Romero’s and Bakhtin’s Apocalyptic Carnival

25 June 2014

George Romero’s movie, Dawn of the Dead celebrates the violent excess and grotesque spectacle that Mikhail Bakhtin would be likely to term a world turned upside down. The film is filled with zombies invading the public spaces, wandering the streets all hours of the day and night like the revelers of carnival. According to “Mikhail Bakhtin: Carnival and Carnivalesque – Summary and Review” from the website The Cultural Studies Reader, “But the town square and its adjacent streets were the central site of the carnival, for they embodied and symbolized the carnivalesque idea of being universal and belonging to all people” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.)  The zombies thrive on the basest of urges, the urge to eat. The zombies of Dawn of the Dead are male, female, rich, poor, powerful, and lowly. The zombies in this film are diverse with examples of nun zombies and Hari Krishna zombies as well as a zombie in a nurse’s outfit and one fat zombie in swim trunks. There are zombies dressed for every profession and every recreational activity. In fact, the zombies have the look of individuals in costume. And when you include thick white makeup that the actors must wear to look like they are dead, the zombies in this film begin to resemble clowns on parade. As clowns, the zombies of Dawn of the Dead fit perfectly into Bakhtin’s of carnival. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead fits perfectly into the literary tradition of the carnivalesque; horror movies in general and especially zombie movies supply the cultural transgression that audiences need to continue to live within the strictly controlled structure of today’s society.

Dawn of the Dead begins by showing the chaos going on inside the newsroom of a television broadcasting network. While the people inside the newsroom are safe from the riot and death in the streets, their job as purveyors of mass media make them especially aware of the danger that is brewing in the streets. The awareness of the danger in the streets causes then to act erratically and panic. The fear and panic that the newscasters feel is spread to the individual residences through television programing. This radiating of fear, panic, and bad decisions from the streets to the media and then out to the people’s private residences parallels the way that carnivalesque is able to penetrate into all facets of society. The web article says, “[The carnival] penetrated the house […] and did not exist just in the public sphere or town square” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) And the fear and panic that spreads to everyone in immediate danger or just informed of it is given license to do things that would have been unthinkable before the beginning of the zombie outbreak. The web article states, “…Behavior that was otherwise unacceptable is legitimate in carnival, and human nature’s hidden sides are revealed” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) Peter, Francine, Roger, and Stephen all show no remorse when stealing gas to refuel their helicopter or looting the stores in the mall for the items that they need (Dawn of the Dead 1979.) But they did not just stop at the necessities; they looted high end clothing, electronic devices, and other luxury items that they definitely did not need. And all of this was deemed acceptable because of the extreme circumstances of the zombie outbreak. In fact, there is even a news cast within the film that directs the survivors to “remove the head or destroy the brain” of the zombie (Dawn of the Dead 1979.) The idea that a news authority would authorize the general public to murder other people on sight indicates the extent to which the laws have been loosened during this time of zombie carnival.

According to the web article, “The central ritualistic act of the carnival is the false coronation and deposition of the carnival king” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) The initiating act of all zombie films, not just Dawn of the Dead, is the rise of the zombie to a position of power, and the main conflict in Dawn of the Dead is the deposition of the zombie usually by inflicting some sort of violent trauma to the head of the zombie. In Dawn of the Dead, the supplanting of normal society by zombies acts as a de facto coronation of the king of the carnival. The carnival king is chosen from someone that is the exact opposite of a king (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) The zombies of this film are far from regal kingly material. While a king is an exalted example of what a human can become, a zombie is the most degraded example of what a human become. A king is stately and impeccably dressed while a zombie is hunched over, decomposing, and dressed in the tattered remnants of clothing. The web article states, “The carnival unites the two poles of change and crisis, birth and death, old and young, down and up, wisdom and stupidity etc. the dualistic imagery is characteristic of the carnival for their contradiction” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) Carnival’s dualism is also apparent within the desiccating corpse of the zombie. Birth and death unites in the zombie. The moment of a zombie’s birth is the death of the human that had once inhabited the body. The zombie is effectively immortal combining young and old in an eternally ambulatory corpse. While the zombie has lost its ability to think for itself, it is still motivated to eat and create more zombies by an instinctual drive. Instinct is a form of wisdom passed down through the genes, and therefore wisdom and stupidity are united in the zombie as well.

The final scene of Dawn of the Dead shows Peter and Francine flying off in the helicopter into the noon day sky, into the pristine pastoral paradise of forest and blue sky accented with big puffs of white clouds. Francine’s departure in the late stages pregnancy leaves the film with a sense of hope for rebirth and renewal of the Earth. And Peter and Francine serve as an Adam and Eve analogue, and their escape into the untouched wilderness resembles a return to Eden.  But this act of renewal and rebirth would mean very little without the death and destruction caused by the zombies. The degradation of normal society to its basest animal instincts is what allows the escape of Peter and Francine to have any significance. Bakhtin believes that the cycle of change and renewal, death and rebirth that is represented in carnival is what allows people to continue to function within the strict structure of society (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) The web article states, “The carnival for Bakhtin is a festival of time which exterminates all and renews all” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.)

As a festival of time Dawn of the Dead is displayed to the general public within the confines of a 128 minute movie. The public’s consumption of this movie also follows within the confines of Bakhtin’s theory of carnivalesque. The movie audiences share in the enjoyment of this bloody carnival. The feelings of being a coconspirator in the cultural transgressions and sacrilegious debate allow the viewers of Dawn of the Dead and movies like it to have the feeling of change and renewal that allow them to go on with the rest of their boring daily lives and stay in lockstep with the constricting rules of society.

Work Cited

Romero, G. Dawn of the Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1979. Film.

“The Cultural Studies Reader.” Mikhail Bakhtin: “Carnival and Carnivalesque” – Summary and Review. Web. 26 June 2014. <http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.com/2011/07/mikhail-bakhtin-carnival-and.html&gt;.

28 Days Later: Taming the Human Animal

13 June 2014

28 Days Later begins with a montage of news reports of violence and riots around the world (28 Days Later 2002.) Because of genre conventions, the viewer is encouraged to assume that this is the beginning of the zombie outbreak. The viewer is lead to believe that like in the Romero films the cause of the zombie outbreak will be left unexplained or at least explained in an ambiguous or contradictory manner (Romero 1968, 1979, 1988.) However, the camera pans back to reveal that the news reports feed into a bank of televisions that play simultaneously to a test animal in a scientific looking laboratory (28 Days Later 2002.) Of mice, rabbits, and apes that have been connected with scientific experimentation in popular culture, the ape is the one that most resembles the human. The anthropomorphic quality of the ape being tested on brings up the idea that the film is trying to critique the human/animal comparison. The misleading beginning of this film forces the viewer to take a step back from the immediate narrative of the film and think about the violent animalistic brutality of the human world. In “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism,” Even though Sarah Lauro and Karen Embry  anticipate much of their possible criticism when they state, “…There is […] the American importation of the [zombie], which in its cinematic incarnation has morphed into a convenient boogeyman representing various social concerns” (Embry and Lauro 87.) A critical reading of the 28 Days Later shows that Embry and Lauro’s implication that the zombie is the next necessary step in the evolution of modern humans is a misunderstanding of the purpose of the zombie narrative (Embry and Lauro 87, 88.) The film, 28 Days Later is ultimately a story about the human’s struggle with and eventual triumph over his or her own animal nature.

This film portrays its zombies with different characteristics than the standard definition of the zombie as defined by Romero’s movies and its clones. The zombies of 28 Days Later are not undead, immortal, or cannibals. The zombies of this film are referred to as infected and the opening scenes of the film reinforce this idea when a band of eco-terrorists break into a scientific research laboratory and liberate the test animals. Embry and Lauro seem to agree that these zombies fall outside of the traditional undead category. They dismiss these zombies from the ranks of the undead by claiming that they result from viral contamination; however, the film is not give an authoritative explanation to their exact origins (Embry and Lauro 87, 88.) When informing Jim of what has happened while he was in a coma, Selena tells him that the outbreak of the infected is a result of viral infection, but while Selena had been a pharmacist before the zombie outbreak, she was not an authority on viral infection. When the lab animals were about to be released, the scientist, who presumably was an authority on the experiments that were going on in the lab said that the monkeys were infected with rage (28 days Later 2002.)  Although it is easy to assume that rage is the name of a virus, he does not refer to it as a virus, and viral infections are not influenced anything that the host watches. The scene with the ape with wires hooked to his brain while he was being forced to watch multiple television monitors showing these scenes of intense violence repeating over and over on a loop serves no purpose if rage is a virus (28 days Later 2002.)  Since the zombies are not undead beasts and they are not caused by a viral infection, cause of the zombie plague must be a psychological one.

Embry and Lauro say, “…The zombie horde is a swarm where no trace of the individual remains” (Embry and Lauro 89.) But they are slightly off the mark. A swarm is a group of insects that work together for the betterment of the collective, and as lower order animals they do not have the mental capacity to develop a theory of self. Without a theory of self the swarm insects are allowed the freedom to act without selfish motivations, but humans do not have this luxury. The name, rage is crucial to understanding the psychological nature of the zombie infection. As a social animal, humans have an instinctual drive to follow the verbal and nonverbal cues of others of the same species. What is thought of as a mob is just the human equivalent of a herd. Rage is just one half of the fight or flight response, and humans are driven to act by the verbalizations or body language of people that they identify with. Therefore, an agitated body posture or an angry yell will get others nearby agitated and angry as well. And violent actions of one individual will encourage the violent actions of another. In herding animals, these instinctual reactions are not a selfless act for the betterment of the hive. The herding animal is driven by a selfish concern for safety in numbers. Therefore, the human animal member of the zombie horde is not acting because he or she has lost all trace of the individual; he or she is acting to preserve all aspects of the individual especially the individual’s life.

Embry and Lauro state, “…In the figure of the zombie, the body and the mind are separated antinomies…. the body is resurrected and retained: only consciousness is permanently lost” (Embry and Lauro 89.) Jim’s narrative through the film serves to prove that at least in this film the zombies have the potential for redemption. Although Jim was never seen to be actually infected in the film, he did begin to take on the aspects of the zombies.

After escaping from the soldiers when they were planning to put him to death, Jim spent several hours without a weapon alone in the woods with the zombies (28 days Later 2002.)  While he was gone he adapted the stealth, speed, and strength of the zombie while maintaining enough mental capacity to work tactically to draw out and kill the soldiers one by one. Jim is portrayed as animalistic. His posture is hunched and his muscles are taut. Every time he moves, he is sprinting.  Even the camera works to portray Jim as a predator stalking his prey. The portrayal of Jim like an animal calls back to the apes at the beginning of the film. The apes seem docile or even friendly while they are in their cages, but when the ape is let out of its cage into an environment that it cannot control it lashes out violently (28 days Later 2002.)  The animal that had seemed so much like a human seconds earlier, reveals its brutal animal nature, and so too does Jim in this situation.

As he went along he became more and more brutal and the soldiers back at the mansion began to grow more and more afraid of him, and as the soldiers fear grows so too does Jim’s zombie like strength. By the end of Jim’s slaughter of the soldiers, he has given over so much to his animal instincts that he kills the last soldier with his bare hands by plunging his thumbs into the soldier’s eyes (28 days Later 2002.)  During Jim’s killing spree, he has given so much of his personality over to his own psychological rage that he is indistinguishable from the infected zombies. Not did Selina believe that Jim was a zombie when he came to save her, but the zombies must have mistaken him for one of their own as well. During the whole time that Jim was fighting to free Selina and Hannah, the zombies did not attack him. The other zombies even seem to be feeding off of Jim’s animalistic brutality. For all intents and purposes, Jim had become a zombie, yet he is able to recover his humanity after having given in to his animalistic rage.

Unlike the main thrust of Lauro and Embry’s essay, “A Zombie Manifesto,” the film, 28 Days Later allows for the recovery of the humanity of those that are drawn down into the depths of the zombie condition, and unlike the claim in “A Zombie Manifesto” that the zombie is the only way to become post-human, I submit that the zombie is the pre-human or the animalistic side of humanity. All one must do is tune in to the nightly news report to see graphic depictions of the violence going on all around the world to be reminded that humanity is in a constant struggle with its animalistic urge to destroy one another.

Work Cited

28 Days Later. Boyle, D. 20th Century Fox, 2002. Film.

Lauro, S and Embry, K. “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism.” 2008. Print.

Romero, G. Dawn of the Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1979. Film.

Romero, G. Day of the Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1985. Film.

Romero, G. Night of the Living Dead. The Walter Reade Organization, 1968. Film.