Return of the Living Dead, Pt 1: The Way of All Flesh
The supernatural entity a man prefers in cinema attests to his entire cast of mind. For example, vampires have always attracted the simple-minded Romantic. Their appeal is obvious: rank egoism, which since the nineteenth century has been elevated to the highest form of art. Movies often "humanize" the vampire. For the modern Romantic, a "humanized" character is merely one that exhibits the viewer's own flaws but in a simultaneously sympathetic and glamorous light. Thus, in Gothic - a powerful, ironic dissection of the Romantic sensibility that I reviewed previously - Lord Byron and his friends make "monsters" of themselves to justify their vices. Lord Byron's selfishness makes him "demonic"; Shelley's weakness makes him "a dreamer."

How different, how much wiser, is the representation of zombies in film! It is no coincidence that the zombie is the only movie monster to share a name with a philosophical concept. For, movies such as Return of the Living Dead are philosophers' movies.

The Dead Boy, a rare woodcut by German artist Matthias Grunewald, circa 1519

First of all, the zombies in Return of the Living Dead are far more tragic characters than any undead king or brooding vampire. What being could represent the terrible plight of consciousness trapped within brute matter better than the zombie? Zombies are in constant pain because their whole awareness is enslaved by the absurd, obscene, mechanistic laws of their physical being. Eating human brains is a religion for the zombies. It is the only way they can cope with the unbearable sensation of staying conscious while their flesh stiffens and their blood pools in their bodies.

Grotesque, except - is this not also our predicament, as human beings? Have we not too created religions, to cope with the horrors of our physical existence? With the fact of our mortality?

This is where Return of the Living Dead exhibits its moral superiority to other most other movies. For the zombies never invite our sympathy, despite the uncomfortable parallels we can draw between us and them. The zombies are a grotesque parody of us. They must be stopped, destroyed. They show us, in contrast to the prevailing beliefs of our culture, that there is no nobility in giving in to the yoke of matter.

The "philosophical zombie" helps us clarify what we mean when we speak of being human and conscious. Likewise, the zombies in Return of the Living Dead help the main characters affirm their own humanity by showing them the utterly inhuman.

When the zombies start appearing, the characters unite, young and old, to try to stop and kill them. For the most part, they abandon their petty agendas, to commit acts of either great bravery or great cowardice. The teens partying in the graveyard drop their cynical poses and put their lives on the line. A man prepares to fire a bullet into the head of an innocent girl so she doesn't become a zombie. Another cremates himself alive to prevent this fate. Debts are forgotten. Lasting values are found.

Indeed, these are the times in our lives when we feel the most like ourselves, the most human. Our spirits rise when we are alongside our friends, straining our abilities to the utmost in the fight against an utterly contemptible foe. When the world is cleanly divided into Self and Other, only then is our affinity with it total. Only then do we feel "complete"; just as a zombie must feel when it is chomping on the human brain, imagining that it is temporarily relieving its suffering.

Posted by xerxes on Tue, 01 Apr 2008 02:01:31 -0400 -- permanent link

The Gallery at LPR
158 Bleecker St., New York, NY
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

All content c. 2008-2009 by the respective authors.

Site design c. 2009 by sweet sweet design