chapter  4
The zombie opera
Pages 23

Still puzzling over the photograph of the blood-spattered girl in a fairy dress, I’m struck by how different its erotic language is to the poetic language of the first modern zombie incarnation, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). There are young zombified girls aplenty in this film – stumbling through the night and plucking at the flesh of the newly dead – but the film’s language doesn’t lend itself to this kind of violent erotic fantasy. The language of the zombie feast – of blood, ruptures, tears and entrails – is the same, but there is nothing eroticised about its violence. Quite the reverse. In Romero’s first zombie film attention keeps shifting from oneiric scenes of zombies gathering and eating to the captivating drama unfolding in a besieged farmhouse. The zombies massing outside interrupt and frame the drama but they never colonise our, the viewers’, point of view, which is always moving between these two very different realities and their intermittent violent intersection. This juxtaposition of the zombie crowd and the individuated narrative of the survivors creates its own poetics: a grammatical structure

underpinning the film’s allegorical eloquence. The power of Romero’s original film as a critical exploration of modern violence – rather than a celebration of it – has to do with the dialectic he establishes between the mute violence of the zombie mass and the individuated narratives of the survivors. The enigma of the zombies can only be grasped within this

dialectic. On their own, zombies don’t signify much at all, but embedded within the dialectic of individuation and massification they assume an immense allegorical power. Of course many fictional zombie works are simply celebrations of an eroticised violence. Redneck Zombies (1989), for example, is one of many such films whose entire raison d’être is to visualise ever new forms of dissection, decomposition and decay for the spectator’s pleasure. Zomblies (2010) exists purely to showcase special effects, actions scenes and some powerful weaponry. There are many zombie fictional works like this, endlessly repeating mute and repetitive dissections of bodies. Some argue that the graphic montages of extreme violence typical of zombie films have a radically decentring power deriving from the way they dismember bodies, texts and the affective responses of their viewers (Arnzen, 1994). But Zombie texts, however extreme their violence, can be the stupidest of works or the sharpest, just as zombie publics can be mindlessly violent or exuberantly creative. Violent montage, however fragmentary explosive or uncanny, can’t in itself explain the allegorical power of zombies today. Zombies, at their best, do more than explode our ‘viewing positions’ and at their worst this is all they do. Part of what zombies do – their theatrical function within the

genre – is provide a chorus, a de-individuated mass framing and contextualising the actions of individuated protagonists. The crowd – so often idealised in the ideologies of the twentieth century – is revisioned as a mute and brutal mass animated by a singular impulse, a will to devour the living. The moan-filled cries of the zombie chorus – susurrating with the death rattle, hungering to devour life – frame the messy, confused and often

treacherous acts of individuated survivors. In zombie films, the individual carries the spark of life; en masse there are only zombies. But, en masse, zombies are always getting the better of the living. One by one, survivors slip up and transform in a passage of seconds, from individual subject to viscera feeding the dumb hunger of the crowd. The camera (and zombie fans) love these moments when hundreds of hands and mouths, tear and rip in rhythmic unison. But for people who hate zombie films it’s the evident jouissance on display in these moments that disgusts them. Zombie films seem to invite their viewers into an unmediated enjoyment of violence, horror spilling into the pleasure of watching living bodies mutate into a mess of entrails. Reviewers often reinforce this by gauging the success of a zombie film by its capacity to deliver new scenes of graphic butchery, creating a discourse in which ‘uncompromised’ graphic violence becomes an aesthetic virtue in itself. Critical writing on the other hand tends to interpret these scenes of violence allegorically. Steven Shaviro (1993: 4), for example, argues that zombies are a:

nearly perfect allegory for the inner logic of capitalism, whether this be taken in the sense of the inner exploitation of living labour by dead labour, the death-like regimentation of factories and other social spaces, or the artificial externally driven stimulation of consumers.