Third Thought: The Uncanny Zombie

(3a) It would be foolish to think that an invented creature should adhere to our pre-existing categories for making sense of the world—especially in the case of the Zombie whose very purpose would at least seem to be to put those categories in doubt. To pursue the interstitiality of the Zombie in terms of its “undead” or “dead-alive” state (to invoke the title of Peter Jackson’s terrific, if anomalous, contribution to the genre) would inevitably lead us down the dark tunnel of the uncanny, Freud’s das unheimlich, which cites the living dead as capable of producing the feeling of the uncanny precisely because they embody a confusion or breakdown of ontological regimes. But Freud’s main argument, based primarily on his reading of E.T.A Hoffmann, is that the uncanny story’s power to produce a “morbid anxiety” that “recalls that sense of helplessness sometimes experienced in dreams” derives from its rehearsal, in symbolic terms, of the overthrow of the mechanisms of repression such that the uncanny object is invariably a representation of the “return of the repressed.” At stake in the uncanny text is the unity or coherence of the subject who has become estranged from crucial parts of his/her own biography through repressive acts of (mis)memory. Jackson’s Dead-Alive (1992) would appear to model a (campy) version of the uncanny Zombie insofar as the protagonist Lionel is a hen-pecked momma’s boy whose forbearance and dedication to his manipulative mother (a monstrous thing even before she turns Zombie) is apiece with his having repressed his memory of his philandering father’s murder at her hands. It hardly takes a psychologist to recognize in the grotesquely exaggerated figure of Lionel’s zombified mother (all talons and breasts and belly) the distorted projection of Lionel’s childhood trauma. But just in case the meaning were unclear, all ambiguity is set aside once her belly opens up and she hisses “Come to Momma!” before engulfing her insubordinate child. In fact, though, the film is precisely not uncanny because the next sequence affords Lionel a visceral opportunity to “work though” his issues by carving his way out of his mother’s capacious uterus so as to join his love Paquita. Thus are ‘normal’ affiliations established and Lionel’s energies can be directed toward socially validated ends. Where the truly uncanny tale would remain suspended in an unresolved symptomology, Dead-Alive is ultimately a therapeutic exercise through which the subject’s psychological dysfunction is cured.
Somewhat surprisingly, the uncanny, which, as Freud reminds us, is a ‘class of the terrifying,’ is not a dominant feature of the zombie narrative. This is true despite the fact that Zombies, generally speaking, are meant to terrify. The final moment of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in which Ben is mistaken for a Zombie and shot by a gleeful posse has a whiff of the uncanny about it, the double or doppelgänger being for Freud one of its more reliable tropes. The scene carries an obvious political critique. Ben is black and over the course of the film, his leadership and heroic actions had gone some way towards displacing a racialized logic of social inclusion. Rather than the Other being determined by race, it was determined by a colour-blind animistic calculus: alive or dead, human or Zombie. (In The Walking Dead, Merle Dixon’s white supremacist beliefs oppose this emergent politics: his racism seems not only backward but deeply impractical. In any case, its residuality is confirmed when Merle is transformed, beyond race, into a Zombie.) But when Ben is shot by a group of white men with guns (purposefully recalling an old-fashioned lynch mob) it reestablishes his black body as Other. Thus does a moment of misrecognition in one system of inclusion enable the continuation of a social tradition of racial exclusion that the Zombie outbreak had put in jeopardy. Ben’s death signals the negation of the liberatory potential of the Zombie threat and the restablishment of traditional forms of governance in which he had ‘always-already’ been constructed as a target. By mistake or decree, black men get shot whenever white men get together to solve a problem. What makes Ben’s death uncanny is precisely the sudden exposure of his ‘always-already’ victimized status; it is uncanny because it reveals that one never has control over one’s own identity; it is not a question of what one does, or even who one is, but rather how one is ‘read’ by others.
While there are plenty of instances in which human communities act more atrociously than the Zombie hordes, thereby raising questions as to who the real monsters are, these are not to my mind especially powerful instances of the uncanny. More typically, the Zombie does not function to raise doubts about who the real threat is, but to satisfy our desire for clear-cut distinctions between inside and outside, self and other, subject and object. The broader social symbolic function of the Zombie narrative (the uncanny for the most part remains beholden to the personal-subjective focus of psychoanalysis as a whole) doesn’t to aim to destabilize ontological frameworks so much as to consolidate and coordinate these in the face of disruption—this, despite its dependence on the impossible condition of undeadness. The terror of the Zombie does not usually raise questions about agency (‘Am I in control?), or about identity (‘Am I really who I think I am?’) which are the central questions of the uncanny. The terror of the zombie resides in the ever-present possibility that something is going to eat your face off. It’s not that nuanced. If anything, the Zombie provides an opportunity for stories that set aside such psychological anxieties in order to focus on more basic priorities: food, shelter, protection, social interaction. In that respect, the therapeutic plot of Dead-Alive (though the film departs from the tropes and structures of the Zombie film in other ways) is typical of the more rehabilitative tendencies of the genre as a whole.


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