It’s a rather cold Saturday afternoon in East London, and the undead are all around me. Corpses in varying states of decay, blankly shuffle across the rain soaked pavement uttering the odd moan, some disgorging a black sticky liquid from the corner of their mouths which dribbles down blood stained clothes. In the corner, three schoolgirls dressed in ragged kilts, grimy blazers and straw boaters claw at each other, smearing blood and puss over each other’s faces.
Suddenly one shouts ‘Tash! Don’t get it in my eyes, I told you…man that stings”. Her two companions flick off her boater and then collapse into fits of giggles as she whips out a tissue and frantically scrubs at her face. Luckily for me this is not the much-awaited Zombie Apocalypse, but simply DeadFest, a cosplay event taking place at Excel London.
Zombies, zombies everywhere
There’s certain degree of zombie-chic around at present. Once relegated to the fringes of low-budget horror (think Romero’s Living Dead trilogy, or 80’s Italian Horror), AMC’s The Walking Dead, alongside numerous films and computer game franchises have helped to make zombies very cool indeed. So it is perhaps not hard to see the attraction of indulging in a little undead dress up.
Kat, one of the decaying schoolgirls, explains: “Zombies allow horror cosplay to be more creative. Vampires pretty much have a uniform, all flamboyant and gothic and have been ruined for us by ‘Twilight’. You won’t see Kpat in Walking Dead (laughs). Zombies let you be whatever you want, brides, soldiers, even a schoolgirl. You can experiment with make up, body movement everything. They’re like a blank canvas.”
Whilst The Vampire Diaries and Twilight have arguably dragged vampires into the world of post-pubescent angst, screen-zombies have remained positively visceral . Despite their many manifestations, zombies are universally defined by their undeadness – a blank empty vessel that lacks any sense of self or being. They embody a sense of monstrous otherness: human, but not quite.
Losing our sense of self
This fine line between life and (un)death has become increasingly important in zombie fictions. Narratives have gradually moved away from simple fear of the presence of zombies, the new horror is that of becoming one. Since the undead are so obviously not human this of course can be read as fear of losing our humanity. The sense of otherness is central to this idea, as narratives increasingly explore what it means to be undead.
Unlike vampire fiction, where being ‘turned’ brings with it super-human attributes, an enhancement of our humanity, being undead in a zombie narrative is to give up a complete sense of self. The blank canvas is little more than a shuffling corpse driven only by base desires.
Yet no canvas is completely blank, in cultural terms. You might have noticed that zombies have become increasingly gendered in their representations. Jay Lee’s Zombie Strippers, the rise of zombie porn and the infamous Deadgirl – in which teenage boys keep a zombie girl in their cellar for sex – all point to an increasing interest in undead women. It is surprising then that more attention has not been paid to zombie gender representation. Compared with the critiques around female vampires and vampire erotica for example, zombies have pretty much missed the gender bus.
Yet there are parallels to be made. The zombie body, like the vampiric body, is a central signifier of undeadness. In much the same way that biological differences underpin the distinctions in gender between male and female, the zombie body – voyeuristically rotting and broken – defines life from undeath. Bodies encompass a range of cultural messages, so biological differences between males and females have historically been used to signify their behavioural differences and to place women in particular roles and representations.
The female zombie is equally situated but is doubly ‘other'; both undead and woman. On one side she needs to conform to the contradictions and tensions of what it means to be a woman, but on the other she has been relieved of all the things that make her human. Unlike the female vampire whose ‘feminine’ attributes are objectified and amplified, the zombie-feminine represents a double contradiction; simultaneously woman and not woman.
Written on the body
Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg explores similar tensions in his early films – most notably Videodrome and The Brood. Like zombie fiction, Cronenberg’s films are definitively body-conscious. They draw on imagery in which body dysfunction is seen as the physical manifestation of emotional dysfunctions. In The Brood for example, Nola’s external womb and the physical deformities of her offspring are a visual metaphor for her mental instability. Similarly, the rotting flesh of the female zombie body offers opportunities to objectify not just the female form itself – our gaze is increasingly drawn to its deformity, for example – but forces us to question that, if this is obviously ‘not woman’, what makes a ‘woman’?
Zombie cinema places patriarchal representations under the spotlight. The image of infinite legions of the undead, slowly, relentlessly overwhelming all before them and endlessly replicating themselves, are an allegory for the way that patriarchal capitalist structures both transform their subjects and continually reproduce. The shift from the critique of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead (the narrative takes place within a shopping mall) to the ecological subtexts of 28 days Later or Resident Evil (in which the zombie plague is unleashed on humanity by faceless corporations) highlights this capitalist subtext. Yet underpinning the zombie narrative is the fear that a global apocalypse of zombie infestation disrupts the natural order. The undead (read ‘not us’) will inherit (our) earth, and this is something to be feared.
The darkness within
All narrative traditions, at least in part, provide opportunities to explore our humanity through darkness. As Robin Wood reminds us, horror films in particular should be seen as something within us that has been suppressed and then projected outwards where it can be renounced. Of course, unlike the vampire body, the zombie body is not something that we aspire to. In this respect it’s the ultimate ‘other’.
Despite the schoolgirls’ cosplay delights, the decomposition of the animated corpse – the gradual melting away of all we once found attractive – is designed to be a distancing device. Zombies are interesting because they represent ‘stripped down’ humans; they are both physically stripped of flesh but their humanity has been distilled to base emotions and responses. They kill, they eat. they never sleep. They remind us that the negative traits within are more destructive than any bogeyman.
This is perhaps the ultimate horror, the realisation that we are the architects of our own destruction. In Deadgirl (2008) high school seniors Rickie and JT keep a female zombie in their basement as a sexual experiment. Somewhat aptly the poster features a pair of vertical lips (a homage to the vagina-denta of vampire erotica) since it is when Rickie forces ‘deadgirl’ to perform oral sex that she bites and infects him. Here predatory masculinity rather than the zombie girl is presented as horror. Although initially a victim, deadgirl (literally) breaks the shackles of her emancipation and turns on her abusers. But at the end of the film, when the boys attempt to find a fresh deadgirl in their friend Joann, the narrative remains unresolved – in much the same way that patriarchal structures loiter unchallenged.
Just like us
Zombie nature then is perhaps more similar to human nature than we would like to believe. As religious scholar Kim Paffenroth observes, “zombie movies imagine a scenario far worse than nuclear war or a cabal of vampires taking over the world: they present us with a world in which humans and monsters become hard to distinguish.” In Romero’s seminal Day of the Dead the reanimated Bub is ‘trained’ in order to restore his humanity by involving him in human pursuits such as reading, listening to music and most surprisingly of all, speaking.
If Bub could be trained to not attack humans and live a content life, is there hope for all the living dead after all? Perhaps not. As Deadgirl reminds us, there is little liberation when the undead are asked to merely replicate the living. It’s only through resorting to her zombie nature (biting off Rickie’s penis) that deadgirl is liberated from her plight.
In Day of the Dead Romero wryly observes of the zombie hoard, ‘they’re us’. But do we want them to be?