Monday, 20 May 2013

Warm Bodies: Zombies in Media and Culture

The following is an essay written by Dr. Rebecca Williams and relates to the film Warm Bodies which preceded a Cardiff sciSCREEN on Friday May 17th.

Whilst the vampire was, for a time, the most popular horror archetype in popular media and culture (see Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and more), it is the figure of the zombie who has undergone the most recent transformation from a figure often at the periphery of contemporary horror to one of the key tropes seen across a range of texts. Whilst zombies have featured in horror films including The Evil Dead, 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, the Spanish Rec series and its English-language remake Quarantine and George A. Romero’s numerous zombie movies (as well as the more parodic Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead) it is in the last few years that they have achieved a more central place in contemporary media texts. From the literary rewriting of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice to include zombies, the success of AMC’s Walking Dead adaptation, to the best-selling World War Z (soon to be a film starring Brad Pitt), and the popularity of so-called zombie walks where people dress up and ‘become’ zombies, the zombie has clearly shuffled onto centre stage across literature, television and film. Why has this been the case when, for some time, zombies appeared to be the poor relation to the altogether more attractive and intriguing figure of the vampire? Whilst vampires could easily be portrayed as sympathetic and alluring, the zombie’s apparent inability to communicate, its lack of intellect, rationality or emotion, and its oft-commented on lack of speed, seemed to render the zombie a less captivating prospect for exploration. The idea that one might appear sympathetic and as a romantic figure, as in Warm Bodies, certainly seemed unlikely.

On a broader scale, zombie films have been seen as a representation of forms of ideology. They have, according to Peter Dendle, served “as an abstract thought experiment – projected at first into religion, folklore and then eventually into film, fiction, visual arts and electronic media – for meditation what it means to be “human”” (2011:176-7). For example, in his book American Zombie Gothic, Kyle William Bishop notes that “each of [George] Romero’s zombie films provides deliberate social and cultural criticism, using the zombies and the situations they create as allegories about the perils of modern life” (2010:202). For example, Romero’s comments on race and capitalism in Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, respectively, as well as his more recent films Land of the Dead (dealing with terrorism) and Diary of the Dead which deals with the impact of media culture, 24 hour news, streaming of online content and so on. Similarly, films such as Rec and Quarantine or 28 Weeks Later have been read as tapping into contemporary fears around biological warfare and the possibility of post-9/11 potential terrorist attacks involving contagion.

There are also more personal reasons for the endurance of the zombie. Horror has always been fascinated with the idea of crossing between borders and boundaries; ghosts, vampires and werewolves are clear examples of this. Peter Dendle notes that “The zombie is a creature of paradox. It is at once familiar and alien, alive and dead, human and non-human” (2011:174). As a ‘living corpse’ the zombie in its original form offers an example of a creature that crosses the boundary between the living and the dead, between the human and non-human, acting as a horrific reminder of our own mortality. The figure of the zombie also offers the possibility for rumination on the notion of the human soul; whilst the ghost offers a “disembodied soul”, the “zombie is the opposite of such as “ghost”: it is a soulless body” (Dendle 2011:177) and, therefore, frequently coded as more dangerous and destructive than the often more benevolent ghost.

Film theorist Barbara Creed has argued that the corpse becomes drawn on in the horror genre since it can represent what she refers to as the abomination of the dead body by showing the abjection of the decaying body. This can be seen in early representations of zombies such as The Evil Dead or Night of the Living Dead and its follow-ups. However, aside from their ability to visually and graphically depict the decay of the dead body, figures such as the zombie also have the potential to allow viewers to question their own mortality and a range of existential issues. As Creed notes, the horror genre offers monsters who allow us to ask “Where did I come from? Where am I going?” (1993:154) and to reflect in a more serious manner on questions about what happens after death. The insistence of several human characters in zombie films that they be ‘put down’ or killed if they are to turn into zombies themselves also offers a chance for some reflection on what it means to be alive or dead, or somewhere ‘in-between’.

Such questions are more central to more contemporary zombie narratives than to the decaying and disintegrating bodies of the zombies seen in Romero’s films and other representations.  Bishop notes that “recent developments in the subgenre have begun to bestow more personality, subjectivity, and even humanity upon the zombie” (2010:158). Much like the vampire has been reimaged as a tragic loner, as a romantic and misunderstood hero, Warm Bodies offers a more sympathetic look at the zombie. What, it asks us, is it like for a young man who is also undead? How might a relationship between a human girl and a zombie work out? In presenting a romantic story featuring a zombie character (whilst Shaun of the Dead was billed as a rom-zom-com, neither of the romantic leads was themselves, dead) the film draws on dynamics set up in countless vampire narratives such as Buffy, Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries where human women falls in love with a vampiric suitor. Warm Bodies is also interesting in that the point of view is always with the zombie character ‘R’ - his desire for eating human brains is also presented in as romantic a light as it can be – the experience of consuming other people’s memories and emotions allows a temporary feeling of being ‘alive’, of a sense of connection. As Isaac Marion, the writer of the original short online story I Am a Zombie Filled With Love, notes, “As I was figuring out the story, it lined up with a lot of feelings I was having at that time in my life. It was actually about my experience with the world and trying to figure out who I am. It was trying to establish a connection to the rest of society and humanity.” R’s attempts to connect with others thus functions as a point of relation; viewers can thus empathise with this common experience. As he states at the start of the film, “I just want to connect”.

Portraying R as a sympathetic character is also made possible by the presence of something worse than zombies within the narrative. Whilst zombies in the film are undead and prone to eating humans, they are not the worst thing that the post-apocalyptic world has to offer here; worse are the so-called ‘Bonies’ who have removed their own flesh, existing as skeletal forms who are equally happy to kill zombies as they are human. In allowing the Bonies to be the “real” horror in the film, the zombie characters appear more human in contrast; encouraging identification and empathy rather than terror and fear.

Thus, as zombie narratives become more complex, “audiences are being asked to relate to the zombies in a more direct way; instead of simply seeing their own potential death in the familiar visages of the walking dead foes, viewers are being encouraged to sympathise with the zombies, recognising them as fully realized individual characters and even rooting for them in their narrative plights” (2010:167). Bishop is talking about Romero’s Land of the Dead here, but this can equally be applied to the case of Warm Bodies which offers a representation of zombies as more nuanced, benevolent and offers more rounded characterisation. 

There are, however, clear commercial imperatives to the ongoing success, and reinvention of the zombie film. Ideology is not the only way of understand the cinematic zombie revolution – the film industry is always looking for new ways to attract audiences with a twist on a popular idea and what better to try to lure in a Twilight-loving audience than with a zombie love story? It is interesting that the same company that produced Twilight – Summit Entertainment – are also responsible for bringing Warm Bodies to the big screen. Zombies are clearly big business. However, we cannot overlook the fact that the zombie has endured as a figure of fascination since the early days of cinema and with further transformation will continue to do so. After all, as Paffenroth notes, “zombie movies will constantly have to change and adapt if they are to remain a powerful and popular force in the future” (2006:133).

Academic References

Bishop, Kyle William (2010) American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland.

Creed, Barbara (1993) The Monstrous-Feminine, London: Routledge.

Dendle, Peter (2011) ‘ Zombie movies and the “millennial generation”’, in Deborah Christie and Sarah Juliet Lauro (ed.) Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human, New York: Fordham University Press, pp 175- 186.

Paffenroth, Kim (2006) Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, Waco: Baylor University Press.

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