Thursday, September 01, 2016

Living and Dead Girls

This post was written a couple of years ago for a book project. That book has since fallen through, so I'm taking the opportunity to publish this on my own blog. Enjoy.

The case of Marlise Muñoz has been in the news lately. As I write this in early 2014 a court has recently ruled against the State of Texas, which has a law on the books preventing pregnant women from being removed from life support if they are brain dead even if it is against the wishes of her family or, indeed, of the woman herself. Marlise Muñoz’s wishes on the subject are not in question, and her family sued to have her removed from life support after a blood clot to the brain left her in a persistent vegetative state. This is another skirmish in the ongoing political war over reproductive rights, and in its most brutal essence, the Texas law codifies the fact that some parts of the body politic view women solely as incubators, whose desires and wishes for their own bodies are irrelevant. The court decision in the Muñoz case staves that off for a little while, at least until some other creative legislator tries another end-run around Roe v. Wade. (1)

You might wonder what the preceding has to do with zombies.

As I was reading about the Muñoz case, I had a bit of a flashback. There’s a subplot in the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead in which a pregnant woman is bitten by a zombie. Her husband, rather than putting a bullet in her brain when she shuffles off this mortal coil, instead confines and restrains her in a corner of the mall where the other protagonists won’t find her. He does this so she can bring the baby to term. In the film, the baby is born a zombie, but that’s not important to the meaning of this sequence. What is important is the scenario itself, which plays like some demonic parody of the Muñoz case, ten years before the fact.

This is, of course, what horror movies do. They put a finger on the pulse of their times. They hold up a funhouse looking glass to the society that produces them. Socio-political criticism has been the zombie movie’s stock in trade for decades. Examining the entrails of the zombie movie, if you’ll pardon the pun, has been a minor critical pastime among horror fans and scholars since at least the 1970s.

Judith O'Dea in Night of the Living Dead

The central focus of this kind of study has usually been George Romero’s zombie films, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc., and why not? Night of the Living Dead is (in)famous for images that reflect the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. It was a film with a black man as its hero, delivered to its distributor the week that Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. It can’t help itself: it rubbed a raw nerve. By all accounts, its subtexts were accidental, the result of soaking up the ambient zeitgeist and feeding it back to the subconscious. Romero’s other zombie films are more deliberate. Dawn of the Dead, set in a shopping mall, is an overt critique of consumerism. Day of the Dead, set on a military base, is an overt critique of Reagan-era jingoism. This is all well-trodden ground.

What is perhaps less famous is the coded history of feminism lurking beneath the surface of Romero’s films. Night of the Living Dead exists in a kind of pre-feminist state. Barbara, who might be the heroine in a contemporary horror film, lapses into catatonia in the face of the film’s apocalypse, while Mrs. Cooper and Judy find themselves in stereotypical roles of wife and girlfriend to the men in the movie. They don’t have agency of their own. The Coopers’ daughter is the one female character who arguably has a will unencumbered by the guiding hand of a man, although it manifests itself after she dies and returns. She murders her mother with a garden trowel. Night of the Living Dead is not a progressive film when it comes to women, but it could have been. At one point during its long two-year production, the filmmakers discussed Barbara as the character who would survive, as an ur-final girl if you will. This idea resurfaces in the 1990 remake of the film.

In the decade between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Romero appears to have had some kind of feminist awakening, because Dawn has very specific plot points that reflect the gains women made in the 1970s. Fran, that film’s heroine, is considerably more able a character than any of the women in Night. More than that, she’s pregnant, which prompts Peter to have a conversation with Stephen, the child’s father, about whether or not he wants to keep it. Peter knows how to perform an abortion. The fact that the three men around her are treating her as some kind of fragile creature without a will of her own is something she cannot abide, and she takes control of her place in their company. She insists that Stephen teach her how to fly the helicopter (good thing, too, given the end of the film). She lays down the law about her domestic role among them. She even gets to play around with the trappings of femininity during the long middle section of the film when the zombies recede and the emptiness brought on by reconstructing the world in microcosm takes hold. Dawn’s climax is predicated on a macho bravado that the film directly ties to capitalism and materialism. White men holding on to their privilege, the film suggests, will be the death of us all.

Although Dawn is ostensibly Fran’s picture--it begins with a shot of her waking into nightmare and closes with her making her escape from the mall--it’s more of an ensemble piece. Day of the Dead is more centered on its female lead character.  As with Dawn, it begins as its heroine wakes from a nightmare. The conflict between its heroine and patriarchal authority is more overt in this film, given that the primary conflict isn’t human versus zombie, but civilians versus the military. In a lot of ways, Day is a decade out of place. Its view of the military is very much the product of the Vietnam era, but that’s neither here nor there for what I want to get at. Day of the Dead is a “workplace” movie, and as such, it’s a parody of what women endure in male-dominated professions: harassment, discrimination, belittlement. Sarah is clearly the smartest person on the base, but the men in charge ignore her. Those men, as in Dawn, are boys hoarding their toys. In the end, as in Dawn, it’s raging masculine privilege that brings everything down.

There’s a small counter-narrative running through Dawn and Day of the Dead. Its heroines are “Smurfettes,” the only women in all-male  ensembles. This is reflective of the movie industry itself moving away from stories about women as the poisonous virus of fanboy culture overtook them. Romero mitigates this somewhat by centering his films on his female characters, but this isn’t necessarily remarkable. The horror film is one of the few genres where women have agency and importance on a regular basis, and not even usually as victims. Although Day of the Dead is not an action film, Sarah is subtly coded as an action hero. The social dynamic in Day would resurface a year later in James Cameron’s Aliens, with Ellen Ripley contending with the military, and Ripley is a template for action heroines ever after.

The culmination of Romero’s dalliance with feminism comes in the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead. The film itself is a close retelling of the original film, but for two small changes. First: the film is centered on Barbara, who is much more resilient and capable in this film. No catatonia for her this time out. The second is who survives and how they do it. In the original film, only Ben survives the night. Ben does not survive in this one. There is no fateful appointment with a bullet to the head for him. This isn’t a film about race in the same way as the first film. It’s about women. It’s Barbara who succeeds in escaping the farmhouse (no one escapes in the original). The survivor in the house itself is Cooper, who the film paints as a villain even though he’s mostly right about things. It’s how he’s right about them that villainizes him. He’s the living embodiment of the privileged white man who asserts the primacy of his ideas and “leadership.” At the end of the film, it’s Cooper who gets the bullet to the head and it’s Barbara who delivers it. “Another one for the fire,” indeed.

The horror genre is unusually politicized. This is, perhaps, a function of its role as the id of the cultural massmind. It exaggerates for effect, which tends to polarize its politics. Romero’s films are sometimes thought of as “radical.” The underlying message in them isn’t that civilization is fragile and that we must protect its norms and values at all costs. Rather, they advocate tearing it all down because those very values and institutions are irrevocably corrupt. Most horror movies are essentially reactionary, though. For a stark example of the difference, compare the source of the horror in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Omen, released within a year and a half of each other. The Omen, like The Exorcist before it, is a middle to upper class horror movie, in which the horror derives from an uncontrolled youth intent on destroying the world their parents have built for them. The family unit and the old order are the victims. This is the hangover of the 60s youth revolution, in which Nixon’s “silent majority” thought those crazy kids were driving the country to hell in a handbasket. The Omen makes this literal. By contrast, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre posits the family unit itself as the monster and youth as the victim. Its parody of the nuclear family with Leatherface as the gender-fucked matriarch is what you might get if Douglas Sirk had had some deformed bastard child with Hieronymus Bosch. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a radical horror movie; The Omen is a reactionary one. (2)

The zombie movie embraces the ideological dichotomy of the genre, perhaps even more than other types of horror films. While Romero’s films empower women, other zombie movies do otherwise.

On its surface, Zombieland embraces the feminist vision of Romero’s zombie films. It is, instead, their exact opposite. It pines for civilization (and Twinkies). It wants to rebuild it around heteronormative family values. Worse, it wants it both ways: it wants women who are badass enough to rebuild that society, but incompetent enough to need saving by a man at the end of the movie. In truth, Zombieland made me angry. Zombieland’s two heroines are demonstrably more competent at survival in the post-zombie world than its two heroes. This is a point it makes in scene after scene as they get the better of the men. Then at the end of the movie it has those same two hyper-competent women stupidly imperil themselves so that its nebbish of a central character can become a hero and live a fantasy of rescuing a damsel in distress. It literally tells you this in the text of the movie (in one of those little rules that populate the film). The film as a whole is designed to stroke the egos of the hypothetical fanboys who watch zombie movies. It’s a galling ending.

George Romero anticipated the counter-narratives to his own films, I think. His 1972 film, Season of the Witch (aka: Jack’s Wife), finds its housewife heroine finding personal fulfillment in witchcraft. Oh, there are digs at consumer culture, true--Joan puts the paraphernalia of witchcraft on her husband’s credit cards, for example--but in its broad outlines, the film makes flesh Pat Robertson’s assertion that feminism “...encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” Romero’s film is satire, but it’s prescient, too. It’s like a story on The Onion, which in recent years has sometimes become indistinguishable from reality.

When I was in the sixth grade, there was a joke that went around the playground of my elementary school. Many of the other horror kids I knew had taken a liking to gross jokes--the grosser the better--and one of them went something like this:

A man goes to a brothel to get laid, but he's down on his luck. He only has ten dollars to his name, but he's willing to spend it on a prostitute at the town brothel. The pimp at the counter takes his money with a wink and directs him to room twelve. End of the hall. There, the man finds a woman laid out for him, already spread wide. He mounts her and begins to do his business. Suddenly, rancid semen starts to leak from her mouth and nose and the man freaks out. He jumps from the saddle and tears it down to the front desk to tell the pimp what had happened. The pimp shrugged and called to the back room: "Hey, Sam! The dead one is full again!"

Ew, right? At least it wasn't a dead baby joke to boot.

I stumbled across this joke in another form many years later at the beginning of Joe R. Lansdale's bad taste epic, "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert (With Dead Folks)." In this story, set some time after a zombie apocalypse, the protagonist enters a bar:

Wayne put a handful of shotgun shells in his shirt pocket, slapped the flap over them, looked up at the red and blue neon sign that said "ROSALITAS'S: COLD BEER AND DEAD DANCING," found his center as they say in Zen, and went on in.

...He spotted Calhoun's stocky, black-hatted self immediately. He was inside the dance cage with a dead buck-naked Mexican girl of about twelve. He was holding her tight around the waist with one hand and massaging her rubbery ass with the other like it was a pillow he was trying to shape. The dead girl's handless arms flailed on either side of Calhoun, and her little tits pressed to his thick chest. Her wire muzzled face knocked repeatedly at his shoulder and drool whipped out of her mouth in thick spermy ropes, stuck to his shirt, faded, and left a patch of wetness.

For all Wayne knew, the girl was Calhoun's sister or daughter. It was that kind of place. The kind that had sprung up immediately after that stuff had gotten out of a lab upstate and filled the air with bacterium that brought dead humans back to life, made their basic motor functions work and made them hungry for human flesh, made it so if a man's wife, daughter, sister, or mother went belly up and he wanted to turn a few bucks, he might think, "Damn, that's tough about old Betty Sue, but she's dead as hoot-owl shit and ain't gonna be needing nothing from here on out, and with them germs working around in her, she's just gonna pull herself out of the ground and cause me a problem. And the ground out back of the house is harder to dig than a calculus problem is to work, so I'll just toss her cold ass in the back of the pickup next to the chainsaw and the barb-wire roll haul her across the border and sell her to The Meat Boys to sell to the tonks for dancing.

"It's sad to sell one of your own, but them's the breaks. I'll just stay out of the tonks until all the meat rots off her bones and they have to throw her away. That way I won't go in some place for a drink and see her up there shaking her dead tits and end up going all sentimental and dewy-eyed in front of one of my buddies or some ole' two-dollar gal."

This kind of thinking provided the dancers. In other parts of the country, the dancers might be men or children, but here it was mostly women. Men were used for hunting and target practice.

The Meat Boys took the bodies, cut off the hands so they couldn't grab, ran screws through their jaws to fasten on a wire muzzle so they couldn't bite, sold them to the honky-tonks about the time the germ started stirring.

Tonk owners put them inside wire enclosures up front of their joints, started music, and men paid five dollars to get in there and grab them and make like they were dancing when all the women wanted to do was grab and bite, which muzzled and handless, they could not do.

If a man liked his partner enough, he could pay more money and have her tied to a cot in the back and he could get on her and do some business. Didn't have to hear arguments or buy presents or make promises or make them come. Just fuck and hike.

As long as the establishment sprayed the dead for maggots and kept them perfumed and didn't keep them so long hunks of meat came off on a fella's dick, the customers were happy as flies on shit.

When I originally read this passage and the story that followed it, I was convinced that this was just a writer known for crafting grotesque tall tales getting his freak on. Lansdale was one of the splatterpunks back then, after all. There couldn't have been any reality underlying this, could there? But there IS a reality--there are a number of them--that give it the power to shock even beyond the base level of gross out. At the time, I just wasn't paying attention.(3)

As with the Marlise Muñoz case, the Steubenville, Ohio rape case set off a cultural echo in my head. In the Steubenville case, a 16 year old high school girl was plied with alcohol and raped by two of her schoolmates, who photographed the whole thing and posted it on social media. The subsequent events in which officials in the community and at the high school were complicit in shielding the rapists from consequences in order to avoid “ruining” their lives are horrible enough. “Boys will be boys,” after all. But I’d seen something like this before.

Deadgirl from 2008 follows two teenage friends who find an undead woman imprisoned in the basement of an abandoned sanitarium. One friend, J.T., decides that the dead girl is just the kind of sexual toy he needs. The other, Rickie, is complicit by virtue of his silence. Rickie is the film’s ostensible protagonist and at first, he wrestles with the film’s moral dilemma, but then something odd happens at the end of the film. The plot maneuvers Rickie to a point where he has the opportunity to turn the object of his teenage lust into a dead girl sex toy of his very own, and rather than overcome the temptation, he yields to it.

In order for this narrative to work, the audience must be carefully shepherded away from any conception of women as people. We get no backstory on the dead girl. The characters repeatedly refer to her as something other than human. Likewise, Joann, Rickie’s idée fixe, is always presented to the audience from afar or as an idealized fetish object or as a friend-zoning bitch. Early in the film, Rickie conflates the dead girl and Joann as a stroke fantasy. If the film’s first two acts seem like a critique of the rape culture of teenage boys, the third flies off the rails as it turns into a vicarious wallow in that very culture.

The image of (un)dead women as objects for sexual gratification or as a vent for male rage or as a prize to be won by competing male antagonists is older than than the zombie movie itself. You can find the same kind of necrophilia in Poe and Byron.  Unsurprisingly, necrophilia is all over the horror genre. Tod Browning’s Dracula was billed as “The Strangest Love Story Ever Made” during its first release, after all, and Karloff’s intonation of devotion, “I love dead,” in The Bride of Frankenstein is the living end of Thanatos joined to Eros. But the image of a woman as undead sex toy? Unless you want to count Dracula’s undead consorts, that’s mostly confined to zombie movies.

The very first zombie movie, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, is not a lot different from Deadgirl, in spite of a wide gulf in the artistry involved. White Zombie’s title is a play on the phrase “white slave,” conflated with Haitian voodoo. In the film, plantation owner and evil sorcerer Murder Legendre covets Madeleine, a woman about to be married. He contrives to turn her into a zombie and abducts her to his manor house. The imagery in White Zombie with its blindingly fair maiden and evil magician casts the film as a fairy tale. And so it is. It’s not far from older versions of Grimm’s stories, the ones where Sleeping Beauty awakens at the initiation of intercourse rather than true love’s first kiss, or where the huntsman and the wolf awaiting Red Riding Hood are one and the same person. The tagline on the poster for White Zombie reads: “...With his zombie grip, he made her perform his every desire!” In some ways, this narrative is a wish fantasy for rapists, though at least Murder Legendre is the bad guy in White Zombie. More recent zombie films don’t have the same kind of moral compass.

Another film that trades in Deadgirl’s specific trope is Fido from 2006. One of that film’s minor characters, played with scenery-chewing abandon by Tim Blake Nelson, keeps a zombie woman as a sex slave.

In still another, La Horde from 2009, the badass criminals under siege by the zombie apocalypse stop to torment a zombie woman for their own amusement. Some of that torment is sexual.

The tagline of The Bride of Re-animator from 1989 is “Date. Mate. Reanimate,” which concisely outlines its plot. Herbert West and his friend, Dan, attempt to rebuild Dan’s lost lover with the body of a beautiful but terminally ill woman. A year later, Frankenhooker indulged in the same kind of shenanigans, with its mad scientist reconstructing his dead fiance from the body parts of dead sex workers. Both films indulge in objectifying the undead women that result from their experiments. This isn’t confined to the exploitation sector. Kenneth Branagh’s high-minded and misguided version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein includes this trope, too, in which Frankenstein and The Creature war over the possession of the undead Elizabeth.

So Deadgirl emerges from a rich cinematic and literary tradition.

Whether or not Deadgirl is a good movie (I don’t think that it is) is beside the point. There’s something in the culture at large that is bubbling up in Deadgirl and in films like it. I don’t want to speculate too much about what that something is because I like men. I hate the idea that they’re machines bent on rape. Deadgirl suggests that I’m wrong about this, that men ARE machines bent on rape, so it’s horrible to men, too. And yet, there’s Steubenville and a depressing number of other cases like it. For all the affection I have for men, I’m aware of the statistics. I know the concept of Schrödinger’s Rapist and keep it in the back of my mind when I meet new people. For as much as I might wish it were otherwise, Deadgirl reflects something real and terrible. It’s a dire warning.



(2) This isn’t my comparison. I first saw it--I think--in “Saturn in Retrograde or The Texas Jump Cut” by Lew Brighton, which appeared in Graphic Violence on the Screen, 1976, edited by Thomas R. Atkins, Monarch Press, New York.

(3) Lansdale's story won the Bram Stoker award from the Horror Writers of America and has since been widely anthologized. In spite of the tone of disapproval that may be present in what I've written here, I like the story a lot. It's a ripping yarn, as might have been said in the golden age of the pulps. I read it in the first volume of Skipp and Spector's The Book of The Dead anthology series, where it first appeared in 1989. Another story in that book, Edward Bryant's "A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned," inverts the trope of the deadgirl in a thoroughly nasty way.

NB: I've seen Jean Rollin's The Living Dead Girl, but its use of zombie/vampire tropes is outside the purview of what I'm talking about here.

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