious connection between the living and the dead” (27). [↩]
- Gaines’s point here also departs from the work of Mary Ann Doane, who writes in “Film and the Masquerade,” “the female spectator’s desire can be described only in terms of a kind of narcissism” (Doane 1999: 45), a comment suggesting women are always the object of the gaze even if they are also the possessor of it. In Doane’s account, the female gaze is necessarily turned upon itself. [↩]