Catastrophe preparedness "eight years later".
George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, which reinvented, the zombie at the end of the 1960s, became the model of a genre that was spent by 1983 when, in John Landis's music video Thriller, Michael Jackson danced with a pack of zombies. The King of Pop went on to scare tabloid readers, while the zombie remained in the domesticated camp. During the 1990s, the zombie managed to represent a threat of sorts for gamers who used them for target practice in the first installments of popular videogames like Resident Evil. But with the "war on, terror" everything changed. The surprising success of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002) could not be attributed solely to the makeover of the old clumsy undead swarm as raging current of infected zombies. The prospect of anthrax home delivery and the Chinese SARS cover-up lent its era to the new emphasis on bioterrorism in Grindhouse: Planet Terror (2007) and I Am Legend (2008). Max Brooks parodied with The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) the renewal of interest in survival through guidance. In 2004, Hollywood revived Romero's career by releasing a remake of his Dawn of the Dead (1978). Thus Romero came into the means for wrapping up his Dead series with the long-awaited Land of the Dead (2005). With Diary of the Dead (2007), Romero arguably restarts the Dead series with a new focus on self-reflexivity aimed at decrying media manipulation.
Another zombie film to fold out of this era of renewal, Andrew Currie's Fido (2006), pays homage to Romero's Day of the Dead (1985). Fido brings to a logical conclusion the experiments conducted in Romero's film by Dr. Logan (also known as Dr. Frankenstein) on Bub, his favorite zombie test subject. Bub became "teacher's pet" by learning to earn chunks of human flesh for good behavior. At the end of the film, as the zombies break into the bunker, Bub displays his loyalty to his dead master by hunting down Logan's murderer. But Bub isn't so much a domesticated pet as a new species between or beyond human and zombie (along the lines of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend).
According to the short film "A Bright New World" that opens Fido, Dr. Hrothgar Geiger's "domestication collar" has achieved Dr. Logan's dream. Zombie hunger has been tamed with the collar that, like its dog-training counterpart, can administer shocks, but which otherwise somehow transmits meekness to the wearer when the red light is on. It is the counterpart of the walkman in Day of the Dead that, when earphones and music are on, is as effective as his feeding schedule in transmitting self-control to Bub. Domestication and big business have replaced Beowulf's heroics to rid Hrothgar's kingdom of its monsters. Zomcom, which Dr. Hrothgar Geiger founded during the zombie wars, sells domesticated zombies to perform menial tasks in the homes and factories of gated communities. "A Bright New World," a duck-and-cover style of documentary shown to school children, delivers the Zomcom propaganda message that ultimate regulation of society against the threat of the "wild zone," where the untamed zombies and dissidents roam, requires properly conclusive mourning:
Thanks to Zomcom we can all become productive members of society, even after we die. Or, for those who can afford it, a Zomcom funeral, complete with head coffin, guarantees you a burial you won't come back from. Your tax dollars allow Zomcom new ways to protect our homeland from the zombie threat, giving us more time to relax and be with our families.... Zomcom, a better life through containment.
Despite the efforts of Zomcom's totalitarian regime, people die, domestication collars break down, fences are breached, and the twice-dead or mourned father continues to torment the Robinson family like a ghost. Bill Robinson was forced to take down his father who had turned zombie on him. Now, Bill has a bad case of zombiephobia. His wife Helen is unsatisfied, while the other kids at school bully his son Timmy. When Helen, after convincing Bill they just have to keep the Zomcom zombie she purchased to save face in the neighborhood, discovers she has no need of him other than the status he signifies, Timmy finds in the zombie a loyal friend. In spoofing reference to the 1950s hit TV show Lassie (in which a boy named Timmy also plays the other leading role), Timmy names the obedient zombie Fido. Like Lassie, Fido stands as role model and guardian within a totemic system that lays claim to the fatherhood it displaces. Fido becomes the man of the Robinson family after Bill's funeral and Mr. Bottoms, formerly Zomcom's new head of security, gets recycled as his daughter's totem pet.
The domestication of the zombie returns to the zombie's original origin in slavery and Haitian folklore. Before Romero turned it into a decaying cannibal governed by "motorized instinct," the zombie had been a slave figure born out of the hardship of the plantations in Saint-Domingue, a French colony on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The word cannibal originally referred to Caribbean natives onto whom Columbus projected the wish to incorporate. The colonial civilizing mission implemented domestication through terror of the natives and then of the imported slaves, who reportedly also feared their master's taste for human flesh.
In 1929, during the American occupation of Haiti, the zombie entered mainstream culture with W. B. Seabrook's The Magic Island. The book cashed in on the exoticism of "voodoo" and the "cannibals" who practiced this magic. And yet more to the point, the Haitians had won their independence from the French through the first successful slave revolt in modern history. Haiti, which became the second Republic of the New World in 1804, abolished slavery long before Lincoln did. The strange relationship that the U.S. developed toward Haiti over the years (the bad press, the 1915-34 occupation, the support of Duvalier, the quarantining of Haitians during the AIDS crisis, and the economic sanctions and coups that plagued Aristide's truncated tenure as the first democratically elected president of Haiti) began as the nineteenth-century fear of revolt in plantations at home inspired by emancipated slaves ruling their own land off the coast of Florida. But when in 1932 the blockbuster White Zombie, based on one of the chapters of Seabrook's book, hit the screen, the Americans of the Great Depression could identify with expendable zombies silently toiling at the mill. In Fido the zombie pets are what's left of us after we're the ones who, in the face of the zombie threat or terror, have been successfully domesticated.
Night of the Living Dead portrays the end of civilization by endlessly replaying and reversing Freud's speculations on its beginnings in Totem and Taboo (1912). The primal scene of all Romero and post-Romero zombie movies opens at the cemetery. Brother and sister are visiting their father's grave. Johnny teases Barbara for kneeling down to mourn the old man he at least cannot even remember. Another visitor to the cemetery teeters onto the screen just as Barbara betrays her own ambivalence regarding the dead. When Johnny reminds her how she used to be afraid of graveyards, she regresses to her childhood fearful self. But the older gentleman who just arrived at the cemetery turns out to be a zombie, who kills Johnny, the irreverent son. Later on, in the final assault on the farmhouse, a ravenous Johnny as zombie returns to pull his sister out the window to get to gnaw her better, while down in the basement, the little girl Karen Cooper, now a kid zombie, feasts on the flesh of her father before hacking her stunned mother with a trowel.
In The Case of California (1991), Laurence A. Rickels diagnoses the zombie as sharing with the vegetarian and the Christian a certain food disorder organized around the purity or impurity of our daily edible/Oedipal intake. The zombie contamination spreads that much more quickly since zombies don't eat their own kind and therefore never have time to finish the meal at hand that so quickly turns zombie. In the Christian Mass, substitution of the symbolic bread and wine for sacrificed blood and corpse is nevertheless contaminated by the impurity it seeks to push back. Night of the Living Dead replays the primordial violence behind identification or communion in the scene the film crew christened "The Last Supper." In this scene terror already works hand in hand with the need the fill up the tank. As part of a plan to escape from the farmhouse, Tom and Judy make a run to a nearby gas pump. Tom fails miserably. He sets the pickup truck on fire, causing it to explode. The zombies congregate around the truck and start feasting on roast couple. True to the totemic mediation of the primal meal, Romero substituted lamb to enhance the realism. According to Rickels, "the sacrifice to end all sacrifice (the war to end all war) backfired.... The refusal to eat meat-to identify with father-leaves the corpse unmourned, unburied, and hence, no longer killed but murdered" (239). The hunting down of zombies isn't supposed to be murder, but the kill of the hunt still has that aftertaste. At the end of Night of the Living Dead, when the posse shoots sole survivor Ben as just another zombie, he is in fact the only murder victim in the film, a black man who ends up dragged out with meat hooks.
In 2004, Shaun of the Dead showcased the grotesque aspects of Romero's films as props in a "zomedy" based on the failure of its protagonists to discern the zombie outbreak. In Fido, humor keeps terror on a tight leash. With Walter Benjamin's take on shock, Rickels reads "the proximity of terror and laughter" in splatter entertainment as the way in which "we learn to get a blast out of being terrified by the culture industry's simulations of catastrophe." "Catastrophe preparedness," however, does not guarantee ghostbusting or the work of mourning because, as with the news reports in Night of the Living Dead, and "unlike death and the dead, catastrophe befalls everyone at the same time and thus gets absorbed by its product: the group which never mourns" (72-3). The group members, united by the media coverage of the "war on terror" and thus deprived of personalizable relations with the dead, deny (themselves) the need to mourn the victims of war or terror.
The formation of such a group was helped by the launching of "the war on terror" as a "preemptive war," where images of preemptive strikes and manifestations of anti-American sentiment abroad provided most of what was needed for catastrophe preparedness at home. In turn, the war reinforced the bond of mutual identification between the commander in chief and the group domesticated through identification with their future leader as his best friend.
KIERAN MURPHY is a doctoral candidate in the comparative literature program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is currently finishing his dissertation on various forms of zombieism. DANIEL NEWMAN is an artist based in Miami.