ZOM/BEING: The paradoxical nature of the living dead in cinema
Video Essay – Creator’s Statement
ZOM/BEING: The paradoxical nature of the living dead in cinema is a video essay that aims to explicate the pleasures of the zombie film and illustrate how its residence in the horror genre has spanned decades and continues to be alluring for audiences. As Olney remarks, “we have always had a closer kinship with the living dead than with other horror-movie monsters”: there is an intimacy between the human and the zombie. Of course, the zombie is often formerly human, but it is cinema’s personification, weaponization and eclectic representation of the iconography that renders the zombie a cinematic tool for filmmakers to exploit.
The video essay is structured around a central idea of paradox: the zombie exhibits a series of contradictions within their imagery and in the films they belong to. The unity of these contradictions is the essence of the zombie and what makes them so applicable to so many cultures and genres over so many years. The three parts of the video essay correlate to: their varying PACE, the SPACE in which they dwell in, and their expressive yet expressionless FACE.
PACE investigates the speed of the zombie, and how it can determine the pacing and tone of the film itself. The classical representation of the slow, bumbling zombie is concerned with the “contemplation of the horrific”: the lack of speed forces audiences to gaze upon a deformed, damaged and deconstructed human body. The unbalanced gait, sombre expression and minimalist mannerisms are as distancing as they are inviting an identification. In Zombi 2, (1979, Italy, d. Fulci) Susan (Auretta Gay) is almost paralysed with fear as she is confronted by a zombie quite literally rising from its grave, and in a series of shot/reverse shots, exemplifies this sense of ‘contemplation’ and concentration on the horrors of the zombie. The slow zombie becomes a spectacle of sorts, especially in Fulci’s grotesque iteration where the decay and dirt are highlighted through invasive, uncomfortable close-ups with a fish-eye lens. It produces a reaction of revulsion in the human protagonists, and therefore in the spectators, who find pleasure in viewing such violence and bodily destruction.
Train to Busan’s (2016, South Korea, d. Yeon) high-octane chase sequence through the carriages of a moving train infested with fast, blood-thirsty zombies provides a stark contrast with the aforementioned ‘contemplation’ of slow zombies. The fast zombies are akin to animals on the hunt, desperately galloping through each-other for a taste of flesh. Shot with shaky camerawork and a frantic editing style like in Dawn of the Dead (2004, USA, d. Snyder), they evoke a horror of surprise and relentlessness that resonate with “spectators relating to the human protagonists and to their situation in the diegetic world”, rather than the easily overpowered slow zombies, who are often deemed less frightening by contemporary audiences than those who are fast. This paradox is even recontextualised in the ‘zom-com’, as Shaun of the Dead’s (2004, UK, d. Wright) gross-out humour often revolves around the slowness and clumsiness of the zombie whilst in Zombieland (2009, USA, d. Fleischer) Columbus’ (Jesse Eisenberg) extensive rules of how to survive the apocalypse includes stretching in preparation for running away from zombies.
SPACE in a zombie film is used both as a “barometer of cultural anxiety” and as “wish fulfilment, catering to current fantasies about life in a postapocalyptic world without social structures and laws”. Recalling the seminal zombie offering Night of the Living Dead (1968, USA, d. Romero) and using Hervey’s writing on Romero’s film, the sequence in which Ben (Duane Jones) borders up the decaying Pittsburgh house can be viewed as to represent a paranoid, violence-stricken nation. The Harris Poll, a survey established in 1963 to examine the behaviours and attitudes of American adults, states that by 1968 (the release of Night), the proportion of Americans that were “seriously worried about crime and violence” was at two-thirds, in comparison to two-percent in 1963. This idea of the zombie film as a ‘barometer’ for societal concerns is present here, and the nihilist end to the film in which protagonist Ben is mistaken for a zombie and is shot dead, evokes imagery of the assassinations and Civil Rights movement that defined the turmoil of the late 1960s in America.
This allegorical use of the zombie is juxtaposed with how the human protagonists act in the apocalypse, carrying out activities usually unavailable to them with no consequences for their actions- not even for violence. In some cases, zombie films allegorise contemporary social issues and on the other, they can gleefully provide a utopian world to become immersed in. In Dawn of the Dead (1978, USA, d. Romero), this means raiding department stores and playing endless games in the arcade- spectators watch vicariously and perhaps enviously at their freedom in usually-occupied, but now vast and barren spaces. Romero critiques this urge to consume by contrasting these tonally-light moments of wish fulfilment, with sequences like one towards the beginning of the film where low-income housing projects in Philadelphia suffer the effects of classism and racism within the government-enforced martial law, providing subtext for the ravaging apocalypse.
To discuss the zombie is to discuss ourselves, and this could not be more relevant than in the FACE section of this video essay. However, there is a sense of ‘othering’ in some filmic depictions of the living dead. By distancing the human protagonist from the zombie antagonist, filmmakers can enact a sense of ‘othering’, where the zombie is considered “the ultimate foreign other”, as displayed in World War Z’s (2013, USA, d. Forster) Jerusalem sequence. Hordes of zombies are indistinguishable from one another in these moments, there is a complete lack of individuality, before the film’s ending indicates that the human face is the polar opposite, or an enemy, to that of the zombie as the star image of Brad Pitt in a two-shot with a zombie scientist suggests separation rather than likeness.
In 28 Days Later (2002, UK, d. Boyle), the enigmatic Jim (Cillian Murphy) that timidly explores the empty streets of London in the beginning, brutally murders a fellow human in the film’s chilling finale. His face covered in blood is shot in murky shadows and through unclear camerawork as he gouges a soldier’s eyes with his fingers; an innate violence not too different from the vicious zombies of the film. Jim’s characterisation is ‘mirroring’ that of a zombie, so much so that Selena (Naomie Harris) nearly stabs him- unsure if her lover is truly her lover anymore. The mimicking of zombie traits suggests a cyclical attitude towards violence and its ubiquity and inevitability in humanity, even when it is faced with the insurmountable obstacle of a zombie apocalypse.
Romero’s depiction of Stephen’s (David Emge) descent in Dawn of the Dead (1978) allows for many interpretations, and by piecing two images of Stephen together as alive and dead, it encapsulates this video essay’s argument for paradox. There is an image of a human with piercing blue eyes plagued with fear whilst he furrows his brow and dons an aptly obnoxious leather jacket, living up to the character’s sarcastic nickname of ‘flyboy’. It clashes with an image of death personified: vacant eyes, a deathly grey complexion with the mouth ajar whilst wearing a regular, white collared shirt splattered in blood, a connotation of a conformist eventuality for the average American. It is an image intended to provoke contemplation. Has Stephen simply become a blood-thirsty zombie? Or has he become what he has always repressed? Does it represent the violent history of man? Or perhaps a guilty America in the years succeeding the end of the Vietnam War? A visualisation of the effects of toxic masculinity, or a stern warning of mindless consuming in a capitalist ideology? Is the transformation into a zombie truly a transformation, or is it a mirrored image of humanity at its most primal, or most pathetic, or maybe even at its worst?
by Cameron Smith
28 Days Later (Dir. Danny Boyle, Prod. DNA Films, UK, 2002).
Dawn of the Dead (Dir. George A. Romero, Prod. Laurel Group, USA, 1978).
Dawn of the Dead (Dir. Zack Snyder, Prod. Strike Entertainment, USA, 2004).
Night of the Living Dead (Dir. George A. Romero, Prod. Image Ten, USA, 1968).
Shaun of the Dead (Dir. Edgar Wright, Prod. Studio Canal, UK, 2004).
Train to Busan (Dir. Yeon Sang-ho, Prod. Next Entertainment World, South Korea, 2016).
World War Z (Dir. Marc Forster, Prod. Plan B, USA, 2013).
Zombi 2 (Dir. Lucio Fulci, Prod. Variety Film, Italy, 1979).
Zombieland (Dir. Ruben Fleischer, Prod. Columbia Pictures, USA, 2009).
Dendle, Peter. ‘Zombie Movies and the “Millennial Generation” in Christie, Deborah, Lauro, Sarah Juliet (ed.) Better Off Dead (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011).
Hervey, Ben. Night of the Living Dead (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Olney, Ian. ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves’ in Zombie Cinema (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017).
Pinedo, Isabel Cristina, ‘Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film’ in Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing (New York: State University of New York Press, 1997).
Roche, David, ‘“That’s Real! That’s What You Want!”: Producing Fear in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) vs Zack Snyder’s remake (2004)’, Horror Studies (2:1, 2011).
 Ian Olney, ‘Our Zombies, Ourselves’ in Zombie Cinema (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017),
 David Roche, ‘“That’s Real! That’s What You Want!”: Producing Fear in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) vs Zack Snyder’s remake (2004)’, Horror Studies (2:1, 2011), p.82.
 Isabel Cristina Pinedo, ‘Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film’ in Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing (New York: State University of New York Press, 1997).
 Roche, Horror Studies (2:1, 2011), p. 78.
 Olney, Zombie Cinema (2017), p.8.
 Ben Hervey. Night of the Living Dead (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 51.
 Olney, Zombie Cinema (2017), p. 8.