Rose London’s discussion of what the Zombie is as a creature of terror offers a simple historical perspective on a creature displayed in many different types of horror film. However contemporary commentators question this summary.
If, as Bryce, Dendle and Russell argue, the Zombie genre is a distinct entity within horror film, then it follows that the figure of the Zombie can be interpreted as holding meaning that differentiates it from other horror creatures. Therefore a clear understanding of the essential visual and thematic constructions of the Zombie is needed.
Commentators on Zombie film note characteristics that we can utilise for a definition. Leslie Halliwell notes the shifting definition of the term to mean “any kind of mindless slave”, though he specifies the original context is “dead people who are revived, more or less intact, to serve the purposes of the living”.
James B. Twitchell also uses this definition, arguing that the Zombie, like the Mummy, is an “automaton”, dismissing it as “an utter cretin, a vampire with a lobotomy”.
Other commentators, notably those who treat the Zombie as a figure of fear in its own right instead focus on the changing nature of the Zombie: Jamie Russell simply places the Zombie as representative of the fear of death.
Peter Dendle clarifies this by placing the changing representation of the Zombie into distinct time periods, arguing that the early cinematic Zombie are “robotic” with no “passions or drives”, while the Zombie films of the 1950s and 1960s are animated bodies that are also depersonalised, removed from family relations.
Zombie films of the late 1960s onwards changed this representation, into “gluttonous organisms demanding representation in the food chain”. Therefore the narrative use of the Zombie changes, in turn altering concepts of what the Zombie is. However, we can define key areas that are present in all descriptions and discussions of the Zombie, regardless of the historical context. This, in turn, can explain its ongoing use in culture, based on the significance of the dead body and the livings‟ reaction to it.
The Zombie is primarily an undead body resurrected. The manner of resurrection and the intent behind it alter in narratives, but the same starting point is required for the Zombie — it must be dead. The depiction of the Zombie indicates this status in various signifiers on the body. This begins with the movement of the Zombie in a slowly shuffling gait, with an overt rigidity to its stance and posture. The head is either fully raised to stare ahead, or lowered to indicate a servile status. This leads to the Zombie gaze, typified by authors and filmmakers as blank and depersonalised, represented by staring, occasionally bulging eyes.
As the personality of the Zombie is null, identification of a once held-individuality is present only in clothes. These are ripped, stained, covered in dust and can be the clothes are worn when alive, or the clothes the Zombies were buried in.
The Zombie can also be covered in dust or cobwebs, to indicate the dirt associated with burying, the final separation from the living. This separation in burial informs much of horror fiction, in popular literature and film history. As Walter Kendrick argues, we have separated ourselves from death physically but; “Even as we deny that our flesh must decay, however, we surround ourselves with fictional images of the very fate we strive to hear nothing about”. As such, the cultural separation from the dead body seems to indicate a need to consider the status and potential threat of the unburied body, which may indicate the significance of the fictional undead.
Historically, the separation from the dead in western burial practices occurred as a matter of urgency. The dead were separated quickly from the living, as a hygienic matter and also as a religiously motivated action. Catharine Arnold historicizes these two conflicting dialogues within burial practices: one spiritual in its treatment of the dead, one practical, considering the high historical mortality within populous city geography in her book ‘Necropolis: London and Its Dead’.
Arnold graphically charts the changing treatment of the dead body, and the cultural impetus to treat the dead body as revered and feared. Perhaps the most graphic example is in the medieval concept of the Danse Macabre — the Dance of Death. The actuality of death and its egalitarian nature — Death comes to us all — was depicted in various European churches to elicit both a sense of repentance and spiritual awareness.
As Paul Binski in Medieval Death notes, this occurred at a particular point in Western European art history when burial art: “Became thematized in the fifteenth century in a visual order of the grotesque, the bizarre and the morbid. The macabre is, in its treatment of the body, precisely about extremes, the moments of passage from intactness to decay, and from decay to annihilation.”
In these images death is a partially decomposed corpse, indicating a fascination with the physicality of decay. Death was an everyday visitor, and dead bodies were treated accordingly. As Arnold phrases it, “Londoners were born, baptized, married and buried in the Church … Corpses per se were not regarded as objects of fear … the significant thing was to be buried in or near the church. What happened after that was immaterial.”
However, a change in the manner of death instigated a newer form of disposal. This was when the Black Death appeared in Britain in 1348. The virulent disease meant that burial space had to be created quickly, to accommodate the victims. The nature of the plague was considered to be assisted by the dead bodies, so quick disposal became key, away from crowded church burial sites.
Here we can trace the beginnings of a shift in burial and religious practices, as the destruction of the plague weakened the working economy of the country. More importantly, the dead body began to be considered harmful in itself. This bears tremendous importance when discussing the later appearances of the fictional Zombie. Repulsion towards the dead, and especially death caused by infectious diseases remained, but religious practices still held dominance over the treatment of dead bodies.
Walter Kendrick specifically questions how the strength of these ideas were challenged when a shift in religious beliefs occurred during the Age of Enlightenment, linked with a rise in the middle classes. Undertaking became a business; graveyards were extended, along with lasting memorials that had previously been reserved for the upper classes. Cultural changes in how the body and spirit were viewed began, resonating much longer afterwards in western culture: “By 1872, the idea that the flesh will rot seemed as horrifying as ever, to mad and sane alike. The idea, however, had long since lost its religious usefulness: though it could still frighten, it no longer admonished … the Victorians exhibited a thoroughly modern squeamishness in regard to the symptoms of being dead. They continued a development that began at the end of the seventeenth century and has not ceased-hiding deadness away, cosmeticizing corpses, denying ever more strenuously that anything nasty happens to the body after death.”
There are obvious parallels here with the modern mortician/undertaker and their business, and with the concept of the “beautiful” dead. Following death, dressing and making up a corpse are accepted practices, all to preserve an image of life-likeness that the corpse no longer holds. All this is linked with the concealment of corpses until their internment.
The practices of cosmeticizing the dead, and the social impetus to remove the body as potentially harmful, is therefore both an indicator of how treatment of the dead body has become intrinsically connected with a negation of death, allied with a view of the body as harmful, leading to its removal from spaces inhabited by the living.
Dead bodies as waste and as potential carriers of disease informs many practices such as burial and cremation, and more potently, the separation of the dead and dying in hospitals. These practices, linked to hygiene, are unremarkable and commonplace to contemporary society, but are a concept that again draws a distinction between the living, the feeling and the thinking, and the dead. Here another aspect of the symbolism held in the Zombie body is apparent — that of the breaking of socially constructed borders and spaces, in the form of areas designated as inhabited by the living and those of the dead.