Friday, July 29, 2011

Mutants and Zombies: part 2: the coming of the zombies


“We’re a crowd, a swarm. We think in groups, travel in armies. Armies carry the gene for self-destruction. One bomb is never enough. The blur of technology, this is where the oracles plot their wars. Because now comes the introversion. Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want.”

The Omega Point, Don DeLillo.

In October of 1968, the zombies invaded America, seemingly from nowhere. The movie Night of the Living Dead was a cheapie independent that had been shot guerrilla style for just 114,000 dollars. It came from the dimly lit fringes of the entertainment industry, from the strange melange of ersatz viscera and eroticism that would come to be affectionately labelled exploitation cinema. Director George A. Romero was an unknown who had produced commercials and industrial films for a company co-founded with friends called The Latent Image. Night of the Living Dead came, like the unsettling yet addictive snuff transmissions in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, from Pittsburgh, of all places. In a sense, everything about the film, including its commercial success, was unexpected and shocking.

And yet, if Night of the Living Dead seemed to come from nowhere in one sense, in another it came from everywhere – from the whole fabric of American life in that period. The sixties are presented to us today largely in terms of the naivety and idealism of the hippies, but those endless archival images of pastoral Be-Ins and cavorting flower children belie a period increasingly haunted by visions of violence both at home and abroad. In 1967, Warner Brothers had released Arthur Penn’s New Wave Depression caper Bonny and Clyde. It was the first in a tangentially related sequence of films that scandalized audiences due to a new frankness in their depiction of violence. These films were seen as an indirect response to the exposure of American television viewers to a barrage of newsreel footage from the war in Vietnam. In the earlier and more optimistic years of the Space Age, the preeminent promise and boast of the entertainment media had been of a kind of exalted remote viewing or bilocation: YOU ARE THERE! This promise had been actualized, albeit in a way the Space Age corporate Utopians could scarcely have imagined. For every streamlined kitchenette of the future, every Technicolor adventure in a back-lot Congo, you were also there at Dealy Plaza, there on the streets of Chicago in ’68, there amid the chaos that spawned Mai Lai. Violence was no longer abstract and localized; it was everywhere, and it was transmitted, paradoxically, by the technologies that sought to streamline and manufacture consent. Nor was this violence limited to transmissions from Vietnam; it permeated the whole of American society with the sense of nation at war with itself, ready to erupt like a powder keg at any moment. On April 8, 1968, a couple of months before the release of Night of the Living Dead, Martin Luther King was assassinated on the balcony of his motel in Memphis, Tennessee, prompting more than 48 hours of intense rioting in Chicago. At roughly the same time as the King assassination, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson picked up a couple of female hitch-hikers and brought them back to his home in Pacific Palisades. This was Wilson’s initial introduction to a guru from the Haight-Ashbury scene, an ex-convict who had been taught how to play steel-guitar in prison by Bonnie and Clyde contemporary Alvin Karpis. His name was Charles Manson. An intense race war between the whites and blacks of America would become the cornerstone of Manson’s unhinged vision of the coming apocalypse.

Of all the movies that pushed the boundaries of screen violence during the Vietnam era, none was as raw, visceral, and shocking as Night of the Living Dead. It was the very first fictional movie to employ documentary style realism, and the first to present its action both as immediate cinematic drama and as a simultaneous live media event. Echoing the name of his earlier industrial film company, Romero had conjured up the latent image of America’s apocalyptic dread in the latter years of the sixties, a subconscious negative of sudden and complete social breakdown and chaos in which You Are There. As with the coming of the mutants, the zombies, apart from the obvious fact of being deceased, didn’t look all that different from everybody else. But whereas the mutants were us with the addition of something novel and extraordinary, the zombies, on the other hand, were a radically diminished version. They were us without self-consciousness, intelligence, or individual identity. The zombies were not frightening when considered as single entities; instead they evoked a horror of mass, homogenised banality, of a large group united only by sheer instinct and brute appetite.


The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.

Stephen Hawkins.

Romero’s greatest gift as a filmmaker was the ability to douse sharp political allegory in buckets of blood. If the allegory of Night had been open-ended and opaque, it couldn’t have been more explicit in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. By the late seventies, the threat of domestic violence and social breakdown had essentially dissipated into the threat of its opposite: the looming spectre of terminal apathy. With most of its action shot in the Monroeville shopping mall in Pennsylvania, Dawn of the Dead suggested that modern consumerism had produced a population of zombies: a homogenised mass whose unreflective behaviours express a limited repertoire of culturally conditioned reflexes and appetites. Monsters traditionally reflect anxieties about potentialities lurking within human beings; the potential, for example, to regress back to a state of lawless savagery. But monsters always carry with them an idea of power, and this makes them alluring. The zombie was an entirely new kind of monster: sluggish and utterly slow-witted, it constituted virtually no threat as an individual, and only possessed power in mass. Romero wasn’t the first to express anxiety about mass culture in gothic terms, and indeed it could be argued that the first modern zombies were the denizens of the Unreal City in TS Eliot’s Waste Land:

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

While the satirical association between the zombie and the consumer has been widely discussed, there are other reasons why Romero’s creation has proved to be such an apt expression of various contemporary anxieties. The zombie is a biological automaton, whose whole behaviour can be reduced to a simple calculus of appetite, reflex, stimulus, and response. In this regard, the zombie would have found a happy home in the laboratory of the behaviourists. Behaviourism was a philosophical movement that developed in the twentieth century, essentially motivated by a desire to place psychology on the same empirically rigorous basis as the natural sciences. To do this, however, the behaviourists were faced with a thorny obstacle: the fact that psychology was not by its very nature amenable to the same empirical observation as purely physical phenomena and processes. To sidestep this problem, the behaviourists arrived at a spectacularly counterintuitive solution: in order to study the inner life scientifically, one would have to behave as though it didn’t exist, or was of no real consequence one way or another. The human personality could be best approached from the outside, where it could be reduced to a series of more or less automatic behaviours and physical processes. The behaviourist’s ideal human being was a zombie: an automated and predictable creature with no inner life, no real vitality underlying the motions of environmentally conditioned habit.

The behaviourists are given little stead today, and indeed have come to be mythologised as laboratory monsters to perhaps an excessive degree. But the logic of the behaviourists – the idea that in order for man to be scientifically understood, his inner life had to removed, reduced, or somehow downgraded in terms of ultimate significance – became a powerful force in the modern world. In the contemporary west, our image of ourselves and of our place in the universe is modelled by a powerful underlying idea: the notion that life, and after it self-consciousness and intelligence, are incidental, random by-products of matter, rather than essential properties. In this sense, the materialist philosophy narrows to an extraordinary degree the gap between the living and the inorganic: we begin to become zombies, to conceive of ourselves as sleep-waking matter with a peculiar presentiment of wakefulness. Two years before the release of Dawn of the Dead, Richard Dawkins published a book which would become hugely influential and iconic: The Selfish Gene. In one of the books most striking passages, Dawkins conveys the novelty and strangeness of evolutionary thought by adopting a style very akin to weird sci-fi:

“Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.” (Italics added.)

It is interesting to note the degree to which Dawkins' provocative image echoes the creeping menace of the zombie. Like the zombie, the DNA replicators and their human hosts have affectively no significance as individuals; they are concerned with the preservation of an aggregate. Like the zombie and the earlier vampire, the replicators and their hosts exist to make copies of themselves; the apparent complexity of our lives constitute no more than garbled and over-elaborated translations of the “remote control” command to survive and replicate. My argument here is not concerned with the validity or veracity of these ideas, but rather with their gradual, subconscious absorption into the cultural bloodstream, and subsequent manifestation in the cultural unconsciousness. Challenging scientific ideas can often be absorbed by the culture as a whole in blunt short-hand with little or no nuance. Or, on the other hand, they can be absorbed fully on a rational level, but leave more potent traces at the subconscious level, in much the same way that certain events in our private lives can be accepted magnanimously by our rational faculties, whilst swelling up as resentments beneath the surface. Of these challenging new ideas that have arisen from the natural sciences regarding human nature, the most palpable result is the development of what Raymond Tallis has labelled “pessimistic biologism”: an almost morbid acceptance of the notion that human beings, in the grand scheme of things, are insignificant cellular automations. In the last post, I argued that the X-Men reflected a positive myth of evolution as the potential to change dynamically into a higher, “heroic” stage of human development. Against this, however, we have the increasing ubiquity of the zombie. No longer shocking, as in Night, or genuinely satirical, as in Dawn, the zombie has never been more popular, nor ever less vital. The reason for this may be that we have come to except the lumbering mass of the undead more and more as the latent image of ourselves, and the cultural heat death we can’t seem to evolve our way out of. It may be that at a gut level, we now identify with the zombie, in the same way that Ken Kesey once identified with the Nietzschean promise of the superhero.

To be concluded shortly.